One of the exceptional attributes of the human race–unknown in any other species in the universe–is the importance we place on our personal and family histories. No other species worries about who grandma was or the circumstances that led to their birth.
I learned first hand the emotional tug of roots this weekend when I had the opportunity to speak in Providence, Rhode Island. You see, Rhode Island is crucial to the family history that led to my being. Here is this part of my family’s story in a nutshell:
In 1910, a 16-year-old girl named Gulia Betti arrived in Pawtucket from Italy to work in her aunt’s bakery. Her purpose was to save her family from desperate poverty and bring them all to America. Through hard work she succeeded, and soon her mother, brother, and two sisters were safely in Rhode Island.
Within a few years, she had met and married Enrico Micheletti, an ambitious immigrant from the same area of Italy as Gulia (The mountains around Lucca in Tuscany). They married. In 1915, Bruno Micheletti was born, followed in 1917 by Leona. Leona would later marry a man named Wesley Smith. They are my parents.
Enrico died young in 1924, leaving the family without a breadwinner. Gulia rolled up her sleeves. The family owned a tenement building where she rented rooms. She also ran a store on the bottom floor and a beauty parlor on the second floor. Gulia was helped by her sister Marianella and her husband, who had three children; Rico, Elba, and Ezio. Ezio was the baby and was treasured by the older cousins. The two families were extremely close and kept each other going during the Depression.
After the Great Hurricane of 1938, Gulia and Leona were weary of the Rhode Island weather. They decided to try California on for size. Leona got a job at the Los Angeles Examiner where she met a soldier on leave from his duty who took a temporary job at the paper to earn some extra money. He fell heads-over-heels. After a rocky courtship, they married shortly after Pearl Harbor, knowing he would soon be going to war. He shipped out in April 1942 and she didn’t see him again until after the war in 1945. Eventually, they had me.
Whilst in Providence, I had a reunion with Ezio (photo above) who still lives in RI. He and my mother are the only survivors from those years. He took me to where it all happened, which was a pretty awesome experience. As usual, I took some pictures:
The first picture below is the tenement house in which my uncle and mother were raised.
Next is the grave marker of my grandfather, my great grandmother, and my great aunt. The years 1924-1925 were especially hard for the family.
The old snapshot was in Ezio’s album, and I had never seen it. It shows my father (the man on the left with suspenders, with his hand on my mother’s arm), and my uncle kneeling in front, in Los Angeles in 1939. Dad was only 22 and mom 23. Amazing to me.
How important is it to our thriving as a species that we care so much about our past? I don’t know, but I do know that who we are matters to us. This attention to history (micro and macro), I believe, is one of the aspects of human nature that makes us so incredibly special and has helped us become the most exceptional species in the known universe.