Now I am back to referencing the list of goals that I created, which I know have less than four years to complete! That’s right, I am older now. The middle of April I gained a whole year and feel exactly the same. Anyway, Number 27 of my list was to research and create my family tree. This has long been something I have wanted to do and I drew from the wonderful inspiration of a fellow blogger, Mountain Gypsy. She traced her roots and they landed her in the beautiful land of Italy, I suggest reading her story, it is both beautiful and inspirational! I have always known my heritage traced to Italy and Ireland, but I also knew that there had to be more family somewhere out there.
I started with the family I knew and moved outward, using stories from my parents and grandparents. My mother and I sat reminiscing about all of the people and places my grandfather used to speak about. We lamented that we never listened enough and wished he were still here to help. I have spent countless hours on the phone or emailing my mother about all of this research and the journey that I have been on. It is just as exciting for her as it was for me to make connections through the history of our family. I am not going to sugar coat anything here, it was difficult as all hell and I hit a million road blocks. There were times when I thought I would have no choice but to give up and resign to the fact that no one else out there was related to us, or maybe they weren’t looking and were therefore impossible to find. Still I pushed on and I reminded myself that it was not necessarily about finding people, but it was good to know where I fit in the bigger picture. It brought a sense of self-satisfaction to trace the lines of history, learn anecdotes, put faces with names and watch as a family tree branched out from me. I can think of no words to describe the excitement I would feel as I located another person who helped to make up my family history.
There are a few things to be said about this. The first is that I feel it is innately human to want to know where we come from and to be connected to something real with deep roots. This is something you see especially in America, where we are all products of a foreign land. No matter how long your family has been in America, eventually you will hit the end of the line and need to look for the ship they traveled on to get here. This was a bit easier for me since I knew that I would not have to dig far before having to cross the Atlantic. The second thing I will touch upon is why tracing certain roots was so important to me. My maternal grandmother died when my mom was just two years old. My mother acquired a stepmother who made Malificent look like Mrs. Brady. Her stepmother completely and totally cut off all ties with my mother’s maternal relations. About 10 years ago we all reconnected, but at that point there was really no one living to share the threads of wisdom that tied our family to the bigger picture. Everyone had bits and pieces but getting a whole story was difficult. Finally a lawsuit settled that allowed my mother and my aunt to enter their childhood home (also their mother’s childhood home) to retrieve sentimental and heirloom items. My mother was able to find certain records such as birth/death certificates and boarding passes to ships that allowed her to connect some dots. A slight name change through Ellis Island made it clear as to why there seemed to be so few cousins when Italian families are notoriously large. Doors began to open for us.
I took the little bit of information I had and did one any millennial would – googled it. It was hard at first, how could I prove that any of the names I was seeing belonged to people I may be related to. I knew my grandmother had aunts and uncles and I knew what her grandparents names were. I also knew that her father had been born in Italy despite being the third child born to parents that had emigrated to America and had two natural-born American kids. Did that confuse you? I’m not surprised, let me explain. Giuseppe and Anna (my grandmother’s grandparents) came to America shortly after getting married. I surmised that their marriage was in a small local church somewhere in the hills of Salerno. Young Anna was pregnant with her first child when she arrived in New York Harbor and baby Angelina was born shortly after. Being born in New York made her an American Citizen from the first moment of her life. It was six years before Anna and Giuseppe had their next child, though I am told there were many miscarriages in between. Times were hard and being pregnant could be dangerous as they struggled to make a living and survive in this new country. Baby George was born in 1895. At this point things had picked up for my ancestors. They had a home in the Rockaways (where we still live) and were actively living the American Dream. When George was about 3 years old they decided that they were doing well enough to make a trip home. Back to Italy they went and for a second time Anna was crossing the Atlantic while pregnant. This time she was pregnant with my great-grandfather Anthony. He was born during their Italian holiday making him the only one of his siblings to be a natural-born Italian citizen. After their eventual return to America they had three more children, although only 5 of the 6 survived to adulthood. These were all things I knew before I began my journey.
The Internet is a wonderful thing and provided me with a plethora of resources that would have been otherwise unavailable. First I scoured Italian phone books and articles i found on the internet. I knew that somewhere in Salerno is where my family came from. I found a large enclave of people with our name in Sant’Arsenio, a small village in Salerno that I could find little information on. I could not be sure, though, that these were my relatives – since I had no idea how popular and dispersed this name may be. After week of building ancestry sites and researching sources in every possible way, I stumbled upon a family tree written and maintained in Spanish. The site traced back to a man in Argentina, who had a long line of Solimo relations. This ended up being a turning point in my search. Somehow I knew – this was MY family, there, tacked on someone else’s family tree, was my great-grandfather. His birth is noted while others are not because of his transatlantic birth and travel. I went back to the records I had found in the Salerno phone book. My family was from Sant’Arsenio which meant that this enclave of Solimo homes there belonged to my cousins. I set out at once writing a letter to them. This task alone, took me days. What exactly do you say to people you have never met but share blood with? I wrote and rewrote the letter until I deemed it perfect. I read it from different perspectives, acting as though I were on the receiving end of this news. I was on my lunch break one day, researching postage costs to mail my letters, when a thought struck me. I immediately logged on to Facebook, placed my cursor in the search box and simply typed “Solimo” – I removed all filters and hit search. There are no words that I know of to describe the feeling that came next.
Hiding in plain sight on Facebook, of all places, was everything I had ever been looking for. There is an entire group dedicated to descendants of Solimo lineage. I requested to join the group as I fought the urge to cry. As this name was carried maternally through the years I knew I would be questioned about my connection to this ancient family. I had spent months researching and looking under every rock and here I was, face to face with the one thing I had desperately wanted. Within minutes I received a message from a matronly looking Italian women. I looked at her picture for a few minutes before answering her. She had deep light brown eyes, that seemed deep and playful and the same dark red hair as me. The kind of red that often looks like the most vibrant brown you’ve ever seen. My mother called it Guido Red, because it differs so much from that horrid ginger orange that is known as redhead. This women whom I had never met kindly used English as she asked for my connection to her family. I have never been more nervous in my life and I couldn’t explain the feeling. I explained to her the same way I had in the letters she would never receive. There would no longer be a need to send the letter – this was do or die time. I traced my lineage for her, and she questioned me and I answered her. “Yes”, she said, “you are my cousin. All Solimo’s are related. It was a small family. We all share the same ancestors” And just like that I gained 548 cousins (and counting!) I tried to describe to her how happy I was, but words were failing me. She knew, though. She told me how excited she was to have more family and how she hoped to one day meet me. She told me about the vast reaching legacy of our family. We are all over the world now — North America, South America, Australia, and Europe – and because of Facebook we are able to stay connected.
I keep contact with my distant family regularly now and Pina (the woman who first contacted me) is excited to pieces that I will be in Italy soon. It is an amazing feeling to be connected to the World like this.
In case you are curious – with the help of one of my cousins we have traced our roots back to 1562, with still more to do. We come from Noble blood and as a student of History I can’t help but wonder what role my family played in the moments that shaped the world.
Knowing where you came from is as important as knowing where you’re going.