Once upon a time, my father joked, “Why do you talk with your hands so much? What are you – Italian?” Being about 16 and not know any better, I shot back, “Maybe I am!”
Two years later, when I delved into genealogy in earnest, I learned the truth. Or half of it.
My mother’s mother’s family is Italian, from the Piedmont and Liguria regions of Italy. I’ve researched them for the past thirty years and learned a great deal about them recently thanks to Family Search and the Antenati website.
What no one knew thirty (and more) years ago was that my mother’s father was also Italian. Looking at him now, it’s pretty obvious that he looks nothing like the redheaded Irish man we were always told was his father. Grandpa’s mother had seven children, and we knew there were three different fathers among them. And then came DNA testing and the surprise that there was a fourth father!
At first, we thought DNA testing would confirm that either the man we’d always been told was grandpa’s father or the man who was my great-grandmother’s first husband was my grandpa’s father. The network of Italian matches connected to me, my mother, and my uncle, but not my nana, proved otherwise.
It was a close family member match that sealed the deal as far as determining my grandfather’s lineage. While close Y-DNA matches haven’t yet popped up yet, we had enough half first cousin matches to confirm my grandfather’s paternity.
The Feola Family
Where my nana’s mother was from northern Italy, my grandpa’s father was from southern Italy. His surname was Feola and his family came from Campora, Salerno, Campania, Italy. I have an enormous number of matches from this family. In fact, I think they are my largest genetic network. Campora suffered a genetic bottleneck in the 1700s, and the centuries of intermarriage are quite apparent as I work on a separate quick and dirty family tree to connect these matches, and then verify the lineages to add them to my tree.
Nearly all the surnames I find – Feola, Tomeo, Carone, Calabria, Perriello, Trotta, Vitale, Veltri, and others – recur frequently. On the one hand, it makes it easier to build and then verify the tree. On the other hand, the pedigree collapse means I can only guess at which ancestral couples passed on the DNA my matches and I share. I list that potential couple in my spreadsheet and notes, but also add “and possibly others.”
As far as my grandfather, it all starts with one of the sons of Antonio Michele Feola (born 8 December 1864 in Campora, and died after 1910, probably in Scituate, Plymouth, Massachusetts) and Alessandrina Beatrice Tomeo (per their marriage record, 18 April 1887 in Campora; she was born May of 1864 in Campora and died 21 May 1909 in Scituate, Plymouth, Massachusetts). I won’t say which son, because he has living grandchildren from his marriage to his wife, and it was certainly a surprise for them to find out they had half first cousins (my mother and her siblings). However, he is named in my family tree.
Antonio, or Anthony, was the son of Giovanni Feola and Teresa Sofia. Alessandrina was the daughter of Nicola Tomeo and Francesca Maria Trotta. I’ve been able to confirm a few generations with vital records, something I’m doing slowly and steadily, since I’m not focused on researching this part of my family at this time.
It’s still taking time to get used to the fact that these are my ancestors. However, there’s no doubt about it. The DNA has spoken! While I’m devoting far more interest and attention to my northern Italian ancestors, I think if I ever visit Italy, a trip to Campora would certainly be part of that.
As much as many of us may look back at 2020 and say, “What a dumpster fire,” it seems 2021 isn’t much of an improvement. Though I’d like to think we’re going to eventually get to an overall better, more positive place by the end of the year. Besides, I think I’ve let go of the idea of “good years” and “bad years” and, really, it is what it is – a little bit of both – and that’s just life.
Personally, I’ve experienced two losses so far this year and that has certainly shaped my attitude about 2021. My only paternal aunt passed away and it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it still fills me with sadness to know she’s gone. The other was our parrot of 10 years, Avery, whose loss is heartbreaking. We didn’t anticipate it and, sadly, that’s often the way it goes with birds.
People, of course, are asking or saying – if I’m being honest – dumb and insensitive things. “I didn’t realize he was that old”/”How old was he?” He was 10, thank you very much. “Was he sick?” No and, again, thank you so much for asking. Oh, and sending me pictures or videos of why parrots are so great. Um… pardon me, why? I’m grieving a sudden loss and these things are really twisting the knife. When someone loses someone precious to them, why do people feel the need to ask the how, what, and why? Especially when there is an understandable degree of guilt, since that life was your responsibility? Pet owners often feel guilt, even if they shouldn’t, and these kinds of questions push that idea that somehow it was our fault that our pet died. If that’s what you’re trying to do when people lose a beloved pet, congratulations. You succeeded. If that isn’t your intention, would you please simply say, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Do you want to talk about it?” and leave it at that?
So that’s my mini-rant about that.
Anyway, we never plan on having another bird. Getting one was originally my husband’s idea, because he’s a bird lover. However, he soon realized the amount of work that goes into being a “bird parent” is disproportionate to the amount of energy and attention he was actually willing to put in. I became Avery’s bird mom and loved every moment of it, after never in my life considering having a parrot. We’re all feeling the loss, though, and we know that we don’t want to go through it again. Even our cats have noticed something has changed (namely, Avery not plucking their fur, pecking their paws, and sitting on their backs), and they seem a little gloomy about it.
There are, of course, good things to share. It’s not all sadness. My son went to prom for the third and, likely, last time. He’s a senior and partied his Saturday night away with his class. It was an exciting but sad moment for me. I remember going to the prom with his dad 28 years ago.
My son took my weeping in stride, thankfully. My husband got a kick out of it and obliged me by taking tons of pictures. Graduation is only 3 weeks from now. I’ll be sure to bring copious amounts of tissues.
My daughter said she doesn’t want 2nd grade to end. I don’t blame her, and I also reminded her that she was the one saying she didn’t want school to start last August. She laughed about that, and we talked about beginnings, endings, and how everything has it’s time and place and cycle.
As far as genealogy, I’m turning my attention to my husband’s family. He descends mostly from recent immigrants from so many different countries, that his ancestry presents a unique challenge to me. The majority of my ancestors have been in New England since the Mayflower and Great Migration. There is a branch from Virginia and North Carolina in the 1600s and 1700s that ultimately sort of folded into my New England ancestors, and then my few recent immigrant ancestors are from England, Ireland, and Italy. All very familiar territory for me. My ex-husband’s ancestors are also mostly Great Migration New Englanders, as well as settlers in New Brunswick and Quebec. I know my way around New England and Canada fairly well, genealogically-speaking.
My husband’s ancestors are from Ireland, Quebec, and there are two or three lines that were in the U.S. by at least the 1700s, that went west from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Other than that, I’m looking at countries I’ve never had to work with: Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, and Switzerland. Working on each line is challenging, because none of them are well-documented, except the ones from Quebec. DNA is a helpful tool here. Many of my husband’s matches still reside in Norway, Finland, and other European countries.
I’m also looking at both of our mtDNA lines. My ex-husband’s mtDNA line was super easy to trace. He’s an A2 and we were able to document him back to the daughter of Chief Madokawando, who’d married Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Castin. Many of my ex-husband’s mtDNA matches with a genetic distance of zero (15 matches) also descend from this couple.
My mtDNA haplogroup is H1aj1 and that’s the one I’m most interested in exploring right now. I have only 2 matches with a zero genetic distance, however. One is my maternal uncle, so clearly we know which ancestor we share – my nana/his mother. However, we have another match, born in Sicily. As this is the Italian side of my family, I’m hoping to pinpoint how the other match is related to us. Recently, I dedicated many nights to working on our match’s maternal family to see if it might give me clues about mine. The most recent maternal ancestor I can name is my 4th great-grandmother, Angela Giusto, probably born in Cogoleto, and definitely died between 1842 (when my 3rd great-grandmother was born) and 1865 (when Angela’s husband, my 4th great-grandfather, Tomaso Pedemonte, remarried in Cogoleto). Since records for Cogoleto during this time frame aren’t available online yet, I need to be patient.
Working on my match’s family was quite interesting, since he had documented 3 maternal generations, and I was able to add 5 more through vital records in the towns of Lascari and Gratteri, in Palermo, Sicily. The interesting thing is my maternal family is from northern Italy, while his entire family is from Sicily, two completely different regions. Will I find our shared maternal ancestor in Sicily? If so, when and why did my family go north? It’s a project I’ll be working on for the foreseeable future. One neat thing of note is that when you click my 23andMe ethnicity results to look at the breakdown for Italy, it does show Sicily as one of the regions. Sooo, who knows?
Finally, I ordered my husband’s full sequence mitochondrial DNA test and that result came last week. He is haplogroup V11. He has fewer matches at a genetic distance of zero than my ex-husband does, but many more than I do, with 8 matches. I think there’s a good chance that at least a couple of them will make a good basis for comparison as far as finding out more about my husband’s maternal lineage. I’m specifically focusing on the Scandinavian matches or those with most distant ancestors with Scandinavian names, since that’s where I’m sure we’ll find a connection.
The most distant maternal ancestor I have for my husband is his 3rd great-grandmother, Maria Ursula Taescher, born about 1853, maybe in Switzerland. She married Emil Anton Ospelt on 6 November 1876 in Liechtenstein, and they emigrated to the United States. They were in Dubuque, Iowa for some time before moving to Washington County, Oregon, where she died on May 9, 1930. I don’t have the names of Emil’s or Maria’s parents, and don’t know if their death certificates will yield that information, so I’m starting there (I placed my request this weekend), and will work my way back.
I might try to work on a more in-depth post about working with mtDNA in the future. For now, though, the rest of spring will probably be a flurry of activity. We have an awards night at the high school for fine arts students, so I’ll be attending that, followed the next night by my son’s last concert in guitar and choir. And then there will be graduation. Meanwhile, my daughter is supposed to start softball this year. We signed up last year, but it was a wash due to Covid. However, my husband, son, and I are all vaccinated, and my daughter is eager to play. We’re all hoping for a kid-safe vaccine soon!
Well, that’s the news from here. I wish it was happier, but I’m grateful for the years I had with my aunt and my Avery.
Ah, the joy of brick walls! Of course, the fun part is smashing them down. Here is one that has plagued me for a long time now:
Esther was the wife of Edward Curtis. She was born about 1748. She married Edward about 1780.
Edward was born 4 May 1736 in Dudley, Worcester County, Massachusetts to Francis Curtis and Bethia Robinson. He was married 2 times prior – first to Lucy Chamberlin in 1770 in Dudley. Their son, Edward, was born in Dudley in 1771. Lucy’s date and place of death are not known.
He was then married to a woman named Thankful, approximately around 1775. Their children were born in Monson, MA – a son, Francis in 1777, and a daughter, Thankful in 1779. The wife Thankful might have died around 1779 or so.
Then there is Esther, my ancestor. They possibly married around 1780, and my best guess is Monson, MA, as their children were born there as follows:
1. Lucy, b. 1782, married Smith Arnold in 1801 in Dudley, died 1856 in Belchertown, her death record gives no information about her parents;
2. Penuel, b. 1784, married Esther Pierce in 1809 in Hopkinton, died after 1820 census (he had 3 children at least – a son Davis, born 1810 in Dudley, and another male and female child based on the 1820 census), I would like to find a death record for him;
3. Esther May, born 1786 in Monson, married John Stone in 1810 in Dudley, had many children (my ancestor is a daughter, Sarah Emerson Stone), and died in 1860, place of death unknown. She is buried in Thompson, Connecticut.
Lucy’s death record does not give a place of birth for her mother; I can’t find Penuel after 1820, though I have tried; and I requested Esther May (Curtis) Stone’s death certificate from the town of Thompson, but they did not record her death in Thompson.
I’ve looked at different factors, like the names Penuel and Davis both being unusual first names, and perhaps working as last names; also, the granddaughter Sarah Emerson Stone – Emerson tends to be a last name. Since there are no Emersons on the father’s side, I wonder if there is on the mother’s side.
I’ve considered Esther as an Esther Penuel (Pennel, Pennell, Penel, etc.), an Esther Davis, and an Esther Emerson. However, searches through microfilms have left me empty-handed. At this point, I think only DNA can answer the question, and the most likely matches have led me to the possibility of Esther being a descendant or cousin of either John Short (1725-1800) and Zerviah Utter (1729-1762) or Joseph Burrell (1728) and Hannah Bennett.
You log in to your various DNA tests to see what’s shaking, and see something exciting: a new close relative match! It’s not a name you recognize, but that makes the new match that much more exciting, yes? So you send out the message you have used time and again with new or particularly intriguing matches:
We are a DNA match through my mother’s (or father’s) side. It looks like we share many cousins I’ve been able to identify as sharing my ancestors, (great-grandfather) and (great-grandmother), from (town), Massachusetts. Are those names familiar to you?
I am also from Massachusetts, but now reside in Nebraska. I love connecting with new cousins and sharing family history. You can reach me via Ancestry or email at (email address). I hope to hear from you!
Sincerely, Wendy Callahan
A sample of the short, but informative message I like to send new matches.
You wait eagerly for a response but, when you receive it, find it’s not nearly as enthusiastic as the ones you normally receive.
“I’m confused,” they may say. “I thought I knew everyone in my family. I took this test and the results aren’t at all what I expected.”
Many of us have been there and a little bit of detective work has led us to what happened, as far as this person’s test: a person they thought of as their biological parent or grandparent wasn’t.
In particularly sensitive situations, it’s a matter of non-paternity being “outed” by the test. What’s a genealogist to do in this situation?
Based on my experience and what I’ve seen with others, I recommend radical empathy. This is the process of striving to understand and share another person’s feelings.
And while this is all well and good, your mileage may vary. Not everyone responds well and part of radical empathy is accepting whatever response you receive, with the understanding that this new cousin is going through something difficult and unexpected.
In my case, it turns out my father has a first cousin whose paternity was not what they expected. This match was confused by the relationship to my father, my sister, and I, as well as a lack of a particular ethnicity in their results. Based on the information made available about the person they believed was their father and compared to our ethnicity results, it was easy to see why they were confused.
I reached out to certain family members and did some other legwork to solve the mystery of how this person was a first cousin to my dad. It quickly became obvious who among my known paternal family was this person’s parent.
However, the match did not ask for this information, so I did not supply it to them.
In fact, the match stopped talking to me and I accepted this as that person not wanting any information, and furthermore put my energy into understanding why they would feel this way, instead of focusing on my disappointment that they didn’t want contact. The one thing I provided without being asked was medical information about a potentially hereditary disease. That in and of itself confirmed the paternal connection between us both, based on their last response to me.
Accepting that this person didn’t want to continue communication was difficult, but important. This wasn’t about me, but about them. I had to put my feelings aside and put theirs first. I made sure to also let them know that if and when they were ready to talk, I would be here waiting for them. I gave them my phone number and email address and left it at that.
When a DNA match doesn’t want to continue contact, it might be difficult, but try to prioritize their feelings over yours. Even if both of you are processing an unexpected revelation in biological relationships, your way of dealing with it might be different than theirs. As genealogists, we are generally open to these kinds of discoveries. We know – or ought to know! – what we’re possibly getting into with a DNA test.
But not everyone does. So, I believe it is our duty to guide them through those potential hereditary minefields with patience and sensitivity. Let’s be not just genealogists who get excited about new relatives, but also people who care about what our fellow humans are going through in their own discovery process.