Apparently word has spread about my journey to find my family in Italy and my 100 Years project. I was approached and asked to write an article about it. During my recent “Silence” phase I sat down and tried to put it all in print. It was difficult to keep much of it out of the piece and I realized that I had to make it 2 Parts because it is actually two stories. Here is Part 1;
I Will Be Home in 100 Years
In early 2010 I happened across the obituaries of my grandparents. Snipped out of the newspapers and tucked away in a little box of my father’s things I received when he died. My grandfather Michael Sassone died in 1951, five years before I was born, my grandmother left this world in 1967, I was about 11 years old. Little pieces of newsprint years in hiding, lead me on a journey of unexpected emotional and revealing experiences. It was my grandfathers that stood out to me. I’d read it a few times during the years I’ve had it but something about this time was different. For the first time questions came to me, who was he? How did he get here? What was he like? Suddenly I was driven to get answers, to follow his life here in Rochester.
The only information I had to go on was in that tattered piece of paper. One thing I did know was that he was born in Melfi, a very small town in the mountains of southern Italy about 1 ½ hours from Napoli. I knew he and my grandmother owned a Meat and Grocery Market on the corner of Jay and Hague Streets for almost 30 years. In their home above the store, they raised three children Daniel, James, Pauline and lost two children (Angelo, 2 months) and (Michael, 6 years).
For the next three months I made multiple visits to the Rundel Library’s History Dept., digging and searching for evidence of their life here. Some visits were successful, most were not. The Family History Center on Westfall Rd was instrumental in finding their marriage records. A wonderful volunteer there found the document, printed it and handed it to me. I was in shock with the wealth of information on that piece of paper. The lines that brought me to tears were the lines with all four of my Great Grandparents names listed! Suddenly I was catapulted in to another realm of searching; Italy, Melfi to be exact. I looked again at grandpa’s obituary; he was one of 11 children. Three had come to America and the rest stayed in Melfi. The same thought went through my head over and over “I MUST have relatives in Melfi”.
So I kept digging. Hours spent searching the internet were fruitless. Oral family history was out of the question since both of my grandparents, one great-aunt and one great-uncle (who had also immigrated here) had all died. My family history went unrecorded. My father gone in 1977, my uncle passed and my aunt unavailable to share anything. I was on my own and passionately compelled to get answers. I reached out to a second cousin, Mike Sassone. Mike’s mom Nancy (whom I’d never met previously) welcomed me into her home and shared with me the information that had been in her care for decades. Photos, old 16 mm videos and documents sat in boxes in her home after her in-laws had passed away. Nancy couldn’t bring herself to throw those things away – much to my amazement since it seemed that no one but she and I respected its value to one family’s history. Nancy documented for me the Family Tree for the three Rochester/Melfi siblings; Raffaella, Alessandro and Michele Sassone. Her kindness and generosity was touching. With all of that I was still at a loss of how to make the connection to possible family in Melfi. Weeks passed.
The Breakthrough came out of nowhere, like a divine light bulb, the idea came to me to Google the Melfi phone book. Within minutes I had the names and addresses of every Sassone listed in Melfi. I wrote a letter in Italian via Google translate saying who I was, who I was looking for and asking for any information about either of my grandparents. I included a few photos, my email and home address for contact. I remember sitting and hand addressing each and every envelope praying that at least one of the 39 letters would find its way to my Italian relatives. In 7 days those letters were delivered in Melfi, the emails flooded in. I had found my family. One letter in particular stood out; my father’s cousin Palmina, “cried tears of joy” to know of her American family. She had wondered for years what had happened to us since the passing of the siblings here in Rochester. Many others were just as poignant, emotional, excited and so happy to know of us, that we existed, were here in America AND searching for THEM! Just a few short weeks later a Family Tree was sent and I had a huge part of what I was looking for; the names of my grandfather’s siblings, their children (my father’s generation) and their grandchildren (my generation) Facebook became invaluable and over the next two years relationships had been formed and Google translate became a permanent fixture on my computer. The sense of accomplishment was amazing.
At first the dream of going to Melfi was elusive. There seemed to be many obstacles in my way but one by one I worked through them. Slowly, methodically I managed to get closer to the dream. In June of 2012 I decided I would give myself 1 year to get there and committed to that plan with everything my second generation Italian American blood had given me. I had to pick a date and tossed June 2013 around until one day while driving I was suddenly reminded of the document of grandpa’s arrival in Boston….12 May 1913. That was it; everything was put into motion. I HAD to land in Napoli on 12 May 2013, 100 years to the day that Michele Sassone arrived in America. I was going to Melfi to meet my family.
With Passport and tickets at the ready the date of leaving grew closer, I was a nervous mess. Would they like me? Will I interfere with their lives? Dear God I don’t know how to speak Italian! How does one go through the maze of airport security, how will I find where I’m supposed to be? Along with a bunch of other concerns I just kept moving forward and the day finally came. I boarded the plane in Rochester and didn’t look back. Something wonderful was waiting for me in Italy I could feel it in every cell of my body. I knew my prayers were being answered and I was about to experience something that would forever alter my life.
to be continued……