Back to Your Italian Roots Series: How a Facebook Message Helped Reconnect a Family Divided 100 Years Earlier

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 04:27

[Photo, left to right: Ron George, who graciously shared his ancestry travel story with us, cousin William D'Alonzo, William's wife, Antonella Rossetti, Michele George.] 

A passionate researcher of his family history for more than 25 years, Ron George traveled to Italy for the first time in October 2009 to meet relatives based in Abruzzo, after connecting only a few months earlier with a second cousin he never even knew existed, Erminia Giangiordano, through Facebook. “I truly consider this reunion, this connection between two questing souls, to be one of the miracles of my recent life and I will always think of Erminia Giangiordano as 'Sant’Erminia'!” he writes in a heartfelt blog post detailing his search for his antenati, and his trip to Abruzzo to meet Erminia and her family. Continuing his ancestry research after the trip, he was eventually able to access municipal records that extended his family tree back to 1789.  

An artist and a retired high school art teacher, Ron grew up in Vineland, N.J., and now lives in Ithaca (“There are no Italian bakeries in Ithaca,” he writes me. “I can't get a decent sfogliatella anywhere!”).

For our ‘Back to your Italian Roots’ series, we reached Ron via email to ask him about his experience of finding long-lost relatives and traveling to Italy to meet them.

[A painting by Ron George, this is the view south of his cousin's property in Altino, Abruzzo.]

What prompted you to begin your search to trace your Italian roots? 

I grew up in a town with a high percentage of Italian-American residents. Most of my classmates had some or all of their grandparents in their lives. I wasn't so fortunate. My maternal grandmother died sixteen years before I was born, my grandfather died when I was five and my maternal grandparents were divorced before I was born, so my Sicilian grandfather was not a part of life. I simply needed to know who and where I came from.

Please describe the process. Did you already know your ancestral town? If not, how did you find it? Who or what was your first resource when you started your search for your ancestral town and Italian relatives?

I learned the names of my paternal great grandparents from a copy of the atto di nascita of my grandfather's sister, who was born in Roccascalegna in the Abruzzo province of Chieti. This document was given to me by a second cousin with whom I met in order to find out what she knew of our shared ancestry. 

What were the obstacles, if any, during the process of finding your relatives and then getting in touch?

I had no real obstacles in my search thanks to the internet!

Editor's note: Ron describes the process in details in his blog post 'The Italian Connection'. Below is the excerpt recounting his first connection with cousin Erminia through Facebook:

[In April, 2009] I received an email notice from Facebook that someone named Erminia Giangiordano had sent me a message. My heart began to race with anticipation as I accessed Facebook to read the message which was in Italian. Fortunately, I had studied Italian in high school and had recently begun a serious attempt to improve my ability to speak, read, and understand the language, so I was able to read Erminia’s message. In it, she stated that she was seeking Ron George, son of Frank George from Vineland, New Jersey and grandson of Domenico Giangiordano. Then she asked “Is that perhaps you?” A direct hit!!  

[Ron's cousin Erminia Giangiordano with her husband, Franco D'Alonzo.]

Please describe the moment when you first met your Italian relatives. How did you feel?

Pure magic! I felt such closeness and the overwhelming feeling that I knew them all my life. I felt like I truly belonged. It felt like I had returned home.

Please describe how you felt the first time you walked the streets of your ancestral town.

The first time I stood in the small piazza in Roccascalegna and looked upon the same sights that my grandfather had seen and experienced a hundred years earlier, I was overcome with emotion.

[Downtown Roccascalegna with castle in background.]

Any fun anecdotes about meeting your Italian relatives?

My ancestral surname, Giangiordano, is an uncommon one. There are, supposedly, only 79 Giangiordano families in all of Italy, 59 of which are in the Chieti province of Abruzzo. Of those 59, 24 families are in Roccascalegna, a village with a population of 1400. I naturally assumed that all the Giangiordano in the village must be related, so I was somewhat surprised to learn that there are two unrelated lines, one known as the Guarda Festa line, and ours, known as "mocciche recchi," an Abruzzese term that means "ear biters." The appellation apparently originated with an ancestor who had a donkey that refused to move despite being pushed, pulled, prodded, and hit with a stick. It wasn't until our ancestor bit the donkey on the ear that the obstinate beast finally decided to move.  

Did you discover any amazing story during the process of searching for your Italian relatives?

Yes! While researching the history of Roccascalegna, I learned about the ruthless 16th century Baron Corvo di Corvis who instituted the hated practice of "Jus primae noctis" (editor's note: literally, "right of the first night," a supposed legal right in medieval Europe, allowing feudal lords to have sexual relations with subordinate women on their wedding night before their newlywed husbands) and was ultimately stabbed to death by a new bride that was ordered to report to his chambers. 

[Ron's cousin Nicla D'Alonzo applauds as her father, Franco opens a bottle of wine.]

Ultimately, what has the experience of reconnecting to your Italian roots meant to you?  

The importance of family to Italians cannot be understated. The discovery of previously unknown family in Italy was the richest reward imaginable and an exhilarating, joyful payoff for the countless hours I spent researching my Italian ancestry. 

Thank you, Ron, for sharing your story with ITALY Magazine readers!