Answering the door bell some six years ago now I opened the door to a triad of conspirators. They stood huddled in the entry looking both mischievous and mysterious. They held an unadorned cardboard box as if it contained religious relics. The visit from my three sisters was unexpected and their enigmatic smiles left little doubt they were up to something. The size of the box could have held a pressure cooker, a giant geode, or possibly fossilized poop from a Triceratops. What I found in the box were long held treasures collected from their separate homes. Sepia colored pictures, old love letters, a receipt for the twenty five dollar down payment on the home we grew up in, newspaper articles on the plane crash that killed our father, and letters sent to our mother from San Diego, Japan, Alaska and Hawaii, all from our brother after my mother shanghaied him at age 17 and signed him up with the Navy, hoping this would straighten him out.
Our brother Dale lived another 60 reputable years after the shanghaiing. His ashes have been distributed to the remaining siblings by his widow in small festive envelopes. Mine came in a 7” by 7” envelope with silver Christmas wrapping tied with a lacy black ribbon and adorned with a hand made delicate metallic gold bow. The attached note from Bess said “Dan, I know your heart will know what to do with Dale’s ashes”. I didn’t actually at the time but I do now.
I think my sister Ruth has mistakenly mixed the ashes of our mother and her deceased husband Richard in an urn atop her mantle. Mixing ashes of loved ones seems somehow fitting. Some remnant of Dale may find its way to that communal urn. I would like some of mine added at some later date.
I know his passing is what prompts my sisters to show up at my door, hundreds of miles from their homes. To pass these valued bits of nostalgia into my care must have been hard knowing my lifetime inability to focus on any one thing. Sensing we will be joining our brother in the genealogical records as a footnote, they are hoping, fantasizing maybe, that I will sort out the accumulated nostalgia into something some bored to tears descendant will pull out of some attic recess in the future, and spend an hour or two reminiscing, while the rain pours down and the accompanying electrical storm disrupts facebook, so why not go to the attic and see what curious things ancestors wrote on real paper from real trees.
They will be disappointed, as will I. I am not an organized person and have trouble collecting my own thoughts, let alone synthesizing information into something readable. I am not much interested in doing the leg work it takes to be really good at genealogical research. I get excited when I find little notes or poems that give clues to what went on in the daily lives of deceased family members. Unfortunately few of the people in the box my sisters gift me with were writers. The most prolific and talented is our mother. Her writings in the box include early correspondence she had with Leonard while he was in the Civil Air Patrol in Kansas, the religious articles on faith and miracles she wrote for “Stepping Stones” a publication of The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”, and a humorous account of her first solo flight when she was qualifying for her pilot’s license.
After sifting through the box carefully, as if I was looking for small bones to reassemble a small pre-historic bird skeleton I find only a fragment here and there to suggest a wing or a leg. It’s like trying to assemble a 500 piece puzzle with 400 pieces missing. There will never be enough information to assemble an accurate or complete representation of any of the ancestors. There are no diaries, no lengthy accounts of daily living. They were all too busy living. What I find primarily after the contents of the box are examined are questions.
I find a little handwritten note written by my mother that says “Charlotte Sara Block, my grandmother” She is one of thirteen children, fourteen by another account, sired by a Rabbi who owned a jewelry shop in St. Louis. That’s all the information I can find in the box on my mother’s maternal grandfather. He is a German-Jew, whose name was probably spelled Bloch, and how and when he came to America is a question mark.
I find more information on my mother’s paternal grandfather than anyone else, Albert Anatole Alberti. I decide to start with him since he was such a colorful character.
According to him he had seven names, not as many as Pablo Picasso whose full name was Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, names that honored his mother’s lineage. It would have been a lot easier to trace Albert’s parentage if he were Spanish, but I can find only a slender trace of his mother, at one place she is Sinea and on his naturalization papers it is spelled Sienna, like the Italian City. For Albert’s actual name I find someone has added an A making it Alberta, another place I find Alexander replacing Anatole as his middle name. That would make it Albert Anatole Alexander Alberti. I find nothing about the other three missing names but I’m guessing they started with A since the two of his three sisters I find names for are Assontina and Antonina. Even these names are in question because I find a page of copy paper where my mother has tried to diagram a family tree with lines and arrows. She has written in the upper left hand corner Count and Countess with three arrows. One to her grand father Albert Alexander Alberti, not Albert Anatole Alberti, like I find in other places and other arrows pointing to “3 girls Nazis took over and she has marked out the second two letters of Antoninas. Then she has another arrow pointing to another scratched out name I can only read through the scratches, Antonina again. Then she has”died in husbands Atoninas arms of dysentery”. You see what I’m up against with descending and ascending arrows pointing higgledy piggledy in every direction.
A blurred and faded note indicates the three sisters died during the time the Nazi’s took over in the beginnings of the Second World War when Italy was still an ally of Germany and the Fascist Mussolini was dictator. Not knowing whether they were older or younger than Albert, it seems probable they would have died in this time period since Albert passed away in 1940 at the age of 85. Whether they died of old age or at the hands of the Nazi’s or from some disease like dysentery we may never know.
Albert fills in the name Joseph for his father and Siena for his mother on his naturalization application in 1900 at the Kansas City, Missouri District Court at the age or 45. He’s been in the United States for countless years and never set foot on Ellis Island. He slipped into the country without papers. I can find nothing on the internet or in a search of the vaults of Granite Mountain outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. The good news is that the Mormons add additional records each year equivalent to the data in the Library of Congress. The Mormon Church has built a super secure site to store extensive genealogical records 700 feet deep into the mountain, able to withstand a nuclear blast. Those considered heathens may not be high on the priority list of the Mormons although a lot of church members want to trace their lineage wherever it leads.. Even though my mother was Episcopalian, she married a Latter Day Saint, albeit the reorganized branch of the Salt Lake City church. Many relatives of church members not baptized while alive are ceremonially baptized posthumously in one of the ever increasing worldwide temple baptismal fonts. I doubt many Alberti’s have been baptized by proxy in the spectacular fonts the Mormons use to christen the dead. Still, I’m a little surprised not to find something in the mountain vault on Albert. Albert snuck into this country without papers; maybe he can finagle a way into heaven without this baptism benefit provided to members of the Mormon Church.
When Albert lists his birthplace he writes Pienza, Italy, a picturesque Italian hill town in the Province of Siena in Tuscany. The town was reconstructed by Pope Pius as a renaissance showpiece in the fourteenth century.
When giving biographical information for a newspaper article Albert lists his birthplace as Florence. His second wife Laura would forward family letters form Italy to my mother, only after retaining or destroying the envelope or deleting the address of the writer.
Supposedly there was an estate somewhere in Tuscany that my great grandfather could have taken over but he tells my mother he values his American citizenship over anything Italian. Albert tells my mother outright that it’s a lovely estate. Everything in Tuscany is lovely, even the old buildings that are showing wear.
If, indeed there actually was an estate, a small castle, or a vineyard in the middle of Tuscany that her husband might inherit one day, Laura might have wanted to limit the possible interlopers. There’s a lot more to this real or imagined estate that will never be found inside this box. Possibly it was in financial trouble as many of the Italian estates were after Italian unification and the subsequent demise of the nobility when serfdom was banned. Possibly the estate didn’t exist at all -but I expect it did. One rainy day one of the Alberti offspring reading this in the attic during that electrical storm, , the one who has made his or her fortune with a new internet app, will take a limo to the airport, board his or her Lear jet, and using his or her upgraded smart phone translation app, connect the dots and fill in the missing pieces that are not in this box.
Albert’s tendency to substitute fiction for fact undermines the whole process of trying to nail down the real story of his life. Maybe he wanted it that way. Possibly there were some things in his past he was ashamed of. Episodes beyond the scandal that caused him to set the alarm to three a.m. and drive to the docks on Main where the Kansas City Star was being distributed to carriers, and attempt to buy out the entire morning edition. There’s probably a good story left in Italy, perhaps some disgrace that left the estate in ruin and bankruptcy. He benefits from anonymity by re-inventing his past. When he spins a few good whoppers to my mother he may be polishing his resume or maybe just entertaining his grand daughter with what she wants to hear. He was never President of Metropolitan Life Insurance like he tells her, but he did rise to Superintendent, which was a big deal for an Italian American at the time. He was Chief Engineer for six months with Atcheson Railroad in New Mexico until they found out he had no experience at all in civil engineering. He puts a humorous spin on this story at his retirement banquet at a swanky five star hotel in Wilmington Delaware, and has all the guests laughing, including the mayor and several of the richest Du Ponts on the planet. Maybe the reason the Atcheson railroad was never able to reach Santa Fe was not just the difficult terrain. Albert has a boat load of character flaws but he is educated, motivated, industrious, fluent in five or six languages (he tells my mother 17) and pulls himself up by his Italian made boot straps and a bit of creative hyperbole.
Puzzling out Albert’s birthplace, employment records indicate he was born in Galuzzo, which is a little village or suburb in the southern quadrant of Florence. Why he put Pienza on his naturalization records is, and will probably remain, a mystery. Maybe there was a reason he wanted to hide his actual birthplace, but all we can do is guess.
He tells mother he was placed in a monastery at the age of three. This was a common practice of the nobility to educate their male children, which is what he tells my mother. Second guessing Albert has become routine so it could have been because the family fell on hard times. Many of the estates collapsed around the time of Albert’s birth in 1855. At that time Italy was undergoing unification and serfdom was essentially outlawed. It turned out to be a hardship for both the serfs and the nobility. Another possibility, just saying, is that Albert could have been illegitimate which would explain the dearth of information about his parents. See where all this guessing leads, to more questions. A less likely possibility is Joseph and Sienna (or Sinea) thought Albert might find a pathway to becoming a cleric or bishop.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK