An Angel Watching over Me?

by Marcia Yannizze Melnyk ©2001


One of the primary rules for any family genealogist is to talk to any living relatives to obtain as much information as possible before beginning you research. Fortunately, I practice what I preach (most of the time) and I interviewed my Aunt Susie in 1997. At that time Susie was 96 years old and had a mind as sharp as a tack.

It had taken me nearly 3 years to get her to agree to this interview since I was a niece from her fathersí second marriage and she was a child of his first. Family divisions happen over the years and seem to hold on for no apparent reason. Iím not sure if it was my Calabrese persistence that finally wore her down or the realization that she would not be around forever, but she finally agreed to meet with me.

After setting a date for the following weekend (so her two daughters could be there) I began to prepare for the interview. I created a three-ring binder with all of the information I had gathered regarding our common ancestors as well as her siblings and all spouses. This consisted of pedigree charts, family group sheets and some copies of records from Italy. I also included within the binder a copy of Susieís naturalization record, along with those of her siblings and each of their respective spouses. I then added a copy of the manifest page from the ship arrival showing Susie as a six-year old child. I obtained, and enlarged, a picture of the ship on which she traveled from Italy to New York in 1907. To round out the binder I added copies of the 1910 and 1920 United States Federal census records showing her family, which included my father in the 1920 list. One of our IGSA members, Tom Aprile, had visited the town that Susie had lived in before coming to America and had provided me with several pictures of the area. I took the photos to the copy store and had 8 x 10 color copies made of the smaller photos so the detail was easier to see. It all made for a beautiful binder.

On the morning of the meeting I was a bit apprehensive as to what type of welcome I would receive since I had not seen any of these relatives since my father died in 1973. I need not have worried - Italian hospitality is universally a wonderful combination of talk and food!

Delicious Italian pastries and coffee greeted me and the years of separation seemed to melt away in an instant. I was invited into Susieís kitchen, the heart of any Italian home.

As we sat at the kitchen table I presented Susie with the binder. She silently looked through the pages, stopping occasionally to ask a question, but looked at every page before commenting on how lovely it was. She then asked if she could get one just like it for herself. When I responded that the binder was hers to keep I received a big Italian kiss, along with the requisite cheek pinching. Several times during the next few hours she said "This is for me, right?" just to be sure she had not misunderstood my intent. I had thought she would like it but had not anticipated how much it would mean to her.

While looking through the pages of the binder (for the third or fourth time) she noticed the picture of the ship the SS Liguria. She pointed to the picture and asked "What is that?" My reply was "Itís a ship" to which I got a lovingly delivered backhand and "I know itís a ship, but what ship is it?" When I stated that it was the SS Liguria Susie stared down at it for a moment and when she looked up there were tears running down her face. I asked her what was wrong and she replied "No one has ever said the name of that ship since we got off of it." I was puzzled at this response until further discussion explained that it was forbidden to speak of the ship or the Trans-Atlantic voyage in the household as it was such a heartbreaking memory. She stated that leaving Italy was like attending a funeral for all of the relatives living there - all relatives left behind would probably never be seen again.

The discussion of the ship and the voyage opened a floodgate of memories and I could barely keep up with Susie as she related incidents from her life in Italy and the passage. The pictures of Grotteria brought another deluge of memories. She explained what the street she lived on looked like and who lived in the nearby houses. She even recognized the street in Tomís pictures.

Story after story flooded out of Susie - much to my delight. These tales included incidents between Susie and her brother, proving that sibling rivalry is not a new phenomenon, but has existed for a long time. She spoke lovingly about her brother and sister, aunts and uncles, and of her mother. When Bruno (her father and my grandfather) was mentioned I noticed a distinct change in her tone. While I had heard many times that my grandfather "was not a nice person" no one would ever elaborate on the statement. I decided to press her, gently, for details. She was reluctant at first, but I explained that he was still my grandfather, warts and all, and I truly wanted to know his story. I learned a great deal that afternoon about the familyís interactions, the abuse I had only heard vague references to, and the memories of growing up in a difficult time in a new land.

I had many telephone conversations with Susie over the next couple of years, but only had a couple of opportunities to visit with her after that revealing day. Susie had asked me to try and find out what had happened to her mother, Anna. Try as I did, it seemed futile. She had deserted the family, after much physical and mental abuse at the hands of her husband, on Memorial Day evening in 1910 or 1911 with a man who had been a boarder in their house.

Although Susie recalls hearing her father read letters from Anna, asking to come home, she never knew where her mother was, when she died, or anything else about her fate. Her father would read the letters out loud, laugh and then throw them into the fire. Brunoís abusive streak seemed to enter all aspects of his life. This had always troubled Susie who had a dream that her mother had committed suicide. No information has yet been found regarding Anna or her fate.

While on a research trip last August to Salt Lake City I took the opportunity to see if I could find Susieís birth record and the record of her parentsí marriage to add to our files. I was successful on both counts and now had information on Annaís parents, her place and date of birth, and her full name, Anna Piera Isabella Bulletta. I also learned that Anna and Cosimo Bruno IANNIZZI were married one month after Susieís birth. Fortunately for me, Susie already knew that it was a "forced marriage" as she put it so I didnít have to worry about providing documents that revealed skeletons in the closet. I called Susie on my return from Salt Lake in mid-September to give her the good news. She was thrilled to learn that she had been named after Annaís mother, Maria Assunta Gaggi.

I spoke with Susie once again in early October and it was obvious that her mind and health were deteriorating rapidly. She was, after all in her 99th year of life. I did not hear from her around the holidays but did receive a call in early January from her granddaughter. Since I had never met any of her grandchildren, although I had some of their names in my database, I was surprised to hear from one of them. My aunt had passed away in late November, at 99 years and 8 months of age, after an illness of about a month - the last of the generation of immigrants. The binder I had given to Aunt Susie, which according to her daughter was looked at every day, had been passed on to this granddaughter who had a keen interest in her familyís history.

After we had introduced ourselves and determined how it happened that I was not notified of her passing, we moved on to the binder contents. The granddaughter, also named Suzy, and I set a date to get together. We had a wonderful time and she related stories about my grandfather (her great-grandfather) that I had never heard. It seems that he lived with my Aunt Susieís family, which encompassed multi-generations, for many of cousin Suzyís growing up years. She had memories of Bruno with a long white beard tending his garden in the back yard of her home. This was a pleasant picture of Bruno after all of the less flattering tales I had heard. Suzy also had Brunoís original naturalization certificate and a picture of him that she let me take to make copies.

Suzy and I have become good friends, feeling like we have known each other most of our lives. I have had research successes tracing the ancestors of our common families, research that had proved fruitless before. I can only believe that Susie is helping me along. She has brought Suzy and I together and we often feel her presence when we are together. Other relatives have now come out of the woodwork after hearing stories about Suzy and my continued family research. They are providing many more stories, information, and pictures of family members.

I truly believe that Aunt Susie is reuniting the family that was separated so many years ago and healing so many wounds that were unspoken among relatives. Since I had only met my grandfather twice in my life, when I was 9 and 11 years old, I am learning about the man that created my father and so many other wonderful, warm individuals. Suzy and I have come to the conclusion that although Bruno had his faults, he sure produced a wonderful bunch of descendants.

Thank you Aunt Susie, our Angel, for helping us.

In loving memory of Maria Assunta "Susie" (Iannizzi) Femia - 3 March 1901 to 27 November 2000

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