Sunday, January 19, 2014

Will Your Family’s Story Become History or a Mystery?

When answering my phone early one morning, I was greeted with the sweet voice of a young woman who sounded as though she was weeping. She asked if I might be able to help her. Her husband’s 95-year-old grandmother had just passed away. She was so sad. But she was also overcome with fear. Her own dear 97-year-old grandmother was…old. This young woman was so worried that her children would never get to know this remarkable person she called “Grandma.

I asked her how old her children were. “Oh, I don’t have any children yet. I must preserve all the stories my grandma has told me so when I do have children, they can know her like I do. Can you help me with that?”

I described some of the many ways personal historians assist in recording family history: printed memoirs, narrated slide shows, video biographies. I will never forget her next sentence, not for what she said but for how she said it:

“I must have her on video. 
I must see her sweet face telling her stories.”

She proceeded to tell me a bit about her grandmother, stories that weren’t the makings of a great history book … but oh, the content was riveting: the everyday life of an everyday person who has seen the world change over the course of a very busy century.

As I listened to this young woman, I thought about what life must have been like the day her grandmother was born, and how different life is today, a world hardly a whisper of its former self, except for the people who live in it, people living their everyday lives, working hard to raise families, wondering what the future holds, one day rolling into the next, each day before now part of history.

As this young woman reminisced, I was reminded of my own grandmother, who passed away at age 97 on October 9, 2001. Through my grandmother’s stories, I learned not only about history, but of my own FAMILY history.

Grandma spoke of her life when she was a little girl and a young woman (she’s 23 in this photo -- above -- from the 1920s). She told about her aunt marching for women’s rights to vote, reciting her aunt’s speeches, describing the exact outfits her aunt wore. She talked about her dad competing in boxing matches that were very popular in the early 1900s. She would smile telling about the coin purse her grandmother kept hidden under the layers of her floor-length dress.

Through my personal history voyage working with individuals and families preserving their legacy, I have discovered that knowing about the family who has come before us is so much more important than simply the need to satisfy our curiosity. The older I get the more I recognize the remarkable traits of my grandmother that have been passed down to my mother. I wonder how many of those traits were passed down from my great grandmother and great-great grandmother? There’s so much we can learn from our ancestors’ triumphs and mistakes. We can follow in their knowing footsteps, or change direction if we must … but only if we know the path they took.

We can sit and stare at a family tree assembled with the aid of second-hand tales and research sites, wondering who these people were and how their lives affected ours. Or we can start today adding life to the names on that tree by recording their stories, our story, creating “present” history.

Personal historians are experts at drawing out the stories our descendants will want to hear. We’ll teach you how to “do it yourself,” or work with you using special techniques developed by members of the Association of Personal Historians.

I know it always seems too early to start recording your family and personal history…until it’s too late. So, please reach out today. I'm here to help guide you on your way to preserving your history. I look forward to working with you—as partners in time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Inspiration That Was Borne Out Of A Basement Flood and A Discarded Tissue

Antoinette LaPreta, my grandma
Before my parents even met, my career path as a family/personal historian was already determined.  A fateful day in the early 1950s when my dear maternal grandmother lost her belongings and most of her family photographs in a basement flood changed the direction of my life…and I was born a whole decade after that event!   Hmmmmm, how could that be?  Well, allow me to explain.

Around the time of the flood, Grandma also lost track of her family: at that point her only sibling (a brother) and her cousins. (Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, were long gone…her mom passed away when my grandmother was only 8 years old.) It was a whole course of events that caused them to be separated, which is a story for another day. Grandma always mourned those losses her whole life and wished she could locate her family, but resources for locating people were limited in those days.

Fast forward 30 years.  One day in the early 1980s Grandma was walking along a street in Queens, NY (nearby where she lived), and she spotted a gentleman she was sure was her brother. (She had not seen him in over 35 years.) She ran to him. They embraced, talked for a few moments, and she wrote his phone number on a tissue she had in her coat pocket. They promised they would always be in touch. Upon returning home, she emptied her pockets and discarded the tissue, thinking it was simply a used tissue. And that was the end of Grandma ever seeing her brother again.

My dear, sweet grandma passed away when she was 94 years old. She was an amazing woman who surrounded herself with the love of her three daughters and their husbands, six grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. (My grandfather had passed away when my mom was very young.) Grandma lived a very happy life despite her earlier losses, but this story of her life always bothered me. I used to visit her old neighborhood and stand in front of where her house used to be – now a park on Thompson Street in NYC. I’d ask the oldest people I saw walking along the street in the neighborhood if they knew of the LaPreta/Barbera family….from only about a hundred years earlier!

Many years later, as I grew older, and resources for locating people were available, I made it my mission to find my grandmother’s family. Through some research on I discovered my grandmother's brother had passed away only four years after their fateful encounter in Queens. Grandma lived twenty more years after that encounter, thinking her brother was still out there somewhere. I didn't stop my search there. Surely I would be able to locate other family members who were still living. I was determined. Mom and I printed from the internet the phone number of every person in the United States with my grandmother’s last name. We split the list up. I called and called and called. Nope, nope, nope. Well, lo and behold, my mom makes her third phone call, and to her surprise finds the son of my grandmother’s brother. We then found her whole family spread all over the United States. My mom built relationships with all of them.  They were quite old by that point, and they’re mostly all together in Heaven now…which is good since my grandmother waited a long time to finally see them.

The two events, the basement flood and the discarded tissue, seemingly ordinary events, inspired me to become a family/personal historian, helping other families connect generations and preserve their memories. I proudly serve as secretary on the board of the Association of Personal Historians.

(I miss you, Grandma.  xoxo)
Thank you, everyone, for reading my story. It’s important that we share our family stories.  Like my bog description says, it helps us understand why we are who we are, why we do what we do, and say what we say.  We are a compilation of the thousands of family members who came before us. 

It's your legacy. It's our legacy. Pass it on. 
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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The White Lie That Was Meant to Be

“Tell him I’m engaged to be married.”

My maternal grandmother, Antoinette LaPreta, LOVED to talk about her childhood.  In a previous blog post I mentioned how she had lost all her precious photographs in a basement flood, so she compensated for that loss by telling stories about growing up.  My paternal grandmother, Gaetana Parrini (Gussie), wasn’t quite as chatty.  But when asked a specific question, “How did you meet, Grandpa?” “What was your mom like?” then the stories would come flooding out. 

“So Grandma, how DID you meet Grandpa?”  “I went to school with him.”  Hmmm, seems like a typical scenario.  But boy, oh boy, it was NOT love at first sight.  For Grandma anyway.  Grandma told me Grandpa always said it was love at first sight for him, but for her, well, let’s just say she was less than interested.  My paternal grandfather, Pasquale Tomasetti (Pat) would regularly ask Gussie to go out on a date with him.  He was relentless.  Go to the cinema together?  Maybe they could study together?  Nope, nope, nope.  My grandma smiled remembering how relieved she was to learn that Pat would be leaving New York for Tennessee to study to become a civil engineer.  Whew!  He’d be out of her hair for a few years.  Maybe if she was lucky, he would meet someone at college, get married, and live in Tennessee permanently. 

Then one day…Gussie heard Pat was coming back to town.  Gussie had to think quick.  She told her three sisters, “If Pat asks about me, tell him I’m engaged to be married.”  Well, sister Minnie was the first to see Pat.  “Minnie, how’s Gussie?”  “Gee, Pat, she’s engaged to be married.”  “What?!”  Pat later sees sister Josie.  “Josie, is Gussie really engaged?”   “Pat, I can’t lie to you.  She’s not engaged.”  Pat heads straight to Gussie’s house.  “Gussie, how could you make up that awful lie?  Now, to make up for it, you can’t say no to a date with me.”  Gussie felt terrible about the lie she concocted.  She agreed to go on a date with Pat later that day. 

Small kink: Gussie already had a date that afternoon.  She couldn’t cancel it…that would be wrong.  She planned to meet Pat under the “el” (elevated train) near their homes in Brooklyn that evening.  Her first date ended with the gentleman riding the train with Gussie to her stop.  “It’s not necessary to walk me down the stairs.  Thank you, it was a lovely date.”  As she walked down the stairs from the el, she saw Pat.  He was dressed so handsomely: a long overcoat, a hat, beautifully-tailored pants.  (Grandma was a seamstress, she noticed these things.)  When she walked to Pat…he grabbed her and kissed her.  (A pretty bold move in the 1930s!)  “I’ve waited a long time for that kiss.”  Pat and Gussie were together from that day forward. 

I’ll be sharing many more stories about Grandma.  I’ll also share what I know about Grandpa, but I was not fortunate to meet him.  He passed away in a car accident in 1950 when my dad was only 13.  Through my grandma’s stories, I feel I knew him.  (I wish I really did, though.) 

(My grandmothers were my professional inspiration for becoming a personal/family historian.  They – likely unintentionally – taught me the importance of preserving our family history.) 

In the top picture:  (Standing) Grandma (Gaetana Parrini Tomasetti) & Grandpa (Pasquale Tomasetti).  (He's also pictured in the graduation cap and gown.)  Sitting in front of my grandpa is my maternal great grandmother Angelina (Trentalange) Parrini.  Next to Angelina are Angelina's parents:  Giovanni and Gaetana Trentalange.
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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Cooking With Grandma Far-Away

For those of you who have read some of my previous posts, you know I’m an “I”talian girl married to an Irishman.  

While attending the Association of Personal Historians conference just last week, participants were called upon to share “food stories.”  Well, I was first up.  I recalled my husband and my first holiday together at my in-law’s home.  My mother-in-law asked everyone to bring a dish.  Well, big shot that I am, I showed up with a special recipe from the best cook I knew…Gaetana Parrini Tomasetti (my paternal grandmother).  I carefully and proudly prepared Grandma’s stuffed artichokes.  I presented my dish at my in-law’s house, and it was received with…blank stares.  The silence seemed eternal.  Finally, my youngest brother-in-law (one of seven), with shock in his voice, inquired:  “What’s that?” “What’s that??!  It’s stuffed artichokes!”  “What’s an artichoke?”  What’s an artichoke??  WHAT’S AN ARTICHOKE??!   It’s a staple in every Italian household.  I looked over at my perfectly stuffed artichokes.  Sitting on the table next to them was pot roast where lamb should be, mashed potatoes where lasagna would normally be, pearl onions where I would typically see stuffed mushrooms.  Something called mashed turnips.  What’s an artichoke?  WHAT’S A TURNIP?!  Well, no one ate my stuffed artichokes that day (except me).  But in all honesty, I didn’t eat ANY turnips.  Although I will confess, just last Thanksgiving (2012) I *tasted* them.  Keep in mind our first holiday together was 32 years ago, so it took me some time to get used to the idea of a turnip.  (I still haven’t tried the creamed pearl onions.)  That’s okay.  My in-laws still haven’t ever tasted a stuffed artichoke.  

Once I came to terms with the fact that all families have their own style of cooking, I recognized my mother-in-law was an exceptional cook.  Sadly my dear mother-in-law passed away in 2004.  We took all her recipes (in her handwriting) and compiled a cookbook, making copies for each family member:  “Cooking with Grandma Far-Away” (“Grandma Far-Away” lived about 50 miles from us.  My mom – just plain “Grandma” – lives about 3 miles from us.)  

Tonight we prepared one of my mother-in-law’s favorite recipes “Mom’s Best Macaroni Dish.”  Here’s a picture and the recipe. Notice the ladle.  THAT ladle belonged to my *maternal* grandmother.  When she passed away, I promised myself I would use that ladle whenever we served a pasta dish.  Did I just say “PASTA”?  I mean “MACARONI”!  I’ll post some stories about both my grandmothers and their recipes very soon.  After all, Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and it’s all about the food…chow.  Till next time…ciao!

1 box of elbow macaroni - cooked
1.5 lbs ground beef
2 large onions
1 stalk of celery
2 cans of whole tomatoes
5 green peppers, sliced
2 tbs Parmesan cheese
½ tsp oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

Brown ground beef.  Drain off grease.  Remove to bowl.  In pot where ground beef was browned, sauté onions and celery till tender.  Return ground beef to pot.  Mix in rest of ingredients, except peppers and macaroni.  Cook 30 minutes.  Add peppers.  Cook another 30 minutes.  Mix in macaroni.  Put mixture into an oven-proof casserole dish.  Sprinkle some breadcrumbs and extra Parmesan cheese on top.  Bake 350 degrees F until bubbly.  Enjoy!

Americans, more than any other culture on earth, are cookbook cooks; we  learn to make our meals not from oral tradition, but from a text.  The just-wed cook brings to the new household no carefully-copied collection of the family's cherished recipes, but a spanking new edition of the Fannie Farmer, or The Joy of Cooking" --John Thorne, American food writer
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Sunday, November 3, 2013

"What Kind of An Italian Name is 'Kevin'?"

"He's Irish, Mom."

I was the first in my family to marry someone who was not of Italian descent. (This was back in 1981… 32 years still married, so it looks like it might work out!) I always thought of my family as being contemporary, respecting the values, traditions, and beliefs of others; but for whatever reason, everyone in my family (before me) had married someone "Italian." We respect our Italian heritage, but we are American. When I was a teenager, I asked my paternal grandmother, “Grandma, you’re Italian, right?” She answered, “No. My mother was Italian.” “Grandma, how could your mother be Italian, but you’re not?” “I’m American. My mother was born in Italy. She was Italian. I was born in America.” I found such beauty in that statement. I’ll always remember that exact moment. Sitting in my grandma’s kitchen. Lots of deep conversation always took place around her kitchen table.

A bunch of years later I brought my new boyfriend home to meet Gaetana Parrini Tomasetti (my grandma). My dad (Pasquale III) and boyfriend, Kevin, sat in the den. I went in to the kitchen to get them some snacks. My grandmother, quite innocently, said, “What kind of an Italian name is Kevin?” The question came from such a sincere place. It never occurred to her that a boyfriend of mine would be anything but Italian. My mom answers, “Oh, Mom, he’s not Italian. He’s Irish.” All 4 feet 8 inches of my grandma (5-feet-even with her hair all coiffed) questions, “He’s what?” “He’s Irish, Mom.” “Oh, okay.” We were married shortly after that. Following my wedding, my cousins all married “non-Italians”: more Irishmen, Englishmen, Middle-Eastern, Asian...; all religions: Jewish, Methodist, Protestant... Grandma loved them all.

My Irish Catholic mother-in-law (mother of seven sons and one daughter) was equally-surprised when she learned I was not Irish. I had a challenge on my hands. You see, one of Kevin’s brothers had been stolen away by an Italian girl he met while serving in the Navy. (That son LIVED in Italy.) Enter me. Things were not looking promising for this “I”talian girl. Funny thing is, I opened the flood gates…seven sons, five Italian daughters-in-law…and THEN a Jewish daughter-in-law. We laughed when the youngest son brought home a Jewish girlfriend. What would my mother-in-law say? Well, she was welcomed with open arms, as were all the other daughters-in-law. My husband and I will celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary this coming February 14th...Valentine’s Day…such romantics! My youngest brother-in-law and his Jewish bride celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary today. We are one big, happy, league-of-nations family.  

I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed reminiscing. And now, for your listening pleasure, one of my favorite songs: "Get Together" by the Youngbloods.  Ahhh, I bet you thought I was going to say my favorite song is "Pepino, the Italian Mouse." ;)


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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Honey, dinner is ready!

Fifteen Minutes of Fame...during dinnertime.

Some of my earliest memories throughout the '60s and '70s are of sitting around the dinner table with my mom, dad, and sister. Dinner was at 5 o’clock prompt. Mom cooked every night. It was just something we did. Didn’t everyone? When I began working in New York City and not getting off the train until 7:15 p.m., I have a distinct memory of walking in the door at home and hearing the ding from the microwave…dinner heated for me. Did my mom actually time my steps from the car to the door? The funny thing is, it was important to me to carry on that ritual when I got married.
I was so proud of the first meal I cooked for my new husband. Day 1 of our marriage. Hubby was a cop, working 4 p.m. to midnight. So there I waited, the good wife, at 1:00 in the morning (albeit having to take a 7:15 a.m. train to work that morning), our first dinner together ready…pork chops, a vegetable, and potatoes. So proud of the first meal I made. Well, needless to say we were sick the whole night and couldn’t sleep from having eaten such a heavy meal at that hour. We laugh about it to this day.

It’s still important to me to sit down to dinner with my family…now my hubby and our three kids. So with very busy schedules, what do we do…we look at our calendars and firm up times in advance that we’ll sit together for dinner, all of us. Somehow the New York Times daily newspaper heard this news, and called me asking to include us in a story about family time. The journalist wanted to join us on our next dinner “appointment.” Sure. We had plans a few days later to all meet at a restaurant in Port Jefferson. We got to the restaurant. There was the journalist, camera in hand. Along with all the other diners. “Act natural.” We could barely keep our composure as we ate; we felt like reality show stars with the photographer taking pictures of us, in a crowded eatery. So that was our fifteen minutes of fame (three minutes each?).

We still make family time with all three kids being away at college. We recently celebrated the girls' birthdays, 18 and 21, born on the same day three years apart (true story). We ate birthday cake together, by Skype, previously scheduled! We each had a piece of cake at our respective locations. And sang happy birthday...together.

Here's a link to the New York Times Article (entitled "Guilt Trip Casserole")…our fifteen minutes of fame:

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Have You Ever Wondered What Your Great Grandmother Looked Like?

Well, this could be her, but we'll never know, because there are no markings on this gorgeous photo. She was important enough to someone that they wanted a picture of her, but now she's "A Victorian girl." Let's make sure we preserve our pictures for our descendants. They'll want to know.

When I was a young child, my maternal grandmother told countless stories about her life and growing up at 87 Thompson Street in New York City.  Grandma “Porch” and her brother were raised by their maternal grandmother, since their own mother passed away when they were very young children.  Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s Grandma was a professional singer at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (where Harry James discovered singing waiter Frank Sinatra).  The singing troupe had many pictures taken during those decades.  (WNEW Radio broadcast from there.)  Well, in the 1950s, my dear grandmother lost all of her treasured pictures in a basement flood.  Except for one single picture of my mother and her two sisters as children, one picture of my grandmother at 23 years old, and one picture of my grandfather at about the same age, nothing was left but stories, lots of stories.  My grandmother mourned the loss of those pictures her whole life.  I will always treasure her stories.  (She passed away shortly after her 94th birthday in 2001. -- My grandfather had passed away many years before, in 1957.)  

To the contrary, when my paternal grandmother passed away (at 97 years old in 2009), we discovered a trunk in her basement stuffed with hundreds of pictures.  Our family was thrilled to find this treasure.  Decades of pictures of babies dating from the early 1900s through the 1950s, pictures of cruises taken with dear friends, pictures of homes, weddings.  BUT…who were these people?  Where were these places?  Not a single picture was marked with an identifier.  My paternal grandfather passed away very young.  This trunk likely contained pictures of him as an infant or young child…but we would never know.  I wish Grandma “Florida” was still here to tell us stories about all the people in those photographs (and because I miss her).

This is why I’m so passionate about helping families preserve their precious history, their heritage.  I will never forget my maternal grandma’s stories.  She held those stories so dear, and it’s my special tribute to her. 

(Grandma “Porch” had a porch off her second-floor apartment in Brooklyn – so…she’s Grandma Porch.  Grandma “Florida” had a perpetual tan, as she would have had she lived in Florida – so…she’s Grandma Florida.)

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