The traditional word that’s used to describe my profession is “genealogist,” but “storyteller” might be a more fitting term. When most people think of “genealogist” they probably think about tracing a family tree. But finding a name in a family tree is only one part of the mystery that I aim to solve. It’s what’s behind the name–the story–that made our ancestors who they were. And their story, in turn, helped to make us who we are today.
Finding a name is exciting, but finding a story is priceless.
Finding your real family story
Many of us grew up hearing stories of our Italian ancestors. Italians are known to be great storytellers—which can be both good and bad from a genealogical standpoint. I can think of more than a few storytellers in my family who—how should I say this?—liked to add a little bit of flair to their stories. Maybe you have someone like that in your family too.
So how do you know which stories are true? And what about the stories that we didn’t hear–the ones that were forgotten, too painful to recall, or for some other reason didn’t find a storyteller?
Stories that weren’t passed down
Oftentimes, the untold stories are even more intriguing than the ones that were told. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of bringing all kinds of interesting stories to light, ranging from the humorous to the heart-breaking to the inspiring. Some are just ‘ordinary’ immigrant tales of courage and sacrifice.
Others, like the one below, are fit for a Hollywood movie— no added flair necessary. Whatever the case may be, piece by piece, record by record, it all comes together until it finds its home in a new storyteller to pass it on to a new generation.
One particularly moving story that I recently uncovered for a client all began when I found her grandfather’s ship record. She knew that he came from Calabria. But she didn’t know that he came from a small, coastal town called Scilla on the southern tip of Calabria, just across the strait from Messina, Sicily. And she didn’t know that he arrived in America on December 8, 1908. Why are the town and date significant?
A narrow miss
Because on December 28, 1908 eastern Sicily and southern Calabria were hit by a devastating earthquake, magnitude 7.2, which was followed by a tsunami with waves up to 40 ft. tall. Coastal towns near the epicenter, like Scilla, were flattened and had few survivors. Fatalities were estimated at up to 123,000 people and some put the number even higher.
A whopping 93% of the structures in Messina were destroyed. The event made headlines worldwide, much like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the 2011 disaster in Japan. To this day, it’s still named the deadliest natural disaster in European history.
Finding a story like that can be life-changing. It can bring a newfound appreciation for our lives and for the lives of those who came before us. Had her grandfather left just days later, she probably wouldn’t be here. There would be no story. Or at least, there’d be no one to tell it.
“How did I not hear of this?”
What’s even more amazing about this story is that we learned that her grandfather had been in America before 1908 but had returned to Italy for reasons unknown. Maybe he was homesick. Maybe he wanted to find a bride. Who knows? But on December 8th he decided that he wanted to give America a second chance, and America gave him one.
When I find stories like this in my searches I’m often asked “How did I not hear of this?” That’s not something I can answer. But it would be understandable if her grandfather did not want to pass down this story of how he narrowly missed the worst disaster that Europe had seen. We may view him as having been fortunate now, more than 100 years later, but having lost his father and other relatives to the event, I can imagine that he may not have felt quite so lucky at the time.
But one thing’s for sure, his descendants do feel lucky now. And they have one heck of a story to tell. That’s when I know my job is done.
Aliza Giammatteo is the Owner and Head Researcher at Roots in the Boot, an Italian genealogy business based in Las Vegas, NV. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 646-255-9565.