approachingthehill

Focusing on Italian Genealogy and uncovering the testa duras in my family tree

Maria Francesca Muglia Pepe – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Maria Francesca Muglia Pepe 1932

When I was young, my brothers, sisters and I were often relegated to the basement, mostly to keep out of my mom’s way while she was cleaning and cooking. But we didn’t mind. The basement was cool in the summers before we had central air conditioning. It was full of old books, old records and old photo albums. I loved looking at the old pictures, carefully arranged on the black sheets. At first, I was only interested in seeing pictures of me and my siblings growing up, but later I started prowling among the older photo albums, amazed at seeing my mother as a child and teenager. One photo in particular stood out. It was a large picture. There were about thirty people arranged outside a house. The mothers held babies in their laps and the fathers wore white shirts and ties. In the middle of the photo sat a stout, old woman, her white hair pulled back into a bun. She wore a black dress and although many in the photo were smiling, she was not. To me, she looked like Queen Victoria of England. I carefully carried the album upstairs and asked my mother who the woman was. “That’s my Grandma,” my mom told me. She laughed, looking at the photo “My brothers and I used to joke that she was as wide as she was tall.”

Maria Francesca Muglia was born on November 22, 1866 in a tiny town in southern Italy called Guardia Piemontese. The town is located in the mountainous region of western Calabria, on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The people speak a peculiar dialect called Occitan, which originated in Southern France and was brought to Guardia Piemontese with refugees from Northern Italy who were escaping persecution from the Catholic Church.

Maria Francesca stood only 4 foot 8 inches tall. She married Francesco Pepe on August 5th, 1886, when she was 20 years old and he was 27. Francesco was also born and raised in Guardia Piemontese and the two families were most likely piesans, or close friends. On the marriage certificate, Francesco’s occupation was listed as contadino, or peasant. He was most likely a worker on a farm. Maria Francesca’s occupation was listed as filatrice, or spinner. Her father was deceased by the time she married, so perhaps she had a job to help support her family.

A year later, the couple had a son, whom they named Luigi after the paternal grandfather, as was the custom. Luigi was followed two years later by Maria, then Giuseppe, born in 1892 and named after the maternal grandfather. Tragically, Maria Francesca lost her daughter when little Maria died when she was only four years old. Maria Francesca was pregnant with son Domenico at the time. Tragedy struck again as Domenico died at the age of fifteen months. Her heart must have broken in two when baby Carmela, born in 1898 died after only eight months.

Around this time, the couple decided to leave Italy behind and start a new life in America. Francesco saved up enough money for him and oldest son Luigi to travel to New York. In March of 1901, they arrived in New York and went to stay with relatives in Bellington, West Virginia. Remaining in Italy, Maria Francesca was five months pregnant and had a young son to care for. Did she stay with relatives or go back to being a spinner to support her family?  How did she send word to the United States that a son named Domenic was born in July?  How long would a letter take to cross the ocean?

Maria Francesca and Francesco spent two years apart as he struggled to establish a new life and earn enough money to send for his family. By 1903, Francesco and Luigi had moved to Philadelphia, New York, where Frank Pepe, as he was now known, worked for the railroad. Maria Francesca traveled 300 km to Naples and left on the S.S. Umbria on May 27, 1903 and arrived in New York on June 10. She traveled with her sons Giuseppe and Domenic, aged 11 and 2. It is interesting to note that she traveled under her maiden name, and is listed on the ship’s manifest as Maria Francesca Muglia. The boys are mistakenly listed with the last name of Muglia instead of Pepe. However, once in the United States, she became Mary Frances Pepe. Luigi’s and Giuseppe’s names also were Americanized to Louie and Joe.

The next years must have been happy ones as the family was reunited. The family grew with the births of Grace, Gus and Rose over the next four years. But the happiness was not to last. Frank contracted pneumonia and died on October 15, 1907, leaving Mary Frances widowed with six children to care for. The baby, Rose, was just seven months old. Mary Frances wanted to return to Italy, but her older sons convinced her to stay, reminding her how hard life had been in Guardia Piemontese. Louie married in 1910, and moved with his new wife to a house down the street. Mary Frances continued to live with the remaining five children in Philadelphia. Around 1923, Mary Frances and her children moved seventeen miles south to Watertown, New York, probably to live with one of the older sons. Louie, Joseph, Domenic and Gus all moved to Watertown and all worked as buffers in a brass plant. In 1932, when the picture I had dug from the basement was taken, Mary Frances lived with her son Gus and his family.

She died ten years after the picture was taken, survived by her six children and 34 grandchildren. Mary Frances was a feisty, resilient woman, who, even when faced with extreme difficulties, taught her children the importance of family.

Pepe family reunion 1932(Picture of Mary Francis Pepe surrounded by her children, their spouses and grandchildren. My mom is being held by her father – third man from the right in the last row)

Rosaria Cuba (or Sarah Cubba) – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Week 2’s theme is King.  January 8 is Elvis’ birthday. January 15 is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Do you have a connection to royalty?

With my Italian ancestry completely filled with peasants, I can’t claim any connection to royalty. However, I have an aunt that shares a birthday with Elvis.

sarah cubba

Rosaria Cuba, was born on January 8, 1914 in DuQuoin, Perry, IL. She was the second child of Giovanni and Rosa Cuba and the first born in America. Rosaria, or Sarah as she was called, was listed in the 1920 census as Rosie Jr! Sarah married Piotr (Peter) Kuzdal on July 25, 1936 in Detroit, MI. Peter was 31 at the time and Sarah was 22. Peter Kuzdal worked on the Detroit to Cleveland boat and lived in Dunkirk, NY. Family legend says his boat caught fire in the Detroit River and he swam to shore and there after he lived in Detroit. Peter met Sarah when she worked in a restaurant at the foot of Woodward Ave called Eagle Cafe. Tragically, Sarah died on July 29, 1950 at the age of 36 during surgery leaving behind her husband of 14 years and 4 children. Sarah is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit, Wayne, MI.

Just as I mentioned in my previous blog, sometime between the 1920 census and the 1930 census, the entire Cuba family changed their last name to Cubba! The confusing thing is that Sarah’s father, John registered for the World War I draft in 1917 as John CUBBA, but is listed on the 1920 census as John CUBA. Giovanni (John), Giuseppe (Joe) and Michele (Mike) all appear in the 1930 census and everything there after as Cubba. The brothers were all illiterate and signed their draft cards with an X. I haven’t been able to find out why the second B was added. I think perhaps because of prejudice and discrimination against Italians at this time. Or maybe because of trouble with the country of Cuba? Years ago, I asked my Uncle Angelo and he said he was told that it was changed at Ellis Island, which documents show, is not true. If I meet anyone with the last name of Cubba, I know I’m related to them. But like the Fiandacas, I have lost my Cuba paisans.

Picture from 1916.

Pietro Fiandaca – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

I’ve decided to accept the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge!

Week 1’s theme is Fresh start. What ancestor had a fresh start?

This was an easy theme for me because 100% of my ancestors came to America from Italy for a fresh start. The hard part was choosing an ancestor to highlight.

I decided to start with great uncle Pietro Fiandaca because he was the first ancestor on my Dad’s side to come to America. Pietro was the oldest son of Angelo Fiandaca and Maria Didio. (Although his death certificate lists his mother as Mary Marsilia). He was born on November 1 , 1876 in Villarosa, Sicily. Pietro married Calogera Abbate, who was the sister of his father’s second wife. (Kind of weird in this day and age, but maybe not unusual for your step mother to also be your sister-in-law). Like most of my Sicilian ancestors, Pietro worked as a sulfur miner.

Pietro left Sicily in 1904 from Naples aboard the Lombardia and arrived at Ellis Island October 7th, 1904. He indicated that he was going to stay with his cousin, who is also named Pietro Fiandaca, in New York. In 1906, when his brother Ignasio came to America, Pietro was still living in New York. Brother Guiseppe also immigrated to America. By 1912, when my grandparents arrived from Italy, Pietro was living in DuQuoin, Perry, IL and working as a coal miner.

Sometime between the 1920 census and the 1930 census, the entire Fiandaca family changed their last name to Fiantaco! This is basically a made up name. You will not find any Fiantaco’s living in Italy. Pietro (Pete), Ignasio (Sam) and Guiseppe (Joe) all appear in the 1930 census and everything there after as Fiantaco. I haven’t been able to find out why. I think perhaps because of prejudice against Italians at this time. Their name did not get changed at Ellis Island, like most people think. If I meet anyone with the last name of Fiantaco, I know I’m related to them. But I have lost my Fiandaca paisans.

Pete Fiantaco died on December 24, 1933 in DuQuoin, Perry, IL at the age of 57. He is buried in Sacred Heart cemetery in DuQuoin, IL.

1918 WWI Pietro Fiandaca 1

Italian Genealogy Research for Beginners

John and Rose Cubba

When I started working on my family’s genealogy 17 years ago, I was told it was hopeless because Italians just don’t care about genealogy. Being a “testa dura” that didn’t stop me from diving in head first! Here are some books that helped me get started and I still refer to them today in this age of digital records.

  • The absolute best book is A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors by Lynn Nelson. Published in 1997, it explains the Italian vital records and how to find your ancestor’s home town or comune. Nelson explains how to order micro film from the Mormon church, but more and more of these records are being digitized. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are great resources.
  • Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research by Trafford R Cole.
  • Finding Your Italian Roots. The Complete Guide for Americans by John Philip Colletta.
  • Italian-American Family History: A Guide to Researching and Writing about Your Heritage by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. This is a great resource for putting all your research together.
  • A newer book, Italian Genealogy Records Guide by Jennifer Holik, may also be worth checking out since it was published last year and covers searching digital records.

A new trend I am seeing, is people self publishing their family’s genealogy. Some of these are available on Amazon. For example:

  • Coberly Connections: Pilgrims, Patriots & Presidents by Daniel L. Coberly
  • FALCONARA: A Family Odyssey by Hal Higdon & Rose Musacchio Higdon
  • Ancestors of Salvator Bloise and Rose Pippo by Nick Bloise

So don’t be afraid to start exploring your Italian roots! Yes it is hard work, but “Non v’è rosa senza spina” – There is no rose without thorns.

Meatball Cookies

It seems everyone is anxious for the Christmas season to begin, and with good reason. People are often nostalgic for the Christmases of their youth and I’m no exception. Seeing a box of glass Christmas ornaments made me think of all the Christmas Eve dinners we had at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house when I was growing up during the 1960’s.

My mother’s parents, lived in Detroit, just south of Eight Mile Road. Every Christmas Eve, we would dress in our finest clothes and make the trek, often through the snow, to their house. My grandparents lived in a very small two bedroom bungalow. Every Christmas it was filled to bursting with their five children, spouses and a whopping eighteen grandchildren. Luckily, Grandma and Grandpa had a basement where the Christmas Eve feast was held.

The basement on Eastburn Street was a wonderful place, full of exotic smells. Grandma had a full second kitchen down there. I’ve heard that they are now called Italian kitchens, but back then, I just assumed everyone had a kitchen in their basement. The smell of the homemade wine still hung in the air from that year’s bottling. A big vat of tomato sauce simmered on the stove. Grandpa and my uncles smoked cigars and cigarettes in the corner while the women prepared the meal.

My sisters, cousins and I would sit on the steps leading down to the basement, in order to stay out of the way. I would try not to get my dress, usually a hand me down from my older sister, dirty and try not to tug at my scratchy tights. My brothers, would prowl around my uncle’s workshop. Uncle John was a life long bachelor who lived with Grandma and Grandpa. He had a corner of the basement where he invented all sorts of electronic gadgets.

Dinner always consisted of the same thing; mostaccioli with tomato sauce, Italian sausage and meatballs. I never cared for my Grandma’s homemade sausage. She put too much fennel in it for my taste, but her meatballs were divine, the kind that melt in your mouth. The children were always offered a sip of the homemade red wine, but I never acquired the taste for it. To me it tasted like grape juice that had gone bad. My children are shocked when I recount this story for them. They can not believe that an adult would willingly offer a child an alcoholic beverage. But Grandpa was born and raised in Italy and that was how things were done.

My favorite part of the meal was dessert, of course. Grandma loved to try out new recipes that she cut out of magazines and she always had a big plate of cookies ready. One of our favorites was a chocolate spice cookie covered in chocolate frosting. One of my cousins said the cookie looked like a meatball and the name stuck. Meatball Cookies were present every year.

After the Christmas Eve meal, the kids would sneak upstairs and sit in the living room. We would turn off all the lights in the house except for the lights on the Christmas tree. My Grandma always had an elaborate, multi-level Nativity scene staged under the tree complete with shepherds, angels and the three wise men. She used white felt covered with glitter as the base. When I asked her about it one year, she said it represented the snow on the ground. This made perfect sense to me until I grew up and realized that Bethlehem probably never saw an inch of snow. One of the older cousins would volunteer to be Santa and sit in Grandpa’s La-Z-Boy recliner. The younger cousins would take turns sitting on “Santa’s” lap and asking for funny or outrageous items. Then we would sing Christmas carols while the adults cleaned up the dishes. One year, while we were singing, Grandma came upstairs to put some leftover food into the refrigerator. We begged her to sing a song with us. She sang her favorite Christmas carol, which was Silent Night. Other than the occasional Happy Birthday, I think that was the only time I heard my Grandma sing.

With the dishes done and the food put away, the grown-ups would come upstairs. The adults would crowd onto the couch and chairs and the children would sit, cross legged on the floor. Then my mom and her brothers would pass out envelopes to each niece and nephew. Each envelope contained a dollar, except the envelope I received from my Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was my godfather, so every year, he slipped a five dollar bill in my envelope. Grandma and Grandpa also gave us envelopes. By the end of the evening, I felt so rich!

Grandma and Grandpa are both gone, the house on Eastburn has been sold and my cousins have scattered to the four corners of the country. Now that I have children of my own, I try to recapture the warmth and strong sense of family I felt during those special occasions. These days, my Dad gathers with his children and grandchildren on Christmas day. We sit down to a meal of mostaccioli and meatballs. Meatball Cookies are still made by me, although my children are rather disgusted by the nickname and we have to be careful to call them chocolate spice cookies. My daughters and son talk with their cousins while the adults clean up the dishes. I am looking forward to this Christmas to build some new memories.

meatball cookies

It’s Too Late

I have been working on my family tree for over a decade now. I have always wanted to scan our family photos so that I have digital copies for archiving and sharing. However, my Mom would not let her precious photos out of her sight. If I did take a few, I had to return them promptly the next day or receive a reminder phone call every 12 hours until they were back in her loving care. These were obviously her most prized possessions and she guarded them intensely. She disdained technology and was loathe to share any private information with the world. She always promised to make copies for me, but never found the time to do so.

My Mom passed away last year. Recently, I was helping my Dad clean up the basement and found the old photo albums. “Can I borrow these for a few days? I promise I will bring them right back.” “Keep ’em,” was my Dad’s reply. He is not a pack rat like my mother and he saw no reason for them to sit neglected in the dark basement.

So I have been scanning, archiving and yes, sharing the old photos. Some have writing on the back so I know when they were taken and who the people in the photos are. The majority give me no clue as to why they were so precious to my mom, and their meaning is lost for all time.

To quote the Carole King song, “It’s too late baby, now it’s too late.”

1968 family

Missing Mom

My mom passed away 10 weeks ago. This is the first time I can write or think that without breaking down. She was diagnosed with stage 2 ovarian cancer in August 2011. She bravely went through an extremely tough round of chemo and it looked like she had bought herself some time. But the doctor’s prognosis of the cancer recurring in 4 -5 years were wrong. I know ovarian cancer is incurable. I know she was 82 years old. But with so many advances in medicine, how did she only get 21 months? And the last 6 were spent going from doctor to doctor, from specialist to specialist, from test to test? I feel cosmically ripped off and I don’t know if I can get over that. Cancer sucks!

Boo Boo Dog or Good Bye San Francisco

In November, we started to plan our summer 2012 vacation. We decided to visit my brother and sister-in-law in San Francisco. Cost to fly five people to San Fran? $1800!

In December, we found out that our 4 year old labrador retriever needed surgery to repair a torn cruciate ligament. Total cost? $1800!

Guess what we spent the money on? If you guessed plane tickets, then you obviously don’t own a dog!

The C Word

I wrote in my last post about my mom being sick. She was diagnosed with Stage 2 ovarian cancer in September, which is, ironically, Ovarian Cancer Awareness month.

I am child number 4 in a family of 5, but I was elected to accompany my mom when she went to the hospital for her hysterectomy. After looking at all the test results, the gynecological oncologist said he didn’t think the tumor growing on my mom’s left ovary was cancer. When the surgery went past two and a half hours, I knew he was wrong.

I alone sat in the little consulting room with the doctor hearing the news that my 80-year-old mother had cancer. I alone listened to the odds of her living 2 more years, 4 more years. I felt oddly calm as I wrote notes so that I could later explain everything to my Mom, Dad, brothers and sisters. I felt a huge responsibility to not fall apart at that moment. Maybe that’s why I was elected to go with her.

It felt surreal texting my brothers that Mom was out of surgery and that the tumor was cancerous. My brother K wrote back a one word reply that summed it all up – “Shit.” 

 

I don’t wanna grow up!

Nothing makes you feel like a grown up more than having to take care of a sick parent. I am very accustomed to taking care of sick children. From the moment you discover you are pregnant, you begin training yourself on what to do and how to do it. Your child looks to you as the absolute authority, because really, they don’t know that you don’t know what you are doing.

But it is different when you care for a parent. Arguing with your 80-year-old mother to take her medicine is a losing battle. She knows more than you (she always did).  And it is hard to see her so vulnerable. Growing up, my mom was superman. Nothing fazed her, no problem was too hard or too big to deal with. She had no patience for whining and self-pity. Now I tell her its ok to whine a bit. She just had major surgery! “I don’t want to bother the nurses. They are so busy,” is my typical, self-reliant mom.

So now our roles are reversed and I am the caregiver. When she says “why do I have to take my pain medicine?”, I can answer “Because I said so!”

Post Navigation