Showing posts with label story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

How to Turn Your Family History into a Great Read

There is an appealing story in your family's background. Find your story's hook and run with it!

In 1976, my brother Jay had a college assignment to write a paper about his family history. He sent home letters with questions for our parents to ask their parents. During the Easter break he talked over the details with mom and dad. Back at school he wrote the paper and got an A-.

Jay updated the paper in 1992. I wouldn't get involved in genealogy until 2003. That's when I started finding all the errors in his paper!

Despite some faulty memories and no documentation, he did write an engaging story. The key was finding a good hook and weaving it throughout. Jay chose the number of coincidences in our family history as his hook:
  • Our father grew up in the same building as his future brother-in-law.
  • Our mother once dated her other future brother-in-law.
  • Our father and our uncle were both stationed at Langley Air Force Base. Each had to bail out of a plane, though several years apart. (See "What Story Does Your Ancestor's Job Tell You?".)
Take it a step at a time. Choose your theme, gather your facts. Keep climbing.
Take it a step at a time. Choose your theme, gather your facts. Keep climbing.
That's the tip of the iceberg. My grandfathers came from neighboring towns in Italy and ended up one block apart in the Bronx, New York. That's the only reason my parents met.

My brother tells a story about one set of our great grandparents. My research turns out to blow family lore out of the water:
  • He says her name was Rosemarie Ferrara. It was Maria Rosa Caruso.
  • He says they married in Italy. They met and married in upstate New York.
  • He says our great grandfather Pasquale had to convince his reluctant wife to come to America. Actually, she got here first and was single at the time. It was her brothers who introduced her to Pasquale in New York.
  • He says it was a coincidence that our grandparents had the same last name. No…they were 3rd cousins.
When Grandpa was answering questions for Jay's paper, he left many things out. The truth is, Grandpa took a room in Pasquale's house because Pasquale was his father's 2nd cousin. That's why they had the same last name. That's why Grandpa married our grandmother. It was no coincidence. (See "Spinning Genealogical Facts into Your Family Story".)

Still, the coincidences do make a good hook. The fact that all branches of our family tree started in the same Italian province is a pretty good coincidence. I'd like to run with my brother's idea and add to it the benefit of my research and documents.

What about you? What might the hook be in your family story? Here are some suggestions:
  • coincidence
  • sacrifice
  • loyalty
  • love at first sight
  • injustice
  • survival
  • suffering
  • achievement
  • freedom
  • forgiveness
  • religious beliefs
  • cultural influences
If something in that list makes you think "that's my family, for sure," consider diving in. Start with lists of facts to support your hook. Pad it out with stories supporting the hook. Put more and more together. Outline it. Will you tell the story in chronological order? Or will you start with a key moment and tell the story in flashbacks and flash-forwards? (See "How to Share Your Family Tree Research with Relatives".)

You may not be ready to write your story today. But consider these possible hooks and keep them firmly in mind. During your family tree research, be on the lookout for that hook when it shows up in the facts and stories you uncover. (See "How to Use a Paper Trail to Recreate Your Ancestor's Life".)

You've got a good story there. Don't leave it untold.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Our Ancestors Hoped for a Better Life

Italian birth record for Speranza Maria Esposito
Speranza Maria was born of an "unknown union"
on 13 May 1803.
It's hard to imagine how difficult life was for our ancestors hundreds of years ago. Mine lived in rural Southern Italy where there was no industry or luxury. Each town had a barber, a shoemaker, a shopkeeper. But most people were simple farmers.

Hundreds of people died each year—even in these small towns. Families struggled to survive.

With their life-and-death struggles in mind, it's easier to understand how people remarried within months of their spouse's death.

That was a hard thing for me to imagine at first. But as I documented more and more people from one such town, I saw the same pattern over and over. I found dozens of people who had married more than twice.

Let's take a look at Speranza Maria Esposito. Speranza was born in 1803 to genitori ignoti—parents unknown. The midwife delivered the baby and reported it to the mayor. They named her with the traditional last name for such babies: Esposito. Loosely translated it means without a spouse.

At age 21, Speranza married Mario Nicola Basile and had four children all of whom died in infancy. Their 14-year marriage must have been hard on them, burying four babies. Mario died before his 40th birthday.

As a young widow and with no family, what could Speranza do? This was not the time or place for independent women.

Less than two years after her husband Mario's death, Speranza married Pasquale Ferro. Pasquale was a 40-year-old recent widower with one surviving child, aged 10. Together they had one baby girl, Mariarosa, who also died in infancy. Three years later, Pasquale died, leaving behind a 14-year-old daughter from his previous marriage.

Speranza went another four years before marrying Filippo Colucci. He was a 43-year-old recent widower with a nearly-grown daughter and a teenage son. They married in May 1848. Speranza died in October 1848, childless. She'd married three times, widowed twice, and given birth five times.

Do you know what the name Speranza means? It means Hope. I'm sure Speranza hoped for a better life than the one she got.

Her last husband, Filippo, also married a third time, less than two years after Speranza died. He and his third wife Annamaria Pisciotti had three children. This was also Annamaria's third marriage. The children survived.

Speranza's three marriages
Speranza married three times. Each time she must have hoped for a better life.
It was a hard life. A man needed a woman and a woman needed a man to survive. To care for one another as best they could.

Seeing so many cases of multiple marriages helped me understand my grandfather's final days in New York City. When my grandmother died in 1954 my grandfather was 52 and in good health. He had a long life ahead of him.

He lived with my parents for a few years, but months before I was born, he married a spinster. Sadie was 56 years old and childless. When she died in 1986, Grandpa still had decent health and needed a woman to care for him. He chose to stay in his neighborhood and spend his time with a widow who cooked for him and made him happy.

In Grandpa's case, he had choices. He chose not to live with his daughter, who had opened up her home to him. He chose not to marry a third time. But a man still needed a woman, and a woman still needed a man to survive.

Be sure to consider the time and place when you make unexpected discoveries about your ancestors.


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Friday, February 23, 2018

Grandpa's Journeys Shed Light On My Own

Pietro Iamarino looking dapper in New Jersey
My grandpa, Pietro Iamarino, in New Brunswick, NJ.
My Grandpa lived in the same house from the time I was born until two years before he died. Whenever my family was in the Bronx, we stopped in to visit him. All those weekend visits to the orthodontist when I was a kid with braces, my dad and I would stop in to visit Grandpa. Years later when I was grown, I made the trip from New Jersey to visit Grandpa.

He was always there.

Yet Grandpa had been so many places. In 1920, at age 18, he left home in Italy to come to America. After Ellis Island, he went north to a Boston suburb. There he joined his mother's brother, Antonio Pilla.

my grandfather's declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen
Grandpa was quick to declare he was staying in America.
A short time later, Grandpa was in western Pennsylvania working as a laborer. There, in 1924, he filed his Declaration of Intention to become a citizen of the United States of America. He was still in Pennsylvania three years later when he became a citizen.

Now an American citizen, Grandpa didn't seem to have a steady job or profession. His next move, I think, was his family's suggestion. Grandpa moved to Ohio.

Within eight months of becoming a citizen in Pennsylvania, my grandfather, Pietro Iamarino:
  • had taken a job as a laborer in the Carnegie Steel Mill in Youngstown, Ohio
  • was a boarder in the home of Pasquale Iamarino (his father's second cousin)
  • married his landlord's daughter, and his third cousin, Lucy Iamarino.
But Grandpa wasn't finished with his travels. After the steel mill he worked for the railroad along with Pasquale Iamarino. He famously said his railroad job "stinks on the ice," so he packed up his wife and two kids. They moved to the Bronx, New York, and lived for a time with Grandpa's uncle Giuseppe. Grandpa became a jeweler—a much cleaner job than working in a mill or a railyard.

He continued his nice, clean jeweler's job in the Bronx for almost 15 years. But he wasn't finished. My grandmother became ill and wanted to move back to Ohio near her parents. So that's where they went. On her deathbed in 1954, my grandmother told my dad to go back to the Bronx and marry his childhood sweetheart—my mom.

By 1955, my parents had married and had a child. They invited Grandpa to live on the first floor of their townhouse in the Bronx. Yup. He was back in the Bronx.

In 1959 Grandpa remarried and bought the house where I would visit him for the rest of his life.

I wanted to map out Grandpa's travels from Italy to New York to Pennsylvania to Ohio to New York to Ohio to New York for one reason.

My Southern Italian grandfather did NOT take a ship from Naples to New York like all my other relatives. That would have been too direct for him.

Grandpa's 1920 ship manifest
Grandpa sailed from where?!?!?
When I began my genealogy research in 2003, the first document I found was Grandpa's ship manifest. I didn't understand why, but his manifest didn't say "sailing from Napoli". It said "sailing from Cherbourg". That's in France. Northern France.

Cherbourg is a 24-hour car ride from Grandpa's hometown of Colle Sannita, Italy. And you know 18-year-old Grandpa didn't take a car that distance in 1920. I imagine he traveled for weeks to get to northern France. And then he spent 12 days on the Atlantic Ocean.

I have no documentation of that part of Grandpa's journey. He never spoke about his early life.

Judging by the rest of his travels, I'd like to think he acted like a student backpacking his way through Europe. He traveled for a while, stopped to do some odd jobs for money, and continued his way north.

Oh, he did make one other journey. In 1958, before he remarried, he made a trip back home for the first time since 1920. His father Francesco had traveled back and forth from Italy to America five times! He had visited Grandpa in Ohio in 1929. But Francesco died in 1951.

Grandpa did get to see his mother one last time during that visit to Italy. Imagine that? He left home as an 18-year-old boy and didn't see his mamma again until he was a 56-year-old man.

Aha! Now it seems like fate that I've lived in New York, California, New York, Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. I am, after all, an Iamarino.

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Friday, September 8, 2017

Spinning Genealogical Facts into Your Family Story

I have a love/hate relationship with the TV show "Who Do You Think You Are?". I love seeing others experience the joy of finding an important genealogical document. But I hate that every celebrity is the direct descendant of a king or a patriot.

Where does that leave a descendant of peasants like me?

Whether you're the great great grandchild of powerful people or humble railroad workers, you do have an interesting story to tell.

You just have to find it.

Where to Look for Your Story

my great grandfather and apartment building owner, Giovanni Sarracino
How could this character NOT be interesting?
Take a look at what you've discovered about your grandparents and great grandparents. Check their census forms, immigration records, naturalization papers, and more.
  • Did anyone have an unusual job? My great grandfather seemed to go from bartender to apartment building owner overnight.
  • Did the two sides of your family converge before your parents were married? My two grandfathers lived in neighboring towns in Italy before winding up one block apart in New York City. They could see each other's town from their childhood home.
  • Did someone famous come from one of your ancestral hometowns? Hmmm. Well, my dad was in Regis Philbin's high school class at Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx, and George Carlin was expelled from there. But that's more of an anecdote than a story.
  • Is someone famous on the same ship as your ancestor or living on their street? I have found unrelated people from my maternal and paternal families on the same ship. That fits better with the "family convergence" idea.
  • Do you have an amusing six-degrees-of-separation story? I can connect myself to my favorite movie director, John Huston (1). His daughter Anjelica (2) was in the movie "Daddy Day Care" with Eddie Murphy (3) who was in "Shrek" with Mike Meyers (4) who was in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" with Fred Savage (5) who was in "The Wonder Years" with Josh Saviano (6) who is my third cousin. It's a fun parlor game, anyway.

For me, the story of my entrepreneurial great grandfather Giovanni Sarracino rises to the top of the list.

Where to Start Writing Your Story

One technique for crafting your story is to write out what you know as if it's a movie plot.
  • Where are the plot holes, and where should you search for what's missing?
  • What was going on at that time in history in the place where your ancestor lived?
  • What effect did any historical facts have on your ancestor?

Lots of census forms and directory listings pointed to Giovanni's evolving career path. Using the Fulton History website, I discovered real estate transaction notices in New York newspapers. Giovanni and his brother-in-law Semplicio were working as agents of a local brewery or two. First they were buying and selling buildings for the breweries. Then they were buying buildings for themselves.

Exactly what happened is still a bit of a muddle to me. There is more to learn about these defunct breweries. A visit to the Bronx Historical Society might be what I need.

It's going to take discipline, but you can do it. Put aside some of your research threads for a few days. Find your interesting nugget of a story. Write it down, gather some facts, and see where it takes you.

If you're not a celebrity, you won't be featured in an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" or "Finding Your Roots". But you will become an instant celebrity within your family.