Conventional wisdom in genealogical circles is to start with your oldest living relative. Ask questions, draw charts, see what they remember about their grandparents.
What conventional wisdom doesn’t tell you is that you might be lucky enough to find a relative like Irene Veri. Irene was my portal to the past and I was her grateful padawan.
Irene Rose George Veri passed on June 17, 2018. She was 83. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Irene for almost 5 years. Soon after my husband took a DNA test to learn more about his Italian ancestors who he never knew, a match led us to Irene. Her father, Nick George (born Nicola Vitus Giorgio in 1896 in Castel di Sangro, Italy) was the first-born son of my husband’s grandfather – Adriano Giorgio. Technically this makes her my husband’s cousin once-removed – but in reality she was the living memory that only a few genealogists are lucky enough to find. Most of all – she was my friend – and I will miss her.
I keep a notebook of all my emails with relatives as I try to reconstruct my husband’s family tree that his father abandoned at an early age when his parents divorced. No surprise that the tab behind Irene’s page is the largest – by far.
People say that timing is everything. Very true. I met Irene at a time when it was convenient for her to share what she knew about her family and I was the grateful recipient of her vast stores of knowledge. The timing was right.
For anyone without Italian relatives let me just say that without a living relative who knew “la famiglia” you will have a very hard time determining which Nick is the son of your direct line of the family. If four Italian sons all name their first-born son after their father, as is the Italian naming convention, you will find four Nick’s about the same age, living in the same location and you will have a hard time knowing which Nick goes with which father. But if you are lucky enough to have someone like Irene to help you sort it out, you will know that the Nick on Hazen Street was the son of Romualdo and Dorinda and the Nick on Mill Street was the son of Pasquale and Filomena. And if you’ve done any genealogy at all, you will appreciate how much this stuff matters.
So yes, timing is everything, but now, the timing is all wrong. Because the cancer that consumed Irene’s body took her away much too soon and all I am left with are the volumes of information she shared and a big empty hole in my heart.
Here is what I am most grateful for about Irene.
1. Top of the list, without a doubt, is her razor sharp mind. Irene had a memory beyond compare. She grew up with the people I’m researching. Names on a page to me became the living people she knew. This one was “good looking,” that one was probably demented, this one never married because the girl from Italy brought over for him in an arranged marriage found out that New Castle, Pennsylvania was a far cry from New York, New York – so she went home and he remained single for the rest of his life. I could go on and on with the personal details that Irene shared with me. Thank you Irene.
2. She loved her family. She was without a doubt a “Daddy’s girl” and it will always make me happy to think that the reunion with her father in heaven occurred on Father’s Day. She loved her father and knew so many details about his life. She was glad to have someone interested in hearing those details and she would always correct me if I got it wrong, for which I am grateful. She also loved to tell me about her daughters and her grandchildren. I think Irene was one of those people, like my own mother, who may not have always done the best job of letting the people who mattered most to her know how much they mattered – but I can honestly say that she cherished her children and grandchildren beyond measure.
3. She was a straight shooter. She was honest, open and opinionated. You have to understand that she was telling things from her perspective, but as far as she was concerned it was the only perspective that mattered. And as far as I was concerned, it was the best way for me to learn about people I never knew and never would have known, without her willingness to share her memories. So what if there were minor discrepancies between the “official” records and Irene’s memory of things. It doesn’t really matter whether her parents were married in October or November of 1915. It matters so much more that her father loved to sing, that he wrote lyrics for songs and tried to get them published and that she was his secretary who mailed the post cards with the lyrics so that there would be a postmark to establish a copyright, that he made wine in his basement, that he took her downtown every Thursday night when she was in junior high school and bought her a milk shake at the soda shop while he went next door to the bar. Yes –those are the memories and stories that will always mean so much more than anything I can find on any official genealogical records.
There will be many, many reasons why I will miss Irene. But there will so many more where I will be thankful for the many gifts she shared with me over the past five years.