Growing up I was German/Irish. That was a standard combo on Long Island. Even Robert Duvall in The Godfather says, “I’m German/Irish” to the film producer. The German might be obvious from the name—my great-great grandfather came from Lohr en Main, Germany, in the 1850’s with his three brothers. The Irish is my maternal grandmother. In fact, DNA shows me at 51% Irish (some slipped in from my father’s maternal family as well). But that should have been it. This is simple arithmetic. Mom—Irish. Dad—German and Irish.
But when I was fifty-seven-years old I found out my maternal great-grandfather was Giuseppe Urso, a stonemason from Sicily, and his son, my grandfather, Joe Urso (Pop), owned the Metro Diner in Albany, New York. My mother suspected from her youth that the man she knew and loved as her father was not, in fact, her father. The details aren’t important, but when she was born in 1933 life in Brooklyn had not advanced between the Irish and Italian immigrants. It turns out my very Irish (McCormick) grandmother fell in love with a very Sicilian man in the neighborhood. Apparently, both of their fathers forbid any wedding despite her pregnancy (to be fair no one knows if they yet knew about her pregnancy). This was real—this was a time when marrying someone not from your village was taboo, let alone from enemy territory. So Joe headed to some family friends in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Catherine met and married Ernie—the man my mother knew as her father.
In Florida one day at lunch with my brother, who had done some research online and ended up in contact with someone who popped up on the family tree after all of us had done the DNA thing, he told me about the Urso family, about Giuseppe (Mom’s grandfather) and Joe (her father), about the forbidden romance. I had never heard the name Urso in my life. But serendipitously, that night while standing on the ninth floor of a building at the University of Tampa, I looked out the window to the next building where in huge letters read, “FRANK URSO BUILDING.” No relation, but creepy nonetheless.
Then I found an article about Pop Urso, Metro Diner owner, who had two sons—Joe and Jim, and how Jim took over the family business until the diner closed in the ‘80s. The author of the article was Jim’s nephew, Jack Urso. Then I read Jack’s bio: Jack Urso teaches college English at a community college and has a blog. Nearly identical to my bio. So I wrote him, the first line of my email said, “This is going to be the strangest email you’ve ever received.” He replied with a beautiful letter, and thirty minutes later I received an email from Jack’s sister, Annmarie. We corresponded a lot with pictures and information, all of us amazed at the undeniable resemblance between my mother and their father Joe—Mom’s younger brother by about eight months, and a nearly identical resemblance between Mom and her father, Pop. It seems Pop left Brooklyn and hightailed it to Scranton where he married a woman and had a son just eight months after Mom was born (Joe–Annmarie and Jack’s father). No one knows if Pop knew about the pregnancy. My new cousins told me about “our” grandfather. Then I read Annmarie’s email signature—a college professor at the same SUNY college where one of my dearest friends of four decades works.
So I texted my friend. “Liz, do you know Annmarie Urso?”
“Hey Bob. Yes, of course. How do you know her?”
“She’s my cousin.”
Yes, exactly. WTF?
Eventually when I did meet Annmarie, it was as if we knew each other our entire lives.
Writer John Edgar Wideman wrote in his book Brothers and Keepers that everyone needs two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, then sixteen, then thirty-two, sixty-four, one hundred and twenty-eight. He comments how about two hundred years ago sixty-four men made love to sixty-four women in various places, none of the couples ever meeting at all in their lifetime, all in some grand genetic conspiracy to eventually create you.
I love the stories of ancestry. What did they do for a living? Who excelled, who disappeared, who emigrated and who stayed behind to tend to family matters? We all have our stories, and the fact we are “present” makes our stories less interesting or even relevant much of the time. But one hundred years from now will some young man be looking through old documents to see what I did for a living? What happened to me? Will someone wonder why some of my story is from Long Island and some from the South? What questions will I leave unanswered?
Here’s the answers as they stand now:
I’m 51% Irish, mostly because of my mother but very strongly my father as well as his roots return to Connemara, and that’s where my chart places more than half my blood. I’m 21 percent Italian—specifically, northern Sicilian. If we use the old-fashioned, commonsense method of determination, my ancestry is traced to Ireland (maternal grandfather), Italy (other maternal grandfather), Germany (paternal grandfather), and English/Irish (other paternal grandfather). But under this reasoning my German should be about one quarter or so as well, but it barely makes a reading at 6 percent. In fact, I have more “Jewish People’s of Europe” in me than German, though I have no clue as to what JPE is exactly.
Still, my maternal grandfather owned a diner in Albany, the other a glass company in Brooklyn. Their fathers were a stonemason and a butcher respectively. Those men and their wives left their homes for whatever reason—war, famine, disease, hope—and came here without means of communicating with home except by hand-written letters which could take months each way. No, it was a time when those brave souls left everything well aware they most likely would never be back and never see any of those left behind ever again. We can’t begin to wrap our mind around this concept when we talk several times a day to all living generations no matter where in the world they live.
My parents come from what we commonly call the Greatest Generation, but their parents might be part of what could be named “The Bravest Generation.” The sacrifices they made to ride on a sliver of hope are inconceivable.
Mom has olive skin and hazel eyes, different than her fair-skinned and blue-eyed brothers and sister. The suspicion lasted her entire life, though always deep in the background, and certainly not anything the rest of the family knew, let alone talked about. It was ancient history. Except while growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, kids would point out how she looked different than the rest, and her maternal grandfather, she remembers, did not like her—the Irishman who forbid his daughter from marrying the Italian leaving room to believe they all knew who Mom’s real father was and were not happy about it. Through the years we all joked how Italian she really is—not in some insightful way, but in her lifestyle—her sister-in-law and best friend for many years were both Italian and taught Mom the art of cooking their food. It is ironic now, of course, but somehow quite fateful.
Last week my mother and I were talking about her Sicilian family and how thrilled she is to know the truth about it all thanks to DNA and my brother’s dive into our ancestry. She loves that Annmarie calls her “Aunt Joan” and sends her pictures, and was sad to learn that both her “new” brothers had passed away before she knew this. Annmarie said her father would have been thrilled to know he had a sister. This made Mom both so happy and a bit sad. I said that my new cousin Jack and I joked about writing about it and Mom got excited. “Please do so, at least before I die!” she quipped. “Really, I would love for you to write about it before I am gone.” She’s proud of her new old lineage. We looked together at pictures of her father, Pop, and the uncanny resemblance. I commented on the photo, noting how much she looks like him, and not much at all like her siblings. She asked again to remind her of who’s who in her father’s family. It isn’t age or mental capacity; this is all brand new. “I’m not sure I can remember it either, Mom,” I told her. “I don’t know all the facts; no one does.”
“Well write what you know,” she said.
Now, on the wall of my mother’s apartment is a large picture of my parents on their wedding day seventy years ago this week. Mom was nineteen. Inserted in the frame in the right corner is a small photograph of her father Joe “Pop” Urso taken when he was nineteen. The eyes and mouth are identical, and the skin tone. It’s crazy, this DNA, these connective songlines that make us descendants and ancestors.
One would think that with such technology the world would better appreciate how connected we all are. In my ancestry chart I can go back almost to where my ancestors roamed during the days of hunting and food gathering. It turns out we all can.
The article written by my cousin Jack Urso which I read and enticed me to first get in touch with him:
3 thoughts on “My DNA”
What a great story Bob. It was like reading it for the first time, even though I knew the ending! And yes, there’s a great American novel in there.
LikeLiked by 1 person
very good work. maybe this is a different kind of DNA. I was standing next to you when you saw Urso out that window and i used to play basketball with Wideman
LikeLiked by 1 person
I remember Florida well and I believe after telling you the story of lunch with my brother, you are the one who first spotted the Urso building. And, yes, love Wideman.