Italian Roots

Italian Roots
Nona Angela with sons Guiseppe and Dalciso and her sister-in-law, Genoa Italy, 1908

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nona's First Voyage

Angela was 22 when she married my grandfather.  She told me he was quite a catch with blond hair and blue eyes!  But even though they were in love and starting a family, life was hard in their little hamlet of Zeboraglia.  Nona told me she went right back out to work in the fields after my uncles were born.  They subsisted on the crops they grew, chestnuts and the wild porcini mushrooms that sprouted all around.  The men also were skilled hunters.  But they had to work very hard for meager results.  So when Nono decided to go to the United States to make a better life, she agreed.  It had to be such a difficult decision and only made in the most desperate circumstances because Italians families are so closely knit.  And these people had lived for centuries in the coastal mountains off the Riviera.  Besides occasional trips to visit the seacoast, few people ventured farther than a couple miles from their home base.  America was so far away.


My Grandfather, Sebastiano, left his little family in 1907 with his brother Domenico to travel to San Francisco where there was promise of work because of all the rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake.  Plus San Francisco and northern California were similar in climate to northern Italy.  He boarded the ship Lombardia in Genoa on March 28 and arrived in New York at Ellis Island on April 11, 1907.

Dalciso and Sebastiano

Nona stayed behind for four more years while Nono worked and saved to pay for her voyage across the Atlantic and then across the United States.  Finally, in July of 1911, Angela set off for Genoa with her two little boys in tow.  Sebastiano, named after his father, was 6 years old now and Dalciso was four and a half.  How brave my grandmother was to venture off to parts unknown all alone except for her two little ones.  She boarded the ship Luisiana* on July 19th and sailed for three weeks reaching Ellis Island on August 9th, 1911.


I try to imagine what it must have been like to arrive in a strange country alone like that without speaking the language.  Nona did tell me the story that while she was in New York City trying to buy some cheese in a butcher shop, she didn't know the English word for cheese and was very frustrated.  My uncle Chis was acting up and she shouted his name which sounds very much like "Cheese" and the butcher suddenly knew what she wanted.  "Oh, you want Cheese!" he said.

*Genealogy Note:
When I was researching my grandparents' ships and manifests using the Ellis Island site and,  I fell into a little trap that is so easy to do.  For eight years I had saved the manifest of the ship, Hamburg, sailing in 1909 certain it was my grandmother's voyage since I found an Angela Ferrando listed there accompanied by a Giuseppe Sciandra, but not my uncles.  But, just yesterday, while researching on another Ferrando cousin who came over to San Francisco around the same time, I found both uncles' names on another ship manifest.  There it was, my grandmother listed as "Maria" not Angela and using her maiden name, "Damino!"

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Promise Fulfilled

To continue the story of my Nona, one of the most influential people in my life, I'd like to let you know how that first trip with her back to Italy in 1964 came about.

From my earliest days when we lived with them in their San Francisco home, she would tell me stories about Italy and her family there. As I grew up, she would have me read the Italian newspaper out loud to her so I would learn Italian. And she would tell me that one day she would take me to Italy to see her loved ones back there. In 1963, a week before I graduated from high school, my grandfather, Nono suffered a major stroke and died in his garden in Redwood City. It was just like the scene in the Godfather. It was so appropriate that he would die there because he loved his vegetable garden.

Of course it was terrible for my Nona who felt helpless and alone. They had been married 64 years! With Pa gone, Nona decided she wanted to see her 2 sisters one last time. It had been almost 55 years since she left her little village in the foothills off the Italian Riviera for the US with my two uncles. So the stage was set. I would accompany my 83 year-old Nona to Italy for the summer of 64!

Nona and I set out on June 12th on TWA airlines. It was a first trip on an airplane for both of us. When we arrived in Milan, relatives were there to pick us up in a small volkswagen for about another 5 hour ride to Calizzano in the province of Savona. Then when we finally arrived in Calizzano there were what seemed like hundreds of relatives there to greet her back. She was like the matriarch of the family, the oldest on both her side and my grandfather's side. For the entire 2-1/2 months we were there people came to see her from all over northern Italy. It was amazing! Every time they would be introduced to me as more cousins -- cugini. I had never had so many cousins. At home I only had 3 male cousins on my mother's side. Who were all these people?

Pretty soon my cousin Carla with whom we were staying and who was around my age helped me draw that first family tree to sort it all out. After staying there for a month, we convinced my mother and my aunt Etta, the widow of my Uncle Frank who was the little blond boy in that first picture, to come join us. The last picture I'm adding here shows a lineup with my Nona (white hair in middle), my mother, my aunt and me on the right. My Nona's youngest sister, Vittorina is next to her with another cousin then Vittorina's daughters, Angioletta and Ida on the far left. Of these women in this picture from almost 46 years ago, only my mother and I are still living. What a chance in a lifetime this trip was that reunited our family over many miles and after so many years. That bond will never be broken again I believe.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Start

I have been doing genealogy research on my own for many years, using for almost all of it. Recently I discovered the vast network of people who share my love of family histories and I began connecting with many of them. They have been my inspiration to start writing a blog to share information I've been finding with anyone who might be interested. There's also a hope of connecting with even more people who are searching for the same things and people.

I find it so exciting when I connect with relatives I haven't seen in a long time or when I find a link to a new relative from the past. And now with the program, Who Do You Think You Are on NBC, I think many more people will become interested in searching out their family history.

Family means a lot to me and I have been so blessed with the greatest family. Genealogy is such a great way to keep family stories alive. I want my grandchildren and even my nieces, nephews and cousins to get to know some of these wonderful people who already passed from this life. I have a huge family of cousins in Italy who my dear grandmother introduced me to 45 years ago. It was on that first trip to Italy that I was inspired to draw my first family tree. Just who were all these people I was meeting and how were they related to me? It was actually fun and, despite the fact that everything I was learning was being told to me in Italian, it gave me a great sense of connection to FAMILY. In fact I have more cousins in Italy than I have in the US.

One of the best parts of that first trip in 1964 was visiting my 83-year-old grandmother's house in Barbasieria which was just a crumbling ruin by then, but it had wild strawberries growing around it. It gave me such an appreciation of where I came from, my humble roots. What a gift it was to all her progeny for Nona to brave a long journey to a strange land -- alone-- with 2 small sons in tow! (My grandfather had come to San Francisco two years before.)

That connection has lasted to this day. Nona and her sister in Italy both died within six months after our trip. I am forever grateful to my loving Nona Angela who made it all possible. Since then I have made six return trips to Italy and correspond in letters and now email and Facebook. Plus, my mother, father, son, aunt and uncle and cousins in this country have all made trips to the "old country" and correspond with Italian cousins as well. It has been such a blessing and it encourages me in my search for the Irish side of my family roots as well.

My plan is to introduce all the wonderful people from our past on this blog.