The Things You Learn About Family

Earlier this year, I’d sorted through nearly all the boxes I’d had in some sort of storage for about five years. Then my folks moved and, by February, I had acquired at least as many boxes of stuff as I’d sorted before. Some of it was mine. Some of it was just stuff my folks didn’t want but didn’t want to “just give away.” Some of it, I discovered today, was family memorabilia.

One huge bulging envelope was covered, side to side and top to bottom, with my father’s crisp engineer lettering. Inside I found lots of miscellaneous remembrances: a 1950s Ice Capades program, a Palm Springs newspaper from 1976, a gift certificate for four martinis at the Apple Valley Inn (expired, alas), a copy of my cousin’s Naval commission, postcards of icky Benny Hill type humor sent by my grandfather when he was traveling.

But the real treasure is the letters. There are letters my father wrote home while he was in the Navy, and letters my grandmother’s Calgary relatives sent her in the 60s and 70s. There’s a wedding announcement for someone in Sicily–my grandfather’s home country–and from a man named Freddie, whom I knew as a child as the wild-white-haired old man who had a cabin near ours in the remote Apple Valley desert. The glimpses of life offered are so, so cool.

One little falling-apart letter, typed single-spaced on the front and back of a small sheet of thin paper, was from my great-grandfather. It’s a sad and angry letter than tells of how poor he and his wife are, living in Chicago Heights in 1951, and how ungrateful his children are for not sending them more money and taking them on vacations. He mentions no one remembers him saving “Joe” from the Black Handers in 1907. The next line, an incomplete sentence, refers to either Sam’s brother, or someone Sam killed, or perhaps both. Does he mean Joe? We don’t know. The odd sentence construction leaves interpretation open.

Then I found a browned newspaper clipping from 1938, talking of the murder of Sam Costello at the hands of Al Capone’s hitmen. Why was it in the envelope with all those letters and such?

I called my father to tell him of the find, and to ask about that newspaper clipping. Turns out Sam Costello was my great-grandfather’s cousin.

We’re still not certain if that’s the same Sam connected to the Joe who was either murdered or saved or both in 1907.

Perhaps, too, we will find some other clues to help us on our genealogy quest to discover if our family can apply for Italian citizenship.  My great-grandfather, alas, was not too keen on government records, reportedly changed his last name at least twice, and told numerous versions of his life in the United States.  It’s a puzzle, but we’re closing in on it.

 

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