Sobriquet


First there was the word, but when it comes to ancestor research, it all comes down to the names. And what do the names tell us? A little and a lot. When you are looking at seven generations, there are at least 8 surnames in the tree, and that is just if you trace back on the son’s father’s grandfather’s grandfather’s father’s side. That’s about 150-200 years of history, and includes maybe 20-50 kids who share the same last name. Many of them also have the same first name. That does not even address the names of the daughters, mothers and grandmothers. Maternal names are harder to find unless the daughter is unmarried, in which case the name on her grave matches the name on her birthday. I see why they call last names SURnames. Lady names are a bit lost to history.

In fact, as I was researching one of my ancestors, I came across a dusty passage from the era of Louis XIV discussing the aristocrats of the age. This courtly journalist noted his observation that among the royals, it was a particularly intentional policy to wed the daughters of the most powerful so as to make a famous surname disappear from the genealogy. Over time, this would surreptitiously diminish the power and prestige of the lineage, and thus their wealth might be better controlled by the rising male stars among the powerful elites of the day. Out of sight, out of mind. No name, no fame.

For most families in the pre-digital era, ancestral memories were recent, short and few. Only names that lingered in legends and histories could open doors of status and circumstance to young men and ladies of the aristocratic age. Casanova of Venice is perhaps the most famous person to be known for benefitting from having a famous name. His mother was an actress, clearly a talent from a family gifted with the refinements of civilization, although perhaps of questionable wealth and status in the age.

As young Casanova was introduced to all the best people in his travels around Italy, he was often the beneficiary of large gifts of clothing, gambling money, accomodations and professional positions. Because he knew his ancestral lineage back to the illustrious Don Juan Casanova of Venice from his mother’s grandfather, he was adopted as a cousin by a wealthy Venetian, much to the chagrin of the patron’s suspicious wife. Traveling as the man’s newly discovered long lost cousin was the ticket to an aristocratic lifestyle, hosted by the wealthier of the relatives.

It has been a long time since those days, but some of the clues in our family names suggest interesting stories leading back to those times. I bring up Casanova because I think it is possible he met one of our relatives. Or rather, in googling one of our family names, I found that Casanova encountered a family with the name of Matalone in Naples. I will save that story for a later chapter, but on finding this info, I expanded my search into the past beyond our grandparents. I added another thousand years or so to my bucket list. Only a small part of that story will be done in time for this year’s family Christmas present, so this is just a teaser. But before we crest the waves of that time, there is buried treasure much closer to home.

There are so many stories to tell, each with their own characters and timelines. It has been a challenge to know who to include and where to begin. In the future, it’s possible that the remembering of every moment from birth to final dissolution will be a matter of digital documentation. That is what Allan is working on with his lifetime archives. Truly ahead of his time, he delights me daily with his current project of copying forward the multi formatted tapes of our past decades together. Long forgotten memories become fresh new memories, and seeing ourselves as we were twenty or thirty years ago is an enjoyable fountain of youth.

Although these stories somewhat speak for themselves, presenting to an audience faces the challenge of short attention spans. We learned long ago that few people have the stamina for raw footage, which we lovingly refer to as “Fast Forward Theater.” Al likes to say, “There is life, and then there’s editing!” When it comes to our digital age, the art is not so much imagining what happened as honing the story down to the best moments in the hero’s journey.

Watching the footage, just like remembering every second of an entire lifetime, is barely possible. So, as an editor/storyteller, I like to say, “I only have time for my destiny.” Life’s real journey happens in real time, so that is where the rules of humanity apply. The recording is a copy to serve the spirit’s love of memory, which now can be duped into infinity.

There will be much in the future that is recorded, but not remembered. Maybe that is the Akashic record, and we have crossed over into the Time Traveller’s dream era where time travel IS possible.  To be clear, except for this moment of homage to my brilliant lover, the man of my dreams, today’s project is not derived from our digital archives. No, we are going old school into my story of the ancestral past, which I am cultivating from dusty fragments of research and interviews. I am telling these familial stories first, to include them so they will not be lost to history when our digital remains are copied forward for that ultimate future journey in the spaceship to the stars.

I have set my compass on the star which traces the names of our mothers and grandmothers backwards through time. We previously covered much of Dad’s family in “The Story of MEE,” our millennial McNamee family history project. So this effort will start with Mom–Madeline Carol Morici McNamee, daughter of Rose Terese Matalone Morici. I’ll trace the family backwards along the branches of our mother’s mothers.

As we dig deeper, the clues are very few, uncertain hints shimmering under the waters of time. Finding these early treasures is like hunting for shipwrecks in the Mediterranean sea. I have studied maps, and imagined many fabled histories of our Italian ancestors, trying to discover what is factual from the visible fragments of their lives. Sadly, the data is sketchy and the times they lived are fraught with turmoil. It is easier to find the bad news than the blue ribbon days. Maybe someone closer to the source can help decipher my confusion around some of the names. I have done the best I can in the time I have, and if I introduce mistakes, please let me know.

There is much to learn from the names of our family. Each name is a vast chapter of stories and relationships, and each chapter informs our genes who we were and who we are becoming. There are a few who are famous for their accomplishments or for their tragedies. Most, however, are rather invisible. It is amazing to search the footnotes of history for our own roots, and realize that the lifetimes of entire generations of our family are summarized in one sepia toned photo whose names would be unaccessible without the living memory of our elderly cousin who knew them before they died.

Sobriquet is a word I learned in searching for our relatives. It means nickname, or alias.  The search for an ancestor’s name is one mired in the sifting of alias identities. When immigrants came to this country over the last two hundred years, their names were in a different language than the men taking note of their arrival. Handwriting is hard to read, and spellings vary from Birth to Marriage to Passenger Lists on Sailing Ships to Census Records and Phone books. And really, gravestones are the final arbiters of dates that were guessed from other forms of identity.

Here are the fruits of my labor, a harvest of stories about our very own ancestors.

First, I offer our Morici McNamee family tree, expanded as far as I was able in a six month subscription to Ancestry dot com. You may find the names of some McNamee ancestors you previously did not know about, especially from the line of Francis McCrystal McNamee, our grandmother on Dad’s side. I remember riding my bike to her house somewhere between our home at 1405 South 16th Street and Dad’s legal office at 319 Third Street when I was a teenage runner for his Las Vegas Law firm. I have not taken much time to collect stories of the Robbins, Websters, Hayworths or other grandmothers on that tree. Next reunion, right? We can ask our cousins.

For this project, Joe Morici gave me the genealogy research done in 1992 by his brother Marty. That helped flesh out the Morici Grandfathers for our tree. But Noni’s family tree was fairly incomplete. Joe came to the rescue again, and introduced me to our cousins, the Mangano family who live in Aptos.

As it turns out, one of our Mangano Cousins, named Rachel, also works at KSCO, hosting our radio station’s morning show with Rosemary Chalmers. Small world! Her mom, Georgeanne Sigfreid lives with her mom, Anne Mangano, the youngest girl of her generation. She went to High School with our mom, and is now about 80 years old. I spent an afternoon with them enjoying stories, scrapbooks, and great food. I am delighted to share the buried treasures we uncovered. In this interview, I discovered our Mother’s Grandmother, and our Grandmother’s Grandmother.  It is my pleasure to introduce these ladies to all of you.

Next chapter, we will look at our family names. And then, we will look at some stories of those family names. But first, without naming names, I want to give you a preview of the process of finding these stories. I have found by researching that it is very tempting to assume that the stories which show up in the search for names are the lost stories you are looking for. But doing this research is more complicated and elaborate.

For instance, I suspect that sometimes the names of the Italian father was not the same as his son, and there are many reasons. I imagine there was trouble at home, and maybe a new name was selected-accidentally or on purpose- upon immigration to the new country. Or perhaps there was a habit of using the mother’s name in certain instances that disguised the family name of a victim or a criminal. The process of discovery has been something like a game of clue.

There are times when the absence of direct evidence feeds my speculation about indirect evidence. There are definitely Mafia related stories that deeply affected our family of successful grocers and macaroni manufactures. It will take a long time to track down better evidence, so for the moment we have just some newspaper clippings and the long silence of our relatives to guess at the real details of a very sad time for our family, when mom’s Grandfather and his brother were killed by gunfire on the streets of Chicago in 1926.

I spent many an hour with the Logic Problems in my Dell Crossword books as a kid. I am putting those skills to good use. My confidence in the relationships I have discovered is tempered by the complexity of the lexicon of evidence. I promise to do my best to give what Facts I know, and put my stories through the scrutiny of excellent logic. Finding an immigrant laborer’s wife after she remained in Italy for ten years as a “White Widow” may involve seeing through her marriage to anther man during the intervening years. The facts present themselves as possibilities when the older son left the business to his “brother.” It would appear this brother came separately to this country at the age of 1 with their mother on her immigration from Italy, seemingly the son of another father more than a decade after his brother arrived with the first father.

So, take all of these stories as what they are. Facts that were fed to an author guilty of imagination, passion, and romantic speculations. Like Puck in Midsummer’s Night Dream, I ask that, If by errors I have offended…

Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend.