It was in August 2019 that my father and I decided to begin researching our family history.  We had both read a news article that stated one only needed to prove bloodline to become an Italian citizen.  We entered the journey like two boys looking for treasure and hoping to find on the other end a red Italian passport that would link us to a history of our lives of which neither of us was truly aware.

As a child growing up in southern California, I always heard stories of our family being from Abruzzo. This sounded to me like a far-off distant land.  My grandmother (Maria Isabella Jaqubino) would use small Italian phrases to this day I cannot remember.  But somehow, I was always proud of my Italian heritage, even though I really knew nothing about it – aside from my last name – Tomassi.  A name that, because of the Italian spelling, had surely been changed or misspelled when my ancestors arrived in America – more likely something along the lines of Tommasi or Tommassini.  I went through my life accepting that my name was the result of a disinterested customs agent, tired and blurry-eyed from the hundreds of immigrants that passed through Ellis Island each day early in the 20th century.

Ritratto di matrimonio, 23 gennaio 1941

In 1994, my wife and I were fortunate enough to be stationed with the U.S. Air Force at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy.  I had secret dreams of finding relatives and learning about my family.  However, as a naive young man in my late twenties, I left Italy four years later not speaking the language at all and no further along in my casual pursuit of family history.

Years passed by as they do,  my grandmother died and with her much of the knowledge of where our family originated.  When my father and I both read this article in 2019, it opened a new excitement and thirst for knowledge that sent me spiraling into the internet for days and weeks in search of our ancestors.

Because I live in Germany and my father in Florida, I researched deep into the night with him on a video teleconference.  We were using an account my mother created years ago with ancestry.com for her own research and we started adding people we knew into our family tree.  It was at that point I discovered the Portal of Ancestors at http://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/.

Through this portal I discovered my great grandfather (Antonio Michael Tomassi) married his wife (Anna Francis Incorvati) in Chicago, Illinois, 17 Apr 1911, and the marriage was registered with the Parrocchia Santa Maria Assunta in Amaseno, Frosinone, Lazio, Italy.

Through Facebook, I was able to contact the parish priest, Don Italo Cardarilli, who personally sent me images of the marriage certificate and of Antonio’s baptism record. This unbelievable stroke of luck and kindness from Don Cardarilli, led me to find Antonio’s parents who were from Fagnano Alto, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy.

Bingo.  I found the connection to Abruzzo my grandmother always talked about and I continued to dig deeper with my research.  Suddenly it wasn’t an unknown place far from comprehension, it became real and somehow reachable.  Unfortunately the Portal of Ancestors currently doesn’t have digitized files for Lazio (hopefully it will someday soon), but the files for L’Aquila abound.  As I delved deeper into the archives, I discovered ancestors I never knew existed.  Antonio’s parents (Angelo Giovanni Tomassi and Vittoria Di Fabio); Angelo’s parents (Emido Tomassi and Anna Vincenza Bernardi); Emidio’s parents (Giuseppe Tomassi and Domenica Chiodi); and Giuseppe’s parents (Domenico Tomassi and Ascenza Elisabetta Presutti) – all the way back to 1727!Along the way I discovered relatives from every branch of our family tree using the Portal of Ancestors – Atenati.  I’ve learned to decipher Italian birth certificates, marriage certificates and death certificates.  I’ve studied the beautiful, alluring scroll of old Italian script.  I recognized that an “s” can sometimes be mistaken for an “f”.  And I also recognized that my last name did not in 1902 when Antonio stepped off that ship in New York City.  It was either by luck or by sheer perseverance of Antonio to ensure the name was spelled correctly.

Particolare dell’atto di battesimo di Antonio Michael Tomassi, 29 dicembre 1882

My research has taken me to places I never expected or imagined.  I expanded my research to assist my mother with her family history.  Together we have linked her family to the Colonial days of America and well beyond to Wales and England from the 1400’s.  I’ve also started researching my wife’s history in Germany.  I’ve discovered images of her grandfathers who were victims of corrupt governments and forced to fight in two World Wars.

I could go on for hours describing the finds and treasures I have found conducting research of my family history in what I believe to be three different branches – Italy on my father’s side; America and England on my mother’s side; and Germany on my wife’s side.

Atto di matrimonio, 23 aprile 1911

But this story is about Italy.  About how my family name has remained intact for nearly 300 years from a small hamlet in Abruzzo, to a village in Lazio and finally to America.  This story is about how Atenati helped me connect to Don Cardarilli and how his kindness unlocked the names allowing me to find greater riches within our family history.

I have reconnected with aunts and uncles who remember family names and relatives and I continue to fill in holes in our family tree.  I have connected with people who I believe to be relatives in Amaseno and long for the day I am able to visit there and walk the streets and paths my great grandfather walked.I don’t know if Domenico Tomassi was the first Tomassi. I don’t know why he born in Fagnano Alto in 1727.  I don’t know who his parents are or where they came from.  I don’t know why Antonio decided to move from Fagnano Alto to Amaseno some time around the turn of the century that later led him to settle in Chicago and raise a family there. His son (John Joseph Tomassi), the grandfather I never had the honor to meet, died before I was born.  But he started a family and continued a name that lives through my sons, my brother’s children and so many other aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters and brothers that carry the Tomassi name.

My father has an appointment at the Italian Consulate in Miami, Florida, in February 2022 to have his paperwork checked to start his path to Italian citizenship.  It’s a dream of his that I’m eager to help him achieve, because in 2027, exactly 300 years after the birth of Domenico Tomassi, I hope to do the same thing – become Italian, seven generations later.

My paternal grandmother, Erminia Imbriano, has always been a mystery to me.   She is my namesake and I’ve always been curious about her especially since I knew very little about her.  She died very young, shortly after getting married and having two children, my father Guglielmo and my aunt Filomena. When my father spoke of her, he remembered her as if he were describing a dream sequence in a Federico Fellini film. He was six years old when she passed and he recalled a shadow, a surreal outline of a woman without distinct characteristics; he had trouble remembering her image. To this day, I’ve never even been able to find her photograph.

Ritratto di Antonio Maria Gioino con la divisa da bersagliere nella prima guerra mondiale

Erminia was born in 1906 in Sant’Angelo Dei Lombardi in the Avellino province.  I knew she lost her entire family and married my grandfather, Antonio Gioino. She relocated to Lioni where she lived the rest of her life.

My journey began in 2019 before I knew that the infamous virus, Covid-19, would ravage the US. We have 4% of the world’s population with 25% of Covid-19 cases. The New York and New Jersey areas were hit the hardest in March of 2020. We were confined to our homes in mid- March and not being able to go about daily life, I finally decided to continue digging into my grandmother’s background. I became aware of the website Antenati through a message board on Ancestry.com. Antenati guided me in finding the story of my grandmother’s short life.  It was more tragic and heart-wrenching than I could ever have imagined.

In the beginning of my research efforts, I found so much joy and happiness with the first few records I discovered. I found Erminia Imbriano’s birth record which documented her parent’s names; I never heard them before. Her father, Francescoantonio and her mother Angela Venezia who were my great-grandparents. Knowing their names, I searched for records of other children born in Sant’Angelo in that time period. I found records of four other daughters; they were my grandmother’s sisters. I was overtaken with joy on a late night in 2019 knowing that my grandmother had a large family who loved her.

My happiness turned to sadness and sorrow as I continued to search through Antenati records.  I found that in November of 1918, when Erminia was 12 years old she lost her entire immediate family. The records sadly document that her mother, Angela Venezia (age 42) died first.  Then came her sister, Felicia (age 22), then Maria Michela (age 18), then Filomena (age 10), then Ernestina (age 14). The last person to pass was my great grandfather Francescoantonio Imbriano (age 45). It’s as if he waited until everyone was taken care of before he passed himself. In total, twelve people from the Imbriano family died in November 1918 in the small mountain town of Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi. I am still searching to identify the remaining Imbriano family and how they were related to my grandmother.

Ritratto di Guglielmo Gioino

In 2019, the term “Covid-19” did not exist. I began to research pandemics that occurred in that same period and narrowed it down to two options- the Spanish Flu or the malaria pandemic.  I suspected that it was the Spanish Flu because malaria was mostly present on the coastlines of Italy. The province of Avellino is located in the mountainous regions of central Italy. My father always mentioned that mosquitos were rarely seen in Avellino, unlike the mosquitoes that he experienced in Montevideo, Uruguay and in later the US.  It was more probable that it was the Spanish Flu since it was brought back by soldiers of WWI without therapeutic measures available. I also knew that quinine was used to treat malaria. My father passed away in 2004 and any information he was able to share with me was forever lost. In April of 2019, my 96-year-old uncle fell ill and I visited him and my aunt Filomena (Erminia’s daughter) in the hospital. I shared with my aunt what I had discovered using Antenati records. She was very surprised and moved that I was able to find such dated information. I told her I was still searching for the reason my grandmother died so young. To my surprise and shock, she reluctantly whispered “La Spagnola” when no one was looking and revealed the long-held family secret. La Spagnola is the Italian translation for the Spanish Flu. I had an awakening of sorts and thought about the time period that both my father and aunt lived through. In 1918, the Spanish Flu was met with suspicion and panic. It was viewed as the Black Death and a great plague inflicted on whole families, small towns, an entire country and the world. People must have looked to explain their helpless predicament based on the their deeply ingrained religious culture. Catholicism has a way of identifying sins and perhaps it was considered a great punishment inflicted on a whole family. Those beliefs were sure to have impacted my father and aunt into the 1940s as they were coming of age. My aunt is 94 years old, and I believe these beliefs are still ingrained in her consciousness. I understood perfectly why she never told anyone this secret. I did not know there was another secret she would later reveal.

My grandfather, Antonio Gioino and grandmother Erminia were married in 1921. The Antenati marriage record indicates that Erminia was 16 years old, when in fact she was 15. The family story is that she had great wealth as she had inherited all of her family’s assets at a young age. In 1921, her family was fearful that she could be kidnapped and decided that the best option for her safety would be to get married. She married my grandfather and moved from S’Angelo Dei Lombardi to Lioni and her dowry included the purchase of one of the best homes in the center of town. A beautiful home with great rooms, a grand staircase and a stained -glass skylight window. She was chauffeured to Lioni in a beautiful car and she was so young that many of the neighbors thought she was part of the bridal party instead of being the bride. I do not understand why I was never able to find a picture of her. It is very likely pictures of her wedding were taken since she had the financial means.

Having lost all of her family at age 12 and moving to another town must have been very frightening to her, but what was about to transpire was truly tragic. Her first daughter, Filomena was born in 1926, followed by her son Guglielmo (my father) in 1928. I look very much like my father in physical appearance, but also in personality traits such as my love for school, history and science. In 1933, her third child, Angiola was born, but she died when she was a few months old in May 1933. I never knew the existence of this child. Filomena looks very much like my grandfather Antonio and I can guess that my father looked just like my grandmother. She became very ill and was hospitalized in Naples for a period of time. My father told me that when she came back home to Lioni, she was confined to her bedroom and he could see his mother by looking through a keyhole. He was not allowed in the bedroom to be near her. I can’t imagine what it would feel like not to be able to hold your own children or not to be held by your mother.  On August 10, 1934 she lost her battle with “a terrible illness”. Her death has always been a mystery. I discussed my findings with my Aunt Filomena, and she was finally willing to tell me why she died. She whispered out of the side of her mouth the cause of her death: “Tuberculosis”.  The last family secret about Erminia Imbriano had been revealed to me almost 90 years after her death; a death which must have carried such negative stigma and shame in her time. Now it signifies, bravery, strength, endurance, courage and sacrifice to me.

I never knew or understood how negatively the Spanish Flu impacted my grandmother’s life and how lucky I am to be alive in the age of Covid-19.  I have not found a photograph of her, but I have a clue, or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, that when I look in the mirror, I see my grandmother, Erminia Imbriano.

Note:
The descendants of Antonio Gioino and Erminia Imbriano currently reside in New Jersey, USA.  There are currently nineteen descendants.

Ritratto di Ermelinda Brudi

Il mio nome è Patrizia, penso che per capire a pieno quello che siamo sia necessario sapere ciò che eravamo. Oltre al cognome che si tramanda di padre in figlio (il mio è Mantovani) si tramandano i tratti somatici, il carattere, le abilità; il nostro DNA porta scritto quello dei nostri antenati, in noi c’è un po’ di tutti loro. La mia gente ha vissuto in piccoli paesi della bassa Lombardia, al confine con l’Emilia ed il Veneto. Queste sono terre di agricoltura di campi da zappare e coltivare. Le case piccole di solito con due stanze, arredate con pochi ed essenziali mobili in legno, la stufa a legna per cucinare e scaldarsi; l’elettricità non c’era, si usavano lampade ad olio e candele. Il gabinetto era situato in un capanno di legno fuori poco distante dall’abitazione. La dieta era povera si mangiavano zuppe di patate e fagioli ‘al tucin ‘con l’immancabile polenta.

Ritratto di Gaetano Mantovani

Il consumo di carne era poco frequente, qualche salume arricchiva la cena. Nel mese di Dicembre, quando veniva ucciso il maiale, si facevano salumi per tutto l’anno ed era una festa per tutta la comunità. D’estate la dieta era più varia. Si mangiavano i frutti dell’orto che tutte le famiglie coltivavano, le uova del pollaio e si consumava molto pesce che veniva pescato nelle ricche acque dei canali e dal grande fiume Po. Il bucato si faceva in un paiolo sul fuoco e nelle “ suioli ” mastelle metalliche che venivano usate anche per fare il bagno. Nel paiolo veniva messa acqua con un pezzo di sapone di Marsiglia e della cenere, il tutto veniva fatto bollire e poi vi ci si immergeva il bucato. Nei rigidi inverni le braci della stufa venivano utilizzate, messe in padelline per riscaldare il letto con il “Prete “. All’imbrunire nelle sere d’estate dopo cena, ci si ritrovava tra vicini di casa tutti fuori, grandi e piccoli, a conversare, raccontarsi storie, a fare “ filò “. Si formavano grandi gruppi, o piccoli gruppetti, come le donne che rammendavano o ricamavano in circolo attorno alla luce fioca delle lampade. Gli spostamenti avvenivano per lo più in bicicletta o su carretti trainati da cavalli o da asini. Le strade principali erano ghiaiate, solo le piazze erano di ciottolato. I miei antenati erano povera gente, braccianti agricoli al servizio di possidenti e bovari ”buar” addetti alla cura della stalla e del bestiame. Ho sempre avuto un legame famigliare forte e le vicende singolari di famiglia si tramandano da generazioni. Vi racconto alcune vicende famigliari tramandate fino a me.

Atto di nascita di Ermelinda Brudi, 1876

Ermelinda Brudi e Gaetano Mantovani, i miei trisnonni, dei quali ho trovato sul sito Antenati l’atto di matrimonio e l’atto di nascita di lei, risalendo così ai miei quadrisavoli, Ottaviano Giuseppe Budri e la moglie Carolina Piva e Cova Modesta con Angelo Mantovani dei quali nessuno aveva memoria.

Ermelinda e Gaetano sposi il 15 maggio del 1900 erano braccianti agricoli, abitavano in una piccola casa con un orto ed un pollaio abitato da sette/ otto galline che probabilmente rappresentavano tutta la loro ricchezza, ed erano un sostentamento importante per tutta la famiglia. I ladri, tutti gli anni in inverno, mettevano in difficoltà la famiglia, rubando tutte le galline. Gaetano ed Ermelinda, in occasione delle feste Natalizie, si recavano a fare visita alle varie famiglie dei parenti di lui a Bergantino (RO), suo paese natale. Ogni famiglia che veniva a conoscenza del furto subito, gli faceva dono di una gallina e così al ritorno a casa a Poggio Rusco avevano ripopolato il pollaio.

Un’ altra vicenda tramandata riguarda la nascita di uno dei loro cinque figli. A settembre era il tempo della mietitura del gran turco. Ermelinda e Gaetano lavoravano nei campi. Il lavoro era frenetico. Ermelinda, al nono mese di gravidanza, dopo pranzo non si sente molto bene, avvisa suo marito e si incammina verso casa. Sulla lunga strada ghiaiata, Ermelinda riconosce i dolori del parto. Man mano che proseguiva, i dolori si facevano più forti. Sola ed esausta, si adagiò su di un cumulo di ghiaia al margine della strada per prendere fiato. Un passante con un carretto si fermò per soccorrerla. Il signore si offrì di accompagnarla a casa, ma quel bimbo aveva fretta di affacciarsi al mondo e quel passante si improvvisò allevatrice ed aiutò Ermelinda a dare alla luce il suo bambino. Quel bambino era mio bis nonno Italo. Un giorno, il ventenne Italo, tornando in licenza da militare, e percorrendo la strada che portava a casa sua, chiese un passaggio ad un anziano signore che conduceva un carretto. Il signore lo fece salire e cominciarono a dialogare. Italo aveva voglia di sentire discorrere nel suo dialetto. Ad un certo punto quel signore gli disse “ set bagaet tanti an fa chi propria chi o dat na man a na dona a far nasar so fiol” (sai ragazzo , tanti anni fa proprio in questo punto, ho aiutato una donna a partorire suo figlio).  Italo sentì un brivido e disse “Alora vu a si Bruno”  (allora lei è il signor Bruno, nome di fantasia perché negli anni è andato perso il nome). Il signore sussultò, lo guardo e con aria sorpresa e chiese come facesse a saper il suo nome. Italo ribattè  “perché cal putin a sera mi!”  (perché quel bimbo ero io).

Ritratto di Bice Trazzi, 1922-1925

Italo, bracciante agricolo, si sposò con Bice Trazzi; sarta e donna di casa. Di lei si conoscono i nomi dei genitori: Saule Trazzi  e Angela Benfatti . Cercando sul sito Antenati nella sezione “Trova i nomi”, ho trovato l’atto di nascita di Saule  e quello dei suoi sette fratelli. Inoltre, ho trovato anche il nome dei loro genitori: Erminio del 1852 e Generosa Panazza . Se chiudo gli occhi, li vedo di domenica nella loro casa, tutti seduti a tavola; quei due giovani ed i loro otto bambini. I miei bis nonni Italo e Bice, che ho avuto l’onore di conoscere, hanno avuto tre figlie ed un figlio maschio mio nonno, Silvano Mantovani. Con mio nonno ho avuto un rapporto speciale, di simbiosi, di intesa. E’ stato il mio nonno del cuore, quello preferito. Silvano, nato nel 1926 , ha frequentato la scuola fino alla quinta elementare poi ha cominciato a lavorare nei campi. Con il nascere delle industrie, lavorò come operaio nello zuccherificio del suo paese, Sermide. Si sposò nel 1948 con Lina. Le sue grandi passioni: la pesca ed il ballo liscio. Silvano se ne è andato nel 1992,  quando io ero appena diventata maggiorenne. Ha lasciato sola la nonna Lina Saccomandi  figlia di Giovanni Lino e Lea Roncati. Lina, di origine ferrarese nata a Pilastri, mondina da sempre. Lina lavoratrice instancabile, tagliatrice di canapa industriale, faceva grandi fascine e poi a piedi nudi immergeva le fascine nei maceri, in modo che la lavorazione per ottenere corde e fibre per realizzare sedie fosse più semplice. Questo faticoso lavoro era svolto soprattutto da donne per risparmiare sulla manodopera, in quanto le donne costavano il 20-30 % in meno del salario di un uomo.

Matrimonio di Vittorio Bianchi e Erta Vertuani, 1947

Delle origini di mia nonna Lina ho trovate pochissime informazioni ma continuerò a cercare. Dai miei nonni è nato un solo figlio, mio padre Franco 1950 che, come da tradizione, porta anche il nome di suo nonno Italo. Franco Italo, mio padre, barbiere dall’età di quattordici anni, si trasferì a Milano per maggiori opportunità lavorative. Franco si sposa cinquanta anni fa con Marisa Bianchi  1953 di Sermide (MN) figlia di Vittorio e Erta Vertuani. I due vissero a Milano per dieci anni, lui barbiere e lei operaia. In quegli anni, nascemmo io e mio fratello Andrea. Nel 1980 tutti tornammo a Sermide, paese natale dei miei genitori, per riunire la famiglia ai nonni. La mia ricerca, oltre alla mia curiosità, è stata anche incentivata da un diario trovato in un cassetto scritto da mio nonno Vittorio, dove raccontava brevemente la sua vita. Vittorio Bianchi nacque nel 1921 a Sermide (MN.) Frequentò la scuola fino alla quinta elementare e, a tredici anni, iniziò a lavorare come custode di vitelli. Partì per il militare e poi scoppiò subito la guerra. Così fu mandato in Africa, “ sotto le bombe” come diceva lui. Fu fatto prigioniero in Algeria e portato in America, dove raccontava che, allo sbarco, le persone si affollavano al porto, per vedere l’arrivo degli Italiani; perché si diceva avessero la coda. Nei suoi racconti puntualizzava ch’ erano loro gli strambi.. diceva: “  mangiano il gran turco che noi diamo come cibo alle galline”. Tornato a Napoli dopo cinque anni in America , vi rimase altri cinque anni come prigioniero di guerra. Liberato con il tempo tornò a casa; tutto ai suoi occhi era cambiato, chiedendo trovò la casa dove abitava la sua famiglia, cosi dalla strada vide il padre che……..
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