My brother-in-law John rented an apartment in September in the town of Giulianova near Pescara on the Adriatic coast of central Italy — the vicinity of his family’s paternal grandparents’ birthplace.
While there, he and my husband Jim’s sister, Janet, and her husband Russ rendezvoused for several days, hoping to find records of their grandparents’ births.
Years ago their own father had mentioned the family name may have originally been “Marano.” The nearest city to the Ciarino region where they knew their grandparents were from is Tossicia. So the three of them set out walking around the neighborhoods of Toccicia trying to figure out who to talk to find some Maranos.
In one neighborhood a young fellow told them, “Talk to the butcher. He knows everybody.” The butcher shop was closed. They talked to a bartender in a cafe who directed them to a village about a kilometer away where he said there were lots of Maranos.
As John tells it, it’s around 2 p.m. — siesta time — and everybody’s asleep. Then Janet hears a woman in her kitchen on the second floor. Janet takes a chance and calls out “Ciao! Buon Giorno!” The woman pokes her head out the window and as they try to explain in halted Italian what they’re looking for, the woman runs to get the girl next door who knows a little English who, in turn, runs to get this guy, Kevin, from England, living nearby. Kevin tells them to go the “commune” in Tossicia where all the region’s birth records would be.
That same day they meet the city’s administrator, Sylvana, who shows them the register containing their grandfather’s birth record dating back to 1885, written in flourishing script in a huge tattered and frayed leather-bound book.
It was then that they discovered their grandfather’s name at birth was Ernesto Marano, not Marino.
Their great-grandfather, Gianbattiste Marano, was on record as having signed the birth certificate. (John, Janet, Jim and brother Joe’s father was named John Baptist after his grandfather, and Jim’s middle name is Ernest after his own grandfather.)
The moment was videotaped and sent to the family via WhatsApp with John speaking with Sylvana in Italian and him declaring, “We are officially Maranos!” followed by Salvana exclaiming, “Bellisima!”
It was touching, as if the American relatives finally met the Italian relatives.
Of course, millions of names were changed as immigrants were naturalized, either on ships’ manifests, officials mishearing or misspelling surnames at Ellis Island, or immigrants “Americanizing” their names to better assimilate to American culture. (Although they believe their grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Canada.)
Still, it’s surprising, exciting and maybe just a little unsettling to know that the Marino name the family has identified with for generations is an alias of sorts. But to my knowledge, no one’s decided to change the spelling of their name back to Marano.
The Marino family contingent also found the birth record of their paternal grandmother, who was born in the same region. Their Aunt Carmella “Carm” (their dad’s sister) was named after Maria Carmella.
They also researched their mother’s side of the family. A random Google Earth search produced their mother’s maiden name, Tatonetti, on a street sign in Pescara. Janet was named after her mother’s mother, Gianina.
They found Via Tatonetti and snapped a picture of themselves standing beneath the street sign bearing their mother’s name just blocks away from where a cousin of Mom’s had once lived. Their adventure was — at least for me who later sat in on a conference call with all four siblings talking about their ancestors — delightful, even if a bit confusing. I guess you had to be there … and I wish Jim and I could have been.
John said if Janet hadn’t called out “Ciao!” to that upstairs window they may never have found out anything.
During their visit, a flurry of photos from their wanderings through the small villages of the “Old Country” were sent via WhatsApp to a long list of relatives, in-laws and friends.
John only wished he had explored the same ancestral threads 19 years earlier when he’d traveled to Italy with his parents, because they spoke fluent Italian and could have uncovered even more of the family tree.
I watched this heartwarming bit of Marino/Marano history unfold over time and I know my husband and his siblings feel closer now to their Italian ancestors than they ever have before.
That one can go to their grandparents’ home country, walk the streets they walked, and experience the people and places in the villages where they lived is a gift — the gift of coming home.
Community Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or email@example.com.