Aliza Giammatteo

*Originally published in the following Italian American (print) publications: La Voce, La Gazzetta Italiana, and La Voce Italiana, January/February 2013 issues.

Dedicated to Cousin Carole, An Angel’s Angel

Do you believe in angels? I’m no expert on spiritual angels so I’ll leave that topic for someone else. But I am an ancestry expert and I can tell you for certain that ancestry angels do exist. In fact, not only do they exist, they’re everywhere. If you research your family history, you’re bound to find one.

What are “ancestry angels”?

I coined the term “ancestry angels” (as far as I can tell) because it seemed a fitting way to describe that almost magical experience of meeting someone – perhaps a distant cousin you never even knew you had – who  graciously provides you with a piece of your ancestry puzzle that you thought was forever lost (or might never be found).

Sometimes what they share is as simple as a vital clue to help you break through a brick wall in your quest. Sometimes they share a family photograph that you never knew existed – or thought was lost to time. Other times they tell stories about ancestors that you never heard before and help bring your history to life. And if you’re really lucky, they might do all of the above.

They appear at different times, in different forms, in different ways. You never know when or where you’ll meet your ancestry angel. Here are a couple angels I’ve met along the way…

The angel sitting next to you

There are several rows of microfilm readers at the Family History Library (above) and a client’s ancestry angel happened to be in town at the same time as the author and approach her at one of the readers. Image courtesy of the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

I first met “Marie”, as I’ll call her for privacy, at a genealogy lecture at the ICCC (Italian Cultural & Community Center) in Houston, TX. She called me some months later asking for help with a family search, stating that she wanted, more than anything, to find living relatives. Marie said she had a small family and had only a few relatives left. And, while she loved learning about her heritage, her biggest dream was to find a cousin.

I just happened to be preparing for a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT when Marie called so I told her I could start her search right away.  You won’t believe what happened next…

A woman saw me digging through Italian records at the microfilm reader (yes, we genealogists still use microfilm readers) and, having noticed that I was well-acquainted with Italian records, asked if I could help her with her search. I said “Sure. What town are you looking in?” She replied: “Alia”, which is a small town outside of Palermo – and just happens to be the very same, small town that Marie’s ancestors came from.

You can guess how this story ends – and it’s a happy ending if I ever heard one. Marie found the cousin she was hoping for. The two swapped photos, family anecdotes, and added a new chapter to their family stories.

There are rows of microfilm readers in the Family History Library. And this stranger traveled from California on that very weekend that I did and happened to sit near me and ask me for help. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

This story may seem unbelievable (and in a way, it is), but in the digital age connections like this happen virtually with increasing frequency through genealogy websites and forums, social media outlets, etc.  An angel might not be sitting next to you, but they could be just a click away.

Connect-the-dot ancestry angels

Ancestry angels can help bring your family history to life. The author’s ancestry angel, Carole (Leggio) Martin, provided her with the above photo demonstrating the family’s sense of humor with this comical take on a hard day’s work at the Leggio farm in Hartly, DE. The author’s great great grandfather, back right, is holding a whip as Carole’s grandmother, left, and the author’s great grandmother, right, pretend to plow.

I don’t want to make it sound too easy though, so let me be clear in saying that not all ancestry angels just happen to appear in the right place at the right time, whether in person or online.

Some are only found after a lot of good, old fashioned, hard work. In other words, you might have to trace family lines backwards, sideways, and forward – connecting the dots – until the one you connect leads to your ancestry angel.

Like Marie, my ancestry angel was a previously unknown cousin: Carole (Leggio) Martin. If memory serves me, our meeting was a result of me emailing a possible cousin in Delaware who gave me the email for another possible cousin in Ohio, who then gave me Carole’s address in another state. The point being: there were a lot of dots connected before I found her.

But regardless of how long it took to find her, boy am I glad I did! Carole is not only a cousin, she’s a kindred spirit. She’s a fellow genealogy buff and the biggest ancestry angel you could ever hope to meet.

Because of her, I have stories I never knew about my great grandmother. I have a picture of my great grandfather that I never knew existed (which helped me verify that that’s where my mom got her blue eyes from).  I have hundreds of years of history that she painstakingly dug up, copied, and mailed (so I could devote my time to Roots in the Boot, helping others find their families).

And most of all, Carole is a friend who, over the years, has made me laugh, cry happy tears, pull my hair out in frustration (at our pesky Russo line – that’s a story in and of itself), and jump for joy with excitement. She’s also been a mentor and inspiration for my founding Roots in the Boot to help others learn about their Italian heritage. Carole not only enhanced my family tree; she enhanced my life.

What if I can’t find my angel?

Some of you may be reading this and thinking: “That’s great, Aliza, but I’ve been researching my tree and gathering documents, photos, etc. for months (or years) and have yet to find an ancestry angel”.

To all my paesani putting in the hard work asking that question, my answer is simple: look in the mirror.

You have found an angel. The angel is you.


Aliza Giammatteo is the owner and lead researcher at Roots in the Boot, an Italian genealogy firm headquartered in Las Vegas, NV. She’s also a syndicated columnist and feature writer for Italian American publications across the US. To learn more about your own roots in the Italian “boot”, visit:, email:, or call: (646) 255-9565.