Family Sagas and Secrets


I have been blessed over the last month to have the assistance of a great family history expert. It has been both exhilarating and sobering. It has been kind of a shock to the system, actually. I don't know why it matters, but it does matter what the true stories of your ancestors are.

The work done by this expert was on the Italian half of my family. I had never made any progress on this line, and while I took notes of what my mother and grandmother told me about their ancestors, it turns out a lot of it was just flat wrong. And other parts were right. So many secrets! Or was it purposeful whitewashing? I don't suppose I will ever know until I get to the other side.

My maternal grandmother's father, though an immigrant to New York City in the first decade of the 1900s, supposedly returned and enlisted in the French army (he had been born in Paris) to fight in World War I. Nope! He fought in the Italian infantry in World War I, then decided not to come back to the US, effectively abandoning his wife and daughter in the States. He lived in Rome, never remarried, and in 1944 he was rounded up by the Nazi SS for reasons of his politics (though his occupation was "bookkeeper"), was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, and was gassed 6 months later at the adjacent facility of Hartheim. They used carbon monoxide there, not zyklon. His name is engraved on the wall there in Mauthausen with all the other names of those who died there.

My maternal grandfather's father was a foundling in Italy. The story is his mother died at his birth, and he was placed on the foundling wheel in Naro, Sicily, presumably by his father. They gave foundlings any old made-up name that came to mind, and so he was given the surname of Bongiorno, which means 'hello.' He was raised by foster parents, and because foundlings couldn't marry into good families, he "bought" a 15 year old girl off her parents to marry. That family also emigrated to New York City in 1910. His wife went first, and he and the children came later.

I also discovered one ancestress--the wife of the paternal grandfather of the man who died at Mauthausen--was French, and her line has been traced back to the early 1500s. I went from having no information whatsoever to having the longest traced line in our collective family history through this ancestress.

We have cystic fibrosis in our family, and I always wondered whether it came from my mother's or my father's side. Looks to me like it came from my mother's side. My mother's maternal grandfather--the man who died at Mauthausen--was one of 12 children, only three of whom survived toddlerhood. All the others died between the ages of 1 and 3. This must have been the CF line.

It's taking a bit of time to process all of this. I knew that half of the family was very strange and secretive. There is a huge disconnect between the stories passed around in the family and what really happened--and I do not know why. Maybe I won't know in this life.

But it fills me not only with curiosity, but with sorrow. What sad lives, what losses, what family wounds can be sensed here . . .

I do not understand why people in the same family hurt each other so badly. I'm learning all this about my family the same week Prince Harry has been hurling bombs at his own family, and the same week a beautiful LDS family in southern Utah was shot to death by the father/husband. No wonder the heavens weep!

I hope that in the next life there is a way to resolve all of this. We are told we are meant to live in families in the next life--as well as this one--but families seem like a wellspring of hurt in this life. Surely in the next life there has to be a way to fix all these families we're supposed to live in? (Though in the case of that family murderer, I hope the resolution is his eternal banishment from his family.)

My husband and I just thought it was a simple formula--love God, love your spouse, love your kids. So far our kids all still like each other (and us, I think) a lot. I hope it stays that way forever . . .