The following is an excerpt from my book, Forty Days in Italy Con La Mia Famiglia.
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As I walked up the stairs to my grandmother’s apartment with my laptop under my arm, I felt like I was about to uncover a treasure that I should have started looking for years ago. That doesn’t matter anymore though I thought; the time is now.
She had warm eggplant parmigiana and a loaf of Italian bread on the table, the perfect way to start the afternoon. The two of us, along with my grandfather, enjoyed the lunch and then Grandpa Serafino (Sal) retired to the television to watch his game shows, and grandma and me delved into our past.
I opened up my laptop and used a note-taking program called Evernote to capture the information. She focused on my great-grandparents, one at a time, going through all four of them, her parents and my Grandpa Sal’s parents.
What was great was that she didn’t just give me the hard, factual information that I would need to dig deeper, but she also told me stories about my ancestors, and stories about growing up in an immigrant neighborhood, which was really powerful to me. I started to understand the odds that my great-grandparents were up against when they traveled on a boat from Italy to a country they knew nothing about.
They had no money. They couldn’t speak the language. They didn’t even know if they would survive the trip overseas. However, they all had a common goal. They wanted a better life for their families. Mission accomplished.
As Grandma Jo (Josephine) spoke, with every story she told, I started becoming more and more thankful for the life I had, realizing that success wasn’t handed to my family. It was the product of hard work, day after day, putting family first above all else. The Italian-American philosophy – Family First – Prima la Famiglia.
This realization was worth more than all of the facts that I gained while sitting at Grandma’s kitchen table that day. Understanding that my Great-Grandpa Giuseppe collected junk and sold it to feed his children, and that my Great-Grandma Rosina did seamstress work whenever she could to bring in money to help her family survive, these are invaluable stories that I can now pass down to my children.
As I will share with you later in the book, this was only the beginning. With this information, I was able to find so much more on my own including visits to my great-grandparents original villages in Italy. I will give you all of the details on how I did this, so you can, too.
This was just the first learning session with my grandmother, but I would go on to have many more over the next few years, and still do to this day. I want to share with you some of my notes from those visits in this section to give you some insight into some of the information that you might search for, and at the end of this chapter I will give you some specific questions you might consider.
Giuseppe Baselice – WW1 Veteran (fought for US)
Born: February 7th
Born in Sarno, Italy, province of Salerno (Salerno is near Naples)
Mom: Vittoria Balestrino
Father: Aniello Baselice
He had 2 sisters: Rose Baselice, Michelena Basilice
Notes: Both of his parents were killed in the Battle of Salerno in World War II in 1943. Grandma Jo remembers when the letter about his parents death was delivered, white envelope with black border; he immediately knew there was a death in the family. He was a salvage dealer (junk man). He used to go into apartments and get old newspapers from the superintendents. He had a horse and wagon and used it to transport the papers. He met a prosperous Italian man named Pasquala Giordano, and he said to Giuseppe , “If I buy you a truck, you trade only for me.” And that’s what he did. They were very poor. After World War 1 he couldn’t get a job. Fiorello LaGuardia gave him a job. An english-speaking friend of Giuseppe wrote Mayor LaGuardia a letter, and told him that a friend of his (Giuseppe) was a World War One veteran with 5 kids and no job and his kids were hungry. On Thanksgiving Eve, the Mayor sent his staff to their apartment and gave them baskets of food and a job to Giuseppe. They never forgot that day.
Please share in the comments below things you have done to learn about your ancestors, or specific things that you found out and would like to share.
You can check out my book Forty Days in Italy Con La Mia Famiglia here.
Co-host of The Italian American Podcast
Author of Forty Days in Italy Con La Mia Famiglia