I was around the age of seventeen when I met my “other” family. As a child, my brothers and I were raised by our maternal grandmother. I had been curious about my dad’s side of the family, whom we were kept from associating with even though court documents show that they had a legal right to visitation. I was so young when I went to live with my grandmother, just a year old, that I grew up not knowing the complicated dynamics of the break between the two families. My brothers and I were conditioned to never speak about the tragedy that was our family history, and talking about the “Gioias” was a taboo subject altogether. When I discovered in my teens that my brothers had in fact been in contact with my dad’s family, I wanted in on the visits too.
I made arrangements with my brother Joey to take me to meet them. Having told my grandmother a cover story about staying the night at my friend Diane’s house, I went one Sunday to meet them. My recollection is fuzzy about where we first met. What I do recall is the intense feeling of belonging the moment I stepped into the room filled with my father’s brothers and sisters. I felt an immediate connection, like a part of me that had long been lost had finally been found. Where my mother’s family, of eastern European descent is in many ways closed off emotionally with little outward expressions of affection and feelings that are meant to be borne alone, this group was the complete opposite. There was crying, hugging, kissing, and numerous conversations taking place all at once. I was embraced and made such a fuss over.
This initial meeting was too long in coming; I wish with all my heart I had met them much sooner for I had only a small window of time to spend with them. I graduated from high school soon after and was off to start my life. I ended up 3,000 miles away in California. I would take the time to visit whenever I was home, but the visits were infrequent and hardly enough to make up for 20 years of lost time. I have lost all but one of my father’s siblings, the only people who were able to piece together the life and personality of the most important man in my life. I thought all those memories had been lost with their passing.
Luckily, I have been given a second chance; my own generation of family on my father’s side has opened their arms and hearts to me as generously as my aunts and uncles did. With the popularity of social networking sites MySpace, and most especially Facebook, I have reconnected with cousins I’d met only once or twice and have been introduced to cousins I never knew existed. Many of us will meet face-to-face for the first time this summer, but in the meantime we are getting to know one another and our family histories via shared memories, photographs, and online messaging.
My cousin Bonnie from Massachusetts appears to be my east coast family historian counterpart. She’s been hoarding the family treasure trove of memories just as I have been doing. Because of Bonnie I have in my possession home movies made by my father showing his growing family during happy times, before tragedy took them. It is hard to put into words the impact in seeing my parents walking, talking (although there is no sound, this is 8mm film footage), and alive.
There are photographs, too, such as the one and only picture of the Gioia Pizzeria my father owned and operated.
As the saying goes, “what once was lost now is found”, I am finding my way back “home” again. I can’t wait to meet my cousins; we have so much to share.