Family roots: adultery and scandal

When I last left off the story of my family, I had just received a long-lost photo of my great-great-grandmother from an Irish cousin who no one from my Californian branch of the family had ever encountered before. I had also just been contacted by a most-likely cousin; while it hasn’t been genetically confirmed, Mike has certainly done his research in an attempt to locate his true great-grandfather: Michelangelo Rizza.

Isabella Fade Johnson, supposed oldest child of Michelangelo Rizza

We always had the idea that Michelangelo wasn’t the best example of a father; as my great-grandmother told the story, he had essentially forced Maria Antonia to follow him to Canada from Scotland by taking the sons (her favorites, supposedly) and leaving without her. This, of course, gave Maria no choice but to follow. As my memory serves, the remaining Rizza children (a good number of whom were born in Canada) were unfortunate enough to be stuck with two rather ill-suited parents, as Maria Antonia walked out on them when the twins were eight (broken-hearted by the death of her 13th child, and sick of Michelangelo’s behavior).

Marie and Phyllis were largely raised by nuns, though they did not completely lose contact with their parents. Grandma Marie once told me a story about going to visit her mother, who was living with a lover at the time, and recalled massive depictions of Mussolini on the walls, so we know that they were around, and had unsurprising fascist leanings and Italian loyalties, even if they were not present parents.

But, back to Mike: Mike’s grandmother is Isabella Fade Johnson, born in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1892, to a Margaret Bell. Berwick is the last city you encounter in England on the way to Edinburgh (or perhaps it is the first city in Scotland once you leave England, I don’t quite remember), but either way, it is a port city, which becomes important in the telling of this story. While Mike never met Margaret, the family lore tells him that Isabella once got into a fight with her drunken father after the death of her mother, saying, “I’m sometimes ashamed to call you my father,” to which he responded, “Well, I’m not your father.” Isabella was thus left with nothing more than the knowledge that her mother had been unfaithful. She began to investigate, and learned that her mother would meet up with her boyfriend at regular intervals when boats docked, that he was Italian, and “had something to do with a confectionary.” Mike began to search the crew lists that docked in Berwick, finding few Italians.

Edinburgh and Berwick upon Tweed

The only boat that docked regularly, and could thus be visited regularly by Margaret, was a ferry from Leith, the port of Edinburgh. Mike was essentially at a dead end, with but one remaining clue: Edinburgh.

With no luck in the ferries, Mike began to investigate business owners in the search for Margaret’s parents, and stumbled upon just one Italian-owned business in Berwick: an ice cream parlor, owned by Maria Antonia Rizza. Although we’d thought the Rizzas lived in Berwick at some point (and Mike found a marriage certificate that stated that Michelangelo lived in Berwick at the time of the Edinburgh wedding), we hadn’t realized that they owned a business there, or that Michelangelo had perhaps led some sort of a dual-city life. Mike’s mother’s generation claims total ignorance (though all three of Isabella’s children were present for the fight between Isabella and her father), but the guess is legitimized by his aunt’s violent negative reaction to the name “Michelangelo Rizza,” and the fact that his name is Michael, and his mother’s choice for his sister’s name was Angela.

While a lot of this is guesswork and conjecture, the evidence heavily suggests that Michelangelo did indeed father at least one illegitimate child. The search is still on for others (someone told me that there were a suspected three illegitimate children, which would mean that he fathered at least 16, total), and for the answer to my question about the cause behind the Italian migration to Scotland.

  1. Carol said:

    You have the makings for an epic novel! Go to work!

  2. Ann said:

    This is fascinating. We may all be related!

  3. Mike Griffiths said:

    Thanks for that, Louisa. Makes me feel like I’m no longer just banging my head against a brick wall.

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