Last week, I received a newspaper assignment that sent me digging into my mafia heritage.
Which wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds, but was still pretty interesting nonetheless.
My editor wanted an up-close-and-personal look into the activities of the Genealogical Society Library. This worried my daughter, since I announced that she’d be accompanying me on the investigation, and she didn’t think genealogical research held much in the way of promise either for her morning or my story.
I took this as a good sign, as most of my best stories begin this way. There’s some kind of ironic inverse relationship between the perceived potential of a lead and the story that results. I’ve come to take it as a challenge—the less I have to work with, the better. Often in these situations, the expectations are low, which gives me the freedom to find my own angle and surprise everyone—especially myself—with what my editor calls a “good read.”
I decided that the most interesting way for me to approach the story would be to test the capabilities of the library’s computer data bases by doing a little background check on the Italian side of my family.
Now, I knew there were some, shall we say, associations between my great grandfather and some gentlemen I’d heard referenced as “Italian businessmen.” There was also the specter of “Uncle Icy” that has long loomed in the backdrop of family lore. The stories most commonly connect him with some sort of hijinks involving large amounts of cash stashed behind a loose brick in the fireplace.
But I must say even I must that even I was surprised by the ease at which a clear, crisp portrait of Mafioso developed like an old school Polaroid right before my very eyes.
According to 1930 census records, “The Family” apparently resided in several improbably assessed pieces of real estate in New Jersey, the highest price tag undoubtedly belonging to a property that's always been referenced as “the castle.”
During a time in which the rest of the Patterson county, NJ residents were paying rents of, say, $25 to $35 per month, my clan owned real estate valued well into the 5-digit bracket.
There were the familiar names of my grandfather and his siblings listed on the 1930 report, but beneath their names appeared a mysterious other head-of-household with whom I share a name….not my generically American married name, but my real, thoroughly Italian family name.
By all accounts, the man listed as the head of this other household was my pseudo-apocryphal Uncle Icy. The Genealogical Research staff may or may not have located a photograph of Icy. If the photo was, indeed, Uncle Icy, then it my duty to report that Icy was, well, hot.
All of which I find rather alarming, because the actual identity of Uncle Icy has always been shrouded in an air of mystery, not unlike the fabled “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame,-- although I doubt my peers will recall that historical entity, as the Watergate scandal is just one of the dozens of news stories I was prematurely exposed to in my preschool years.
At this point let me pause to insert a photo of my daughter with a member of the Genealogical Staff:
Note the bored look of disinterest.
“How do you always know I’m going to like your stories?” my daughter lamented in mock chagrin upon leaving the library.
We came home from the visit armed with reams of documents and more stories than we could pack into an entire Genealogical magazine, let only one paltry newspaper article. My husband logged on the home version of the library database we’d used. After a lost night of sleep and a grilled dinner compromised by neglect while he followed a hot lead on a great grandmother, he’s managed to compile an impressive amount of data for our collective family forest.
Meanwhile, with the genelogy feature safely put to bed, I've moved on to a feature story on a 70-year old lady who has been golfing the same course for 55 years. The uneasy panic at the idea of crafting a “good read” based on that scant data really has my juices flowing. I can’t wait to read it.