Peter Leo: Uneducated grandfather knew a great deal about where to take his family

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After retirement, I got into researching my past, probably because my parents, long gone now, didn't believe much in looking back.

Their instinct was to throw off their ethnic roots, marry out of their tribes (Irish and Italian) and run as fast as they could from their New Jersey factory towns to middle-class suburbia where they would raise five kids.

It's a lot easier for the next generation to look back, though. Thanks mostly to Ancestry.com, I turned up some surprising details that had a big emotional impact.

This was particularly true for my mother's side, long shrouded in mystery.

Her parents emigrated from impoverished southern Italy around 1900 and came together in an arranged marriage that was not a happy one. While my mother's all-consuming drive was to become American, her parents, like many Italians of that time, were reluctant assimilators.

This point was brought home by the 1940 Census. It revealed that my grandparents -- then in their 60s and residents for some 40 years -- never became American citizens! They lived among their own in what was essentially a Jersey re-creation of a Calabrian village, exotic to me with fig trees, small farm animals and homemade wine. They couldn't read or write and spoke only shards of broken English.

While they viewed English as an unfortunate necessity for their children, they drew the line at my mom going to high school. But, with help from a teacher, she found a way. Later, she became a teacher herself. Because my mother made a point of dropping her Italian, I took it up in retirement.

Her parents were understandably the heavies in my mother's childhood narrative, but my grandfather's draft records made me feel some sympathy for Nicholas Trincellita. Nick was a round little man who lugged around bricks for a living ("hod carrier," to the census). His true personality was locked away in a foreign tongue, but he seemed quiet and long-suffering.

Through much Googling, I found his 1898 enlistment record from Cosenza province in Calabria. It confirmed our understanding that the poor guy was born to an unwed mother in 1878. (His truculent wife was known to taunt him with "bastardo" during arguments.)

The document listed his name as, not Trincellita, but Truncellito. This was news, though we'd been told that Trincellita was not a known Italian surname. Why the change or when, we do not know.

His American draft records were revealing in a different way. His World War I card confirmed his birthplace: Nocara, Calabria, then and now full of Truncellitos, I would discover.

But it was the "signature" that got to me. The card is signed with an "X." I then called up his World War II card. (All men 64 and under were required to register.) Nick, then 63, must have been determined to take a shot. But in a childish scrawl, he misspells his own name.

For the first time, I fully absorbed what it meant that he never came anywhere close to a way of life I had taken for granted from birth. Yet we weren't so distant in time. The year of that draft record was 1942. I was born in 1943. I sat there thinking about what literacy has meant to me, and not only the richness and ease it brings to everyday living; it gave me a career as a writer.

Of course, I had known he was illiterate. But it's one thing to know something in the abstract; it's quite another to see graphic evidence, his touching attempt, his heart-breaking failure.

Who knew that dry bureaucratic documents could be so moving? And what did I have to do with grandparents I barely knew? Quite a bit, it turns out, if only for their desperate trip across the ocean.

Thanks to some poor peasants with cramped, hard lives and my father and mother, who endured cold, spare upbringings and recognized a land of opportunity when they saw one, I got to grow up in comfort and freedom in an extraordinary country.

Much to be grateful for. I wish I could thank them in person. I could even do it in Italian. Vi ringrazio tanto!

Peter Leo of Squirrel Hill, a retired Post-Gazette columnist and occasional Portfolio contributor, can be reached at peterleo11@comcast.net.


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