Sunday, January 6, 2013

Can I share memories of ancestors?

In my reading about genealogy in general and my interviews with cousins, some recurring themes keep popping up. Many people report feeling a strong connection to their past, stating that they feel extremely “at home” when they visit their country of origin, even though they have never been there before. Some report a strong sense of déjà vu when they visit the villages of their ancestors.

I recently visited with cousin Donald Spadoni of Seattle, and he experienced this during his three trips to Italy. His feelings intensified the closer he came to his ancestors’ home ground.

“It was the damndest feeling,” he said. “If you’d have asked me if I’d been there before, I would have said yes. I felt like I’d lived there. I was like I’d walked into my home, where I belonged. I just had this feeling that I fit in.”

Actor and author Isaiah Washington, in his book “A Man from Another Land,” describes how he had a recurring dream since childhood of walking a certain path through a green jungle and ending up in an African village. He had it so often that he called it his “rerun.” As an adult, he underwent DNA testing which determined he shared 99.9 percent ancestry with the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone on his maternal side. Prompted by this discovery, he took a trip to Sierra Leone, and while there, he found himself walking along a path just like the one in his dreams.

This experience led him to believe that the scene he dreamed about had been passed on to him genetically through his mother’s DNA. He sought out the opinion of a prominent neurosurgeon, Dr. Keith Black, whose opinion confirmed Washington’s belief that genetic memories were possible.

This led me to an Internet search of the topic, where I found, as one might suspect, widely varying views. Few of the opinions, however, are based on scientific evidence—mainly because Washington’s belief is untestable. All evidence is basically anecdotal. Even those who strongly disagree that memories can be passed on genetically offered no real evidence other than generalities such as “it is not scientifically possible for DNA to transmit memories.”

Researchers have observed that elephants seem to
be able to find watering holes accessed by their ancestors
without ever having been there. Is this a genetic memory
or random chance, or can elephants perhaps smell water?
In all the discussions and research cited, no one denies that animals have instincts that could be classified as genetic memory. Anyone who has watched a few documentaries on the Nature channel can attest to the amazing instincts of even the lowest life forms. Humans, however, seem to have fewer and weaker instincts than less complex species. Grasp, suck and startle reflexes are commonly cited as examples of human instincts, as is an aversion to heights. However, this is a long way from accepting that I can recall actual images from the past lives of my ancestors.

Count me a skeptic on both sides of the argument. So little is known about how the brain and DNA actually work that I can’t discount the possibility of genetic memories, but I also know that proving something from anecdotal accounts alone is a slippery path. I doubt that any evidence gathered in my lifetime will settle this question, so I will keep an open mind. Granted, it is an interesting topic to study and ponder.

It is true that I feel comfortable and at home in Italy, and I have a definite fondness for the culture. I honestly don’t have a clue if this is because of environmental or inherited reasons, and in the end the reason is not really very important to me. In the meantime, I will likely keep visiting Italy and exploring its culture and history and my ancestry until the day I die—and for some reason enjoy every moment of it.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Lost cousin Donald Spadoni had strong ties to his grandfather

In the past five years, I have become the unofficial genealogist for the Gig Harbor Spadoni and Seghieri families. While living in Italy this spring, my research uncovered the lost connection between the Gig Harbor and Seattle Spadoni families. But what should be done with this knowledge? I posted the story on my blog, and I contacted a couple of my Seattle Spadoni Facebook friends, but since I have never actually met a Seattle Spadoni, I have been uncertain what else I should do to make this information more widely known.

I do know that a member of the Seattle family who has a passion for family history is Donald Spadoni, owner of Huckleberry Square restaurant in Burien. I had a long and pleasant phone conversation with him in 2009, and we were confident that our families must be connected in some way. Our grandparents were both named Michele, and both Americanized their names to Michael or Mike. Gig Harbor Michael came to the states in 1903 and settled in Gig Harbor in 1914. Seattle Michael came to the states in 1905 and made his way to Seattle not long thereafter. My recent research in Italy reveals that they were third cousins, having the same great grandfather.

Between the conversation I had with Don in 2009 and the summer of 2012, we had no contact. Don rarely uses e-mail, though his wife has an account. I had tried sending him messages to the address he gave me but never received a reply. I tried sending him a snail-mail letter in care of Huckleberry Square and still didn’t hear back. I commented this summer to cousin Greg Spadoni that I don’t know if Donald has heard about my Spadoni family research, and I explained my difficulties in contacting Donald.

About a week later, Greg gave me a call and said, “You want to go with me to meet Donald Spadoni?” Greg has been to Don’s restaurant several times, and Don would come sit with him and talk Spadoni family lore, so Greg called Donald up and told him that Paul Spadoni has found a connection between the two families. “Why that little shit; he never told me,” Don reportedly replied. However, it turned out that Donald thought he was talking about his Seattle first cousin Paul M. Spadoni rather than me, Paul R. Spadoni, his fifth cousin.

Sure, I want to go, I told Greg, so one Saturday morning in August, Greg, Lucy and I, along with a friend of Greg’s, had lunch at Don’s restaurant. The restaurant staff said that Don always came in Saturday around noon, so we would surely see him. We took a seat at a table, placed our orders and told the waitress to tell Don to come see us when he came in. Just as we finished ordering our dessert, Donald walked up and joined our table, and we spent an hour of non-stop conversation about our experiences growing up as Italian-Americans, our trips to Italy and our families. I followed this up with a second visit yesterday because I became so absorbed in the first conversation that I neglected to take notes.
Greg, Don and Paul Spadoni at Huckleberry Square restaurant in Burien, Washington, August 2012.

Similar to my recent first encounter with a cousin on the Seghieri side of my family, I found myself slightly envious of Don Spadoni, who told me of a childhood rich in experiences of Italian culture. Prior to Don’s birth, his nonno Michael had moved into the house of Don’s father Enrico, and Don shared not only his bedroom but also his bed with his nonno, whom he referred to as Papa.

“I thought he was my father,” Don said. “He took me everywhere. He was my best friend.” Michael spoke half Italian and half English, and growing up under his nonno’s tutelage, Don wasn’t always sure which language they were speaking. In addition, Don picked up his grandfather’s Italian trait of walking with his hands folded behind his back.

“When I started going to school, the other kids wondered what was wrong with me because I walked like an old man,” Don said. He also encountered some trouble because Michael shared his passion for wine with his grandson.

Michele Spadoni, left, with his brother Pietro in Seattle.
“He took me down to the public market to buy grapes, and then we went back home and made wine,” Don said. “I’m not yet 4 years old and I’m making wine on a regular basis. And we would sample it together. My parents didn’t approve of this, but Papa would say, ‘Your mother doesn’t need to know about this.’ One time I came upstairs and was acting a little silly, and Mom found out I had been drinking wine. She sent me to bed without dinner, but my grandfather came down later with a plate of food he had hidden away.”

After this mixed message, Donald apparently hadn’t fully comprehended that American kids aren’t supposed to drink wine. He often packed his own lunches, and he told me that in the second grade, he thought to himself, “Why should I be drinking water at lunch or paying a nickel for milk when I have all this wine down in the basement?” He loaded his Thermos with vino and went off to school.

“So I’m eating my lunch and drinking my wine, and the teacher smells something funny and asks what I’m drinking. I’m drinking wine, I say, and she’s shocked! You can’t drink wine, she tells me. I say, ‘Well, you charge me a nickel for a milk. Why can’t I drink this? It’s good and it’s free.’ She sent me to the office, and we went through the same questions and answers, so they called my dad and he had to come pick me up.

“They asked my dad if he knew I was drinking wine at school. He said no, but then he also said he wasn’t surprised. I didn’t really get in trouble, but they made it clear I wasn’t to take wine to school ever again.”

While the Gig Harbor Michael had seven children, the Seattle Michael had only three children (a fourth did not survive childbirth). However, the Seattle family stepped up the pace in the next generation., Enrico—known as Henry—had 10 children, and Alberto—known as Charlie— had 12. Angelo Giovanni “Red” Spadoni had three children, bringing the total first cousins to 25. Thirteen of these were male, so quite a few people with the Spadoni name now live in the Seattle area. Don reported that the Seattle Spadonis are nearly all contributing and upstanding members of local society and that Michael would be proud of his grandchildren and great grandchildren. One is a neuroscientist, another is an attorney, one is an engineer and a number of others manage businesses. 

“Most of them have been ambitious and hard working,” Don said. “Everybody pushed their children to succeed. They learned to go out and make their own way. My father told me, ‘Italian tanks have no back-up lights,’ meaning they just charge ahead.”

Well, there was one cousin who was a courier and absconded with some gold and diamonds, but no one has a perfect family. Don himself is one of the more well-known Spadonis because his restaurant is quite popular and has been the topic of some newspaper feature articles.

Both Don and I grew up with a strong sense of pride in our Italian heritage. “I got that from my grandparents,” he said. “They taught me that if you were Italian, you had culture, you had dignity. I had something that most people didn’t have. I still feel more Italian than American.”

He understands that some people looked down on Italian immigrants, but he chalks that up to blind prejudice. “I felt that the people who looked down on us were just ignorant,” he said.

Don is also aware of a dark side to the Italian culture. When one of his Italian neighbors died, his dad paid for and organized the funeral because the man had been a good family friend. Some Chicago relatives of the deceased showed up for the funeral with fancy cars and suits, along with gun-toting bodyguards. They told Don’s dad they would pay for the funeral and tried to give him money, but he refused to take it.

“When they left the house and Mom started cleaning up, she found hundred dollar bills stashed under ashtrays and into corners,” Don said. “Dad wanted to send it back. He said it wasn’t our money, but Mom said it was now, because they left it behind for us. They argued about this for a while, but Mom won and we eventually kept the money.”

Don was only about 4 when his grandfather died, and he was devastated. Before Michael left home for the hospital, he told Don he wouldn’t be coming back, but Don had no idea what this meant. When the family went to visit Michael in the hospital, he had died—but nobody wanted to tell Don what had happened. “Dad just said, ‘We have to go home now’ and rushed us out of the hospital,” Don explained.

When Don saw his grandfather in an open casket at the funeral, he didn’t realize Michael was dead, and he walked up front and grabbed his nonno by the arm and said, “Let’s go, Papa.” Naturally, this disrupted the service, and in the commotion that followed, poor Don fled out of the church and just kept running. No one found him until much later in the day, and he was so upset, he said, “I stopped talking for about a year. I was just so angry. I could not comprehend death. I didn’t know people died. There was just no concept in my mind yet.”

Don’s voice breaks as he tells this story, and I find it difficult to speak as well. “My life would have been so different if he had lived,” Don said. Still, he knows he is fortunate to have had this time of closeness with his grandfather. My own nonno died when I was 6, but he lived in Shore Acres and I in Rosedale, about 15 minutes apart. I only saw him each Christmas Eve, and my only memory is sitting in his lap briefly by his Christmas tree. 

Now I have five grandchildren of my own. I can’t go back in time and talk to my nonno, but I can use my sadness for this missed relationship as a motivation to make sure I don’t miss out on being an influence on my own children and grandchildren. And I hope that our nonni can somehow still observe our lives and feel a sense of accomplishment for what their nipoti have done and become.