I was drowning in a sea of dead relatives.
My cousin had sent me the link to one of those online ancestry sites where she built a family tree that rivaled the reach of Jack’s beanstalk, and had branches that were heavy with our shared kin.
The website peaked my interest, so I joined the group and began my quest to research my family. I couldn’t resist the possibility that I might be related to someone famous or perhaps descended from royalty.
After putting some of the first pieces in place, I began the arduous task of conducting tedious and sometimes frustrating calls to my father to gather more information on our Italian ancestors. To most of my questions, his answer was the same: “Who cares, we’re here now.”
But, I continued to badger him for anything he might remember. Besides wanting to know about the gene pool that was responsible for my existence, I was curious about what our relatives in Italy had once said of our family roots being in Morocco. I needed to know if that connection might have something to do with my obsession with bright colors and couscous.
My dad’s nickname among some of his friends is Smaj, short for sergeant major, and his rank before he retired from the U.S. Army. Smaj was in the military most of his life, and we had to act as American as possible. Exploring our heritage was not something he wanted to discuss or thought was important. “We’re not Italians,” my father would say as we sat at the dinner table eating pasta fagioli. “We’re Americans.”
As a child, I wanted so badly to blend in with my friends who were blond-haired, blue-eyed and pug-nosed with fathers who worked for insurance companies. Instead, I was a dark-haired, olive-skinned granddaughter of immigrants who called a dish towel a moppina, and lived in denial of the fact that my grandmother ate the neighbor’s dandelion weeds.
But, in my adult years, I always felt I was missing a big chunk of my identity. Opening that link to the website was like opening a door I never knew existed.
My research became addictive as I attempted to unearth the bodies of information buried in my ancestral desert. I began sending e-mails through the website to total strangers who might be related to me. I followed this by making phone calls to my relatives who I hoped hadn’t yet succumbed to dementia.
“Hello, Zio!” I yelled into the phone to my hard-of-hearing uncle in New Jersey.
“Do you remember my great-grandfather’s name?”
“Where are you?”
“When did you go there?”
“Are you in trouble?”
“No, I’m just doing this ancestor thing, and I need your help.”
“Trimester thing? Are you pregnant?”
I was spending all my time on this project. Days would pass and I would neglect to wash my hair or take out the garbage. Then, one day, as I was searching the Internet for pictures to copy and paste into the little boxes on my page, I stumbled upon a piece of disturbing news—one of my relatives was in trouble with the law.
I had to call my father.
“The gangsters used to shoot each other while hiding behind the telephone polls,” he said, recalling his youth in South Philadelphia. “And once, when I was 13, the local Mafioso chased me away from the corner because I was selling newspapers there, and that was his territory.”
I pressed on, but he didn’t know much about the news that I had delivered at the beginning of the call. So, I filled him in on the details. It was then that he began to tell me things I had never known about him. I learned why he chose a life in the military, and became so different from both my maternal and paternal relatives.
I was stunned. The phone went silent as we each absorbed the exchange of information.
“I hope she gets off,” he finally said in a strained voice. “I hope she goes free,” he added.
“What? Why?” I asked, shocked at his uncharacteristic response that seemed to condone the escaping punishment for breaking the law.
“Because she’s family.”