15 September 2020

A Fun Byproduct of Genealogy

I watched a TED Talk on the idea of everyone in the world being related. The speaker was AJ Jacobs, a humorist and author for Esquire Magazine.

He became interested in genealogy when a stranger wrote him to say they were 12th cousins. The way AJ describes it, I'll bet they sourced little to nothing in their 80,000-person family tree. But it was fun for him to be able to claim distant relationships to:

  • famous actors
  • politicians
  • royalty
  • Albert Einstein, and
  • a serial killer.

None of these famous people had a blood relationship to the speaker. Instead, they had the type of relationships I see in my family tree a lot, like:

  • 2nd great grandfather of husband of 1st great aunt of husband of my 1st great aunt Eva Leone, or
  • brother-in-law of sister-in-law of 1st cousin of husband of my 3rd great aunt Mariarosa Bozza

There's a reason why I have these complicated relationships in my family tree. My ancestors come from a few small, rural, neighboring towns in Italy. I discovered the populations of these towns in the 1800s was almost 100% related by blood or marriage.

I wanted to document all the relationships because these towns are me, and I am made from them.

Inspired by that TED Talk, I invite you to play along and find your connection to a few famous people. I hope none of you practice genealogy simply to find a famous connection. But, as a sort of parlor game, let's give it a try.

I do have 2 actors in my blood-relations family:

  • One is my straight-up 3rd cousin, but we've never met. Josh Saviano played Paul, the bespectacled best friend of the main character on TV's "The Wonder Years." Every time I saw his Saviano name in the credits, I wondered if we were related. And we were!
  • The other is my mother's 2nd cousin, Ralph Lucarelli. I've been lucky to get to know Ralph over the past 10 years or so. Ironically, both actors have appeared on TV's "Law & Order."

To find other celebrities, I had to branch out further:

  • Singer Gwen Stefani is my 5th cousin. I'd heard she had roots in my grandfather's hometown in Italy. So I did a little digging to place her in my family tree. As a bonus, the father of her children is one of my musical idols, Gavin Rossdale. (Hello, ex-5th cousin-in-law!)
  • Actor Charles Robinson, played Mac on TV's "Night Court." More recently, I've enjoyed him on "Mom." He is the husband of the niece of the husband of the sister-in-law of the niece of the husband of my aunt Stella Leone. That sounds like one heck of a reach, I know. But in reality, Charlie is the son-in-law of a beloved family friend—my mom's bridesmaid. This was just a fun fact until I learned there was a relationship in there.
  • War hero John Francis Basilone is my distant cousin. As with Gwen Stefani, I'd heard "Manila John's" father came from my grandfather's town. One day I tried to work out his connection to me. Now John is the 1st great grandnephew of the wife of my 5th great uncle Giovannantonio Palmiero.

In the world of college sports, my brother Jay is well known as a sports conference commissioner. To connect to him, I just had to be born.

A little fame and fortune may stir new interest in your family tree.
A little fame and fortune may stir new interest in your family tree.

I tend to go very far on my distant branches, and my family tree has more than 25,000 people. But with all my roots in poverty-stricken towns, I won't find anyone famous by going backwards. Italian records won't lead you to royalty if you're a peasant. Before I could connect to these celebrities, someone had to tell me:

  • their ancestors came from Grandpa's town, or
  • there was a distant family relation in there somewhere.

In my early days of genealogy, I tried to connect to famous singer Enrico Caruso. But Caruso is such a common name, and he came from a different part of Italy. And then there was a family myth. We had long thought my sons were great grandnephews of the captain of the Titanic. A few minutes into researching, I discovered it was all a mistake.

If you find a celebrity connection, you can use it to get your family more interested in genealogy. If you do happen to find a true blood-relationship to someone important, congratulations! You're building the family tree they never knew they had.

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