The One and Only Grandma C.
Grandma C. was a special lady. She always knew the right thing to say – always. She was Irish by descent, but cooked a mean Italian Sunday dinner. Perhaps most importantly, she knew how to have a good time. When we visited, it was a tradition to boogie to a mechanical dancing flower pot’s version of “In the Mood” before I left – it wasn’t a complete visit without it. Grandma passed away after a two-year battle with cancer in 2003. I had already lost both paternal grandparents, so when Grandma C. died, it was a big blow. I wasn’t yet in high school but now only had one grandparent left to cherish (and, at that time more importantly, spoil me!). I was confused and found it unfair… but Grandma had a surprise waiting for me – unbeknownst to both of us.
The Thirteen-Year-Old Family Historian
Being the precocious 13-year-old that I was, I helped in cleaning out the house after her passing. Amongst the papers, I found a family tree that Grandma had begun work on – she’d been writing to cousins near and far and compiling quite the comprehensive family history. And being said precocious 13-year-old, I decided to take up the mantle of family historian. I feverishly began the work. Within months, I’d been in touch with cousins all over the country, and was learning more than I’d ever thought possible. Fast forward thirteen years, and I now have the distinct pleasure of working as a professional genealogist. I often wonder what Grandma would think of this – as it’s indubitably a direct result of her influence, albeit an influence she likely never knew she would have.
Finding My Roots
Over the years in researching my own family tree, those feelings of confusion and bitterness quickly turned to those of sheer amazement. I was learning things about my family that even most people who knew their grandparents and great-grandparents far past their childhood never knew. I began to think of myself no longer as just American – but Italian-American, Irish-American, German-American. Suddenly, the world was a much smaller place, knowing pieces of me came from such diverse corners that now felt so real to me. Holidays and Sunday family dinners took on a different meaning – la famiglia had become something I could no longer take for granted. I cherished my immigrant ancestors, who uprooted their lives to create better lives for themselves and their children, often never seeing their own immediate families again. Their strength and courage left, and leaves, me humbled.
When I began working on the family tree, I saw it as a way to honor my grandmother. In reality, it became a lesson from which I am still learning, every day. In a time where technology makes everything accessible in moments, I learn patience (because not everything can be found online with a few mouse clicks!). In a world where immigration has become a divisive issue, I learn compassion (because it wasn’t so long ago when my ancestors arrived in this country with nothing). In a time when it’s easy to lose self-identity behind veils of social media, cell phones, and high-stress lifestyles, I learn to stand firmly with my feet on the ground, grounded in the knowledge of my roots. The stories aren’t always pretty (a wedding in March followed by a baby in May does not a divine conception make), and can even be hard to hear (a woman commits suicide after losing her fifth baby in a row), but they are, more than anything, human. Human stories make for human ancestors – and human ancestors allow us to experience their struggles, understand their lives, and learn from them. The pictures become people, and the people become lessons.
Grandma C. was a special lady. I miss her, but I know that she’s somehow here still, with every new ancestor I research – both others’ and my own. She continues to teach me, long after she’s gone.
About Rich Venezia
Rich is a New Jersey native who now calls Pittsburgh home, with roots in Italy, Ireland, England, Wales, Prussia, and Canada. In his past life, he was a professional actor, a marketing officer for a theatre in Dublin, and a study abroad advisor. He started Rich Roots Genealogy after having researched his own family for a decade. He was a member of Genealogy Roadshow’s research team (seasons 2 and 3), and also consulted on an upcoming TV show on the Travel Channel. He is Vice President of North Hills Genealogists, and specializes in Italian and immigrant ancestry. He writes and lectures on a variety of topics.