Monday, July 06, 2020

Who Was My Great Grandfather's Father?

Despite the years of research that my cousin Donna Ricci has devoted to searching for facts about my Orzo ancestors, she hasn't been able to come up with any concrete information about who fathered the family patriarch, my great grandfather, Pasquale Orzo. We know that his mother, Filomena Scrivano (Pera), was unmarried when she gave birth to him on November 3, 1870. The municipal officials gave him the name "Orzo." But who was the father?

My grandmother, Albina Orzo Ricci, and her sisters -- Pasquale's children -- were reluctant to talk about their father. His illegitimate status was the source of great shame for them, and thus, it was a subject to be avoided or talked about in whispers.

However, there were a few stories passed down by the sisters about who fathered their father. It seems as though the sisters wanted to believe that the man in question was of noble birth, or at least, that he had money. Donna writes about this:

"The family narratives regarding Pasquale's father that were passed down through the sisters to their children vary slightly, but there are some consistencies. The heart of the story was that Filomena was employed as a servant by the [man's] family at a summer home in Paola on the ocean. Pasquale's father was not from Paola, but either Florence or Naples." One sister suggested that the father "was a member of the Swiss Guard and a [tall] horseman who traveled frequently." An article of his clothing was kept for many years by Pasquale's wife, Caterina. My grandmother's youngest sister, Natalie, told the story that this man of noble means "was back in Filomena's life later on -- possibly marrying her -- and setting her up in business."

It is understandable -- and yet sad -- that Pasquale's descendents felt the need to think he wasn't born of humble peasant stock, but rather, a strapping nobleman from a northern region of Italy.. Perhaps the shame of Pasquale's illegitimate birth didn't sting quite so much if he had a father from a higher social station.

Still the shame that my great grandfather must have endured growing up must have been enormous. In 2012, Donna and her husband Dave, traveled to Southern Italy so they could track down the birth records for Pasquale, and his wife, Caterina Amendola. They encountered prejudice even then!

Donna sent me an email recalling the trip to Paola to retrieve Pasquale's birth record:

"We visited the municipio [in San Lucido] to obtain Caterina's birth record and the woman was just so helpful and kind. However, when we moved onto the municipio in Paola trying to obtain Pasquale's birth record we encountered two very difficult women. We had difficulty convincing them that I was his great granddaughter--even though I had your dad's Orzo family tree with me and showed them that I was a direct descendant and should be entitled to see it. They eventually found the record but told us it wasn't him because the birth date was off by a few days. Dave could see it in the book on their desk and knew it was Pasquale, but when we asked to see it anyway, they ridiculed his name (she made motions of eating soup suggesting "Orzo" was a food and laughed), and said in Italian the record was "for our eyes only" - I wasn't entitled to see it. 

"It was our last day there and we had no choice but to leave empty handed. Dave was so disappointed not to get the record. For me, it drove home the humiliation that these people were capable of 150 years later. Just think what he must have gone through as a child in that town and country. In the end, six weeks later, at two o’clock in the morning, Dave found the record online. The number of online records for towns in southern Italy back in 2012 was miniscule and it's not much better today. Just luck that someone decided to scan those old leather books back then.

"We walked through countless cemeteries looking for relatives (found none) and walked through the town centers of Paola and San Lucido and were struck by how empty they were. It was as if entire towns were abandoned like in a horror movie. Eighty percent of the turn of the century Italian immigrants were from southern Italy. When you go to those towns now, you see how much they lost.  I look at what Pasquale had to overcome in his home country and how grateful I am for whatever part Filomena was able to play in being sure he survived. She must have been so proud of him knowing how he had prospered with his family in the U.S. when she sent that picture to him in 1919. She must have been in touch with him to get him that picture. That alone tells a story. I haven't given up on looking for more info on what happened to her and if we have family from other children she may have had. I plan to use my stimulus money to try to take my search a step further with a professional genealogist. Fingers crossed I find something new, but genealogy, like writing, can take a very long time!"
At a time in history when it's no big deal to have a baby without being married, it may be hard to imagine what our great grandfather endured (and also what his mother endured!) Their lives could not have been easy. And it must have been very hard for my grandmother and her sisters to live with the shame.
I'm just so glad that my cousin has had so much curiosity and determination to pursue the truth about our great grandparents all these years.

And I'm just so glad that my great great grandmother's last name, Scrivano, translates as "scribe" in English. I am so glad she is inscribing herself here!

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