Family Trees: Genealogy Part I

Orange tree, sunshine sky background with orange text “Family Trees”

People who dive headfirst into putting their DNA out there to meet long lost family members astound me. The faith, positivity, hope that they want to meet their long lost relatives! That they actually go looking for people to be biologically related to! Madness. Lunacy.

Family can be a lot like the shark from Jaws: you never see it but it’s menacingly lurking just below the surface of the water waiting to steal from you what’s rightfully yours. Generational wealth abounds in my family. Generations of accumulated bad feelings, grudges towards siblings that are handed down from parent to child that become grudges between cousins, and so on and so forth until 100 years from now you’re doing ancestry DNA tests because everyone forgot about that time money was stolen until the cycle repeats itself when that new, long lost cousin shows up and wants to know how you’re splitting the inheritance.

I can only imagine how the onset of more and more only children will indelibly shape the long held tradition of siblings fighting over inheritances. Can an only child even accumulate grudges if their sister isn’t taking their mother’s jewelry without the others knowing and conveniently giving it to her daughter out of the country? Who will take and refuse to share all of the family historic photos that they feel are rightfully theirs and theirs alone? Whom do you hate if not the eldest sister who pretends she’s the boss of everyone while the younger siblings chafe under the yoke of her brutal, iron-fisted reign?

One popular assignment in school is to have children make family trees. It’ll help you understand who you are, relationships, your teacher will tell you. What my teachers never understood was that a family tree was the equivalent of saying Bloody Mary’s name 3 times. If you talked about them too much, they might magically appear in front of you and immediately you assume they’re looking for money. The family trees I handed in always failed and my teachers never got the hint: don’t ask about family. Looking back, it seems like they should’ve been more flexible and realized that outside of this assignment I perpetually tried to win their approval and never missed homework assignments.

Your first introduction to my parents is the following: My dad left for work around 4am every morning and didn’t return until 8pm while my mom stayed home with me and my sister. My mother was responsible for helping with things like The Family Tree Projects and let me assure you my mother was having none of that shit. When it came time to fill in the family tree and go beyond just the people I actually knew in real life, who were all conveniently on my mother’s side of the family, what I needed help with was my father’s side.

The large gaping hole of a side. Devoid of human life as though my father had just miraculously appeared one day conjured from thin air.

I didn’t know shit about my father’s side of the family. The only thing I had to go on was a vague memory of an older woman coming for Easter, who I thought was my father’s mother. She gave me a chocolate bunny that for whatever reason enraged my mother. That was it. The pieces slowly fell into place only through astute observation. Certain names I grew to know were tied to the family tree because my parents would physically react to them.

The mere mention of my father’s mother’s first name, regardless of whether or not we were even talking about her, had the same effect on my mom as holy water on a demon. Even now, after my parents have been married for over 40 years, my mother will still physically and verbally reject the name. I remember listening to her on the phone with the credit card company, who asked for my father’s mother’s maiden name. She did that weird forced laugh she does when she’s prepping something funny and said, “SATAN? [laughter] I mean that’s what it should say!”

When my father was acting particularly difficult (because, let’s be honest, all of us are a little difficult) my mom would call him by his mother’s name. A harsh insult like a slap across the face. Learning about my father’s family I was like J.B. Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, putting the little pieces of the puzzle together. Paranoid behavior? Being intentionally difficult and irritating? Clearly these were traits associated with my father’s mother.

My confirmation name ended up being Genevieve and my dad started mocking me for picking such a non-Italian name. Only ever Italian-ish name I wanted, my mom vetoed because she had bad memories associated with it. Josephine was the name I really wanted, to which my mother screamed “Absolutely not! Ugh no, that name is a no.” Who was Josephine? What elderly Italian woman wronged my mother all those years ago that the name was forbidden?

But this process took years and my family trees were due tomorrow. I would ask my mom about my dad’s side and she would say “They’re dead to us.” My 5th grade teacher didn’t accept this and my middle school Spanish teacher was completely unsympathetic. After failing this type of assignment on more than one occasion, I began making up names and people to make my family seem larger, fuller, more robust.

This was the 1990s and early 2000s, no one was talking about “family trauma”. No one thought family relationships were complicated but maybe school teachers should understand that your relationship to your immediate and extended family might be complicated and fraught with issues that are best dealt with alongside a therapist, not a teacher who just wants to be able to check off a box on an assignment.

Making up names was easier.

And to be honest, the made up family was wonderful. The made up family loved and cared about me unconditionally without all this unnecessary baggage.

But out there, lurking just below the surface of the dark, murky waters, The Family was waiting for a moment to breach the surface. Bump a leg. Take a test bite. Try as he might, my father could not completely shake his family and erase them completely from existence.

My first introduction to my father’s extended family was when my mom came into the living room to tell my father there was a message for him on the answering machine from someone named Nino. Remember how Zack Morris used to have the power to freeze time on Saved By the Bell?

My father’s silence was a tell.

Dad was making a calculation. But what was he calculating?

“Don’t answer the phone!” Was what he came up with — like so many fathers, he never bothered much with phones so I guess he just didn’t realize that when it was a message on the answering machine the option to pick up was gone.

“It was a MES-SAGE,” my mom spelled out for him. “Who the hell in Nino?” Finally, we had gotten to uncharted territory: Family even my mom didn’t know about.

“….”

“WHO. IS. NI. NO.” My mom enunciated it a little more clearly for my dad who was using his favorite skill and almost a superpower: just ignore my mom and pretend he hadn’t heard her. You can’t not hear my mom.

“He’s… my father’s brother.”

“I never heard of him.”

I just watched the exchange quietly so as to not spook them. I was a middle schooler finally old enough to appreciate the juicy, tawdry family gossip. I could’ve been kicked out of the room but it wouldn’t have mattered. We as a family are all incapable of having quiet conversations. That’s why the neighbors called the police on us. My parents had left Brooklyn for New Jersey, for a house with a large yard and WASP neighbors who didn’t have their natural speaking voice set to screaming.

“He lives in Miami.” Don’t offer too much information. Always withhold. This was going to be like pulling teeth.

“Well, he wants you to call him. He must’ve gotten your number from your sister.” The disdain with which my mom mentioned my father’s sister was like a fine wine because instead of mellowing over the years since anyone had seen her it instead ripened and became more potent. I knew of her existence because she was my madrina, my godmother. My sister got my mom’s sister and her husband that we saw regularly and I got my dad’s sister and my mom’s brother, who if not for being my godparents I would never have known who they were or that they existed.

“Don’t call him back.”

“Why would I call him back, he’s not my family. Well, do you want to listen to the message?”

“No, just ignore it!” My dad didn’t need to listen to messages. “I don’t want to talk to him.” At some point, the conversation became unavoidable and my father did in fact call him back and his uncle asked for my dad’s address to send him something. My father did share an address — it was a fake address.

Why would my dad give his uncle a fake address? Do you know fucking anything about Italian families? If someone shows up out of the blue calling you the first thought is that they want money. People show up to funerals for free food, some socializing, and to stake claim on the deceased’s estate. My dad assumed Nino wanted money but before long we would learn what it was that Nino had called about and as is so often the case with my father, he was partially right — Nino was indeed calling about an inheritance.

But lest you think that random family members no one’s ever heard of is limited to extended family, oh no, I barely knew anything about my father’s immediate family either. One day, when I was 26 and working at a place where I had a public profile online with an email address, a woman with the same last name as me out of the blue emailed me.

To put this dramatic development into context, I can count on 1 hand the number of people with my last name I had met up to this point in my life and I was indeed related to every single one of them. You don’t fake being part of this family.

She said she was my dad’s sister and wondered if I could ask him to call her. It was, quite frankly, bizarre even by my family’s standards. I called my parents and my mom answered because as per usual my father doesn’t handle phone calls.

“Does dad have another sister?”

“[Pause] What? What do you mean?” Ah so we’re going to deflect and feign ignorance for a minute. Ok.

“Does dad have another sister?” Enunciate it out like you’re talking to a moron.

[Silence. Off phone conversation.] “Why are you asking that?”

“Because I got an email from someone, she said she’s dad’s sister but I never heard of her.”

[Yelling off the phone. It’s never hard to hear them but sometimes it’s not coherent and understandable.]

“What does she want?”

“She gave me her phone number. She wants me to ask dad to call her.”
[Off phone conversation]

“She didn’t want to talk to you?”

“No, she just said ‘can you have your father email me, I’m looking for him.’”

“Send me the email, your father will take care of it.”

“I don’t understand, why does dad have a sibling I’ve never heard of and why is she emailing me instead of just calling him? Why is no one ever able to find dad?”

“Do you think I know? Bunch of weirdos. All those degrees and none of them ever learned how to talk to another human. Well they’re not my blood!”

There’s that statement — “they’re not my blood!” I don’t know if this is an Italian American thing, or just a my family thing, or a my mom thing, but my mom has always asserted that my father’s family is not her family. They’re not my blood is her common refrain. When she got married, my sister also began the refrain of “they’re not my blood” when it came to her husband’s family, his nieces, nephews, brother, parents.

And that’s the thing about Jure Sanguinis and the Italian family: it demands blood. The Italian family tree demands you bleed for it because blood is what it recognizes, blood is what feeds and sustains it. No matter how long you are estranged, no matter how distant you are, the branches will always respond to blood. Some with sharp thorns and rancid fruit twisted by hatred, spite, greed and anger. So much spite. Other branches with beautiful flowers offered out of love and a sense that you have an eternal connection with them that they will always honor.

It’s definitely peculiar for me to realize how much this has actually affected me and how I understand my family. Even through distance, estrangement, and baggage there’s something about my blood relatives. As an adult, when I started collecting documents for my JS application and had decided to bypass my father and asked my aunt directly a question about her father, my dad sat me down to have a talk about his family, especially his sister.

“Look, the reality is, for my family you’ll always be welcomed because at the end of the day, you’re blood. And you can’t turn your back on blood.” And I can’t explain why but I do know that should my sister have kids or my cousin’s kids ever ended up wanting to come be in my life, I would welcome them warmly and lovingly no matter what without hesitation. Ultimately, there is so something so comforting about knowing that you have somewhere to go and someone to rely on no matter what.

Or you have a nemesis and plan your life around taking them down.

An Italian American, raised in New Jersey by parents from Brooklyn, I recently completed the Jure Sanguinis process. I eat antipasta twice because it’s so nice.