So, how many dresses do you have now?

Oh geez, Grammie, I don’t know… I guess I’ve been to like, five dances, so five? Now six for next weeks?

I just don’t understand why you need a new dress for each dance, especially when your sister and her friends and your friends all have so many, too!


It was no use explaining to my wizened, almost-five-feet-tall grandmother that 6-year-old dresses were no longer ‘in,’ or that my sisters’ and friends’ dresses didn’t work with my body type. My sister and I had this conversation every single time we went to a dance in high school (with the exception of Sadie Hawkins’, obviously) and by the time I graduated I learned to simply smile and silently ignore what sounded like criticism to my ears. When I went off to college and my grandmother explained that I would be able to stretch my old twin-sized sheets to fit my twin extra-large dorm bed, I debated whether it was worth telling her that sheets cost a mere ten bucks at Target. In the end, I’m not sure if I rejected her advice or simply listened to it to humor her, but now that I’m living on my own I realize how many of those lessons, born of growing up during the Great Depression and feeding four children on the meagre salary of a pastor, I have internalized. My sister and I have happily inherited countless pieces of furniture, refinishing it to make it our own. We drink out of old peanut butter and pickle jars so that we don’t buy drinking glasses (which truly are a waste of money, since we break everything anyway), and every time I look through my closet I am struck by how much clothing I really have, and do I actually need something new? (and then I try it on and realize that yes, I do, I do indeed)

Anyhow, I wish that I had taken that advice for what it was, rather than seen it as criticism. My grandmother’s frugality was a way of life, and while it may seem miserly to scrimp and pinch as she did, it allowed her to give generously to every cause she cared about and everyone that mattered to her. There was a beauty in her frugality as well. While she had moved from her silken skirts and suits to her “grubbies” (clothing only suited for gardening) by the time I came along, she created a world of magic out of almost nothing for my sister, my best friend, and I. We spent an afternoon a week at her house, and she captivated us with dollhouses made out of old cardboard boxes, walls papered with wrapping paper, floors lined with old rug samples or fabrics, hand-drawn dolls made from old milk cartons, and our dish gardens, tiny worlds that we planted inside pie-tin sized dishes – mountains out of moss and rivers that we made out of blue seran-wrap. On rainy days, we would work on our dish gardens on her covered porch, listening to the rain on the plastic roof, and drinking hot chocolate with diagonally-cut cinnamon toast, after which we would retreat to the living room, where we built forts of furniture and sheets. During one particularly rainy el nino year, those forts stayed up for weeks, and I guess we’ll never know if she left them up at her own great inconvenience, or carefully re-built them right before we came over. Sunny days were similarly joyful – we would sip lemonade from concentrate out of aluminum glasses (which somehow made it so much colder and more delicious) before spending hours in her peppercorn tree, designating different branches as rooms and rigging up pulleys out of baskets and string.

I only realized this year when cleaning out her apartment that my grandmother hadn’t worn her “grubbies” all her life; I found treasures of beautiful jewelry, perfectly tailored suits, silk paisley skirts and an incredible assortment of belts and dresses that I never saw her wear, and which I have happily adopted, and it is a pleasure to know that she had a side of her I never knew, a mystery. The parts of her that I did know were so important, and I can only hope that I can be half as selfless. My grandmother was the trumpeter of any and all causes and worked tirelessly to advocate for those in need, from the homeless, to the infirm, to those not receiving justice. She was so giving that she almost couldn’t receive help, and absolutely hated asking for it. Last spring, she began having strokes, and despite the fact that she couldn’t use her words, she had a special laugh for those times when she thought we were offering too much, for the moments when we were worrying about her excessively. She would wave her hand and laugh at our offers to get her more pillows or more clothes, or painkillers, or anything, not wanting to trouble us over her discomfort.

Beyond her frugality and constant campaigns for equality and justice, my grandmother was a funny woman; in the same breath she would warn me against the dangers of becoming an alcoholic and request more wine; in the piles and piles of papers that we thought were pure junk, we would find a treasured note or beautiful piece of art; her bookshelves were equal parts Christian literature, information about earthquakes and geography, and books from the Hemlock Society.

Despite the fact that I’ve known this day was coming for years, the reality of her passing is just as hard to grasp as a sudden death. This is, perhaps, because I was in Lebanon when she died, and a combination of no phone, little internet, and heat-and-food-poisoning-induced-delirium made “reality” a difficult concept. But, more realistically, because she would surely be horrified that the whole family was spending so much time thinking and talking about her. And this is why it’s so hard to wrap my mind around her death – she spent so much time being as little trouble and as much help to anyone else that there really isn’t an “absence” – she was no obligation, and so there is no change in our routine, but she is a definite gap nonetheless. I’ll always miss her little laugh, her insistence that she can do it on her own when she really needed help, and her happy presence at family gatherings even when she could hardly hear the conversation.

To Grammie, good wine, and life lessons. May we ever appreciate and learn from them.


I’ve let the trail run a little cold in the quest for more family knowledge. While I am excited to pick up the story once again, my summer was too full of falling in love with every country and new friend to spend any significant amount of time in front of my computer. Now that I have returned, I am anxious to pick up where I left off. Cousin Mike put me in touch with Helen Stanton, author of a website chronicling the story of her family, who share a similar history with mine- Italian transplants to the UK. Helen’s website is an absolute wealth of information, and answers many of my questions.

The stunning Rizza sisters – Caroline, Phyllis, Carmen (and child), Marie

As I posed at the end of my last post, I wanted to find out why, and when, the Pacellis and Rizzas migrated to Edinburgh. While it’s still unclear how and why the Pacellis left Italy, church records indicate that Vincenzo and Maria Rosa, parents of Maria Antonia, were active in the Church of the Sacred Heart in the 1890’s, and that Vincenzo was a musician, which was apparently a common occupation for Italian immigrants. Coincidentally, one of my great-grandmother’s brothers who was killed in the first World War was also named Vincenzo, and was also a musician. The loss of three of Maria Antonia’s sons in the first World War, two of whom played the violin and some other instrument (piano? flute? I don’t correctly recall), is part of what broke her heart, eventually causing her to abandon her family in Canada.

Anyhow. The Pacellis’ arrival in Edinburgh is still a mystery, but is seems that Michelangelo and his brother arrived in Scotland, following their father, in the early 1890’s. This follows a mass-migration pattern that was apparently traditional in Italy. Supposedly, seasonal or temporary migrations were the norm in Italy during this time, and it was Napoleon’s influence, and the unsurprising influx of French aristocracy who needed land, that squeezed the lower classes, pushing them North and West, and made many of these migrations more permanent. It is no surprise that the Rizzas owned several ice cream shops, as the Italians were apparently renowned for their music, artwork, and confectionaries. (Anyone who has tried Italian gelato or sorbetto will undoubtedly agree)

pre-unification Italy

A second question is where, exactly, the Rizzas and Pacellis came from within Italy. My great-grandmother was long proud of the fact that her mother was Piedmontese. The Piedmontese were traditionally well-off and lighter in countenance, as they share a border with France, and were instrumental in winning Italy’s independence pre-1900’s. Italy is still a country divided, the north enjoying a far higher standard of living than the south, and being Piedmontese was akin to aristocracy, especially when living among the diaspora in ethnic neighborhoods. Despite the fact that the neighborhood the Pacellis called home was not the high street (their front door literally overlooked the gallows), their aristocratic roots were a point of pride that lasted through the generations. It seems, however, that this blue-blood was one-sided, as history and migratory patterns indicate that the Rizzas’ origins were further South.

As always, more research has only raised more questions. Soon to come is a long-lost photo, which was taken on the same day as the picture sent to me from cousin Paul, from Ireland.

I never met my paternal grandfather- he died before I was born, 25 or so years ago, but there are certain things that I’ve heard we both love that made me feel like there was a connection – the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the sun, Switzerland…

Two major events in my life led me back to him, to places he went, lived, loved. The first is my college – he was the pastor of the Wellesley Village Church in the early 1960’s, less than a mile away from my alma mater. The second is Caux, Switzerland, my home for the last three summers. I knew that he loved Switzerland, even claiming Swiss descent despite the lack of evidence (It’s not a longshot, as our name could definitely be Swiss), but it wasn’t until I returned from Caux that first summer that my grandmother confirmed my theory – she and my grandfather did indeed spend some time in my beloved Caux Palace, many years ago.

When we ran across his ashes in the depths of my grandmother’s apartment a few months back, I decided that scattering them in one of his favorite countries would be the best way to honor him. So, on my most recent hike, I stopped at one of my favorite spots, and threw his ashes to the wind. It’s about halfway up the path to Rochers de Naye, the highest mountain in this area, and has one of the most amazing views of the lake and valleys below, and mountains above.

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.

Occasionally, I whine to myself about the presence of the internet in our daily lives. How Facebook and Instagram have become a form of communication, how text messages are the new phone call, and that birthday cards and thank you notes can now be sent via email. However, it has recently been impressed upon me how very cool the existence of the internet is.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my my personal pilgrimage to Edinburg to investigate my family. In truth, I merely wanted to share the pictures I’d taken without having to go through the arduous process of uploading attachments and sending them personally to specific individuals. I didn’t think anything would come of it. I had no idea that, a few days after posting, some of my long-lost relatives, who nobody on my side of the Atlantic knew existed, would find my blog.

I’d begun to notice that my blog was being viewed by a lot of people from Ireland. I thought this was odd, as I have never been to Ireland and don’t have any friends there, to my knowledge. I then noticed that my blog was turning up in the results of searches for “Pacelli,” or “Rizza and Pacelli Scotland,” and so on. My questions were finally answered when an Irish cousin, David, commented, noting that he is married to a Pacelli, the grandaughter of Francesco Pacelli, my great-great-grandmother’s brother. Two more cousins have since contacted me, and an email arrived the other day that included a picture. This cousin, Paul, didn’t know who the picture was of, or when it was taken, though it came to his family from one of his cousins. Until I received the picture, a small part of me had wondered if maybe these cousins simply shared my name, that we were all linked by coincidence rather than blood, but I recognized the subjects immediately, as my great-great grandmother, Maria Antonina, my great-grandmother’s twin sister, Phyllis, and her son, John, who had the exact same smile his entire life. 

The stories are unfolding faster than I’d anticipated, and I’m beginning to realize that I may need to draft a concise family tree in order to truly understand who is related to, and descended from, who.

Although there is a story that just arrived from another cousin, Mike (and this one has all the scandal and drama that you expect from Italians), my current objective in this quest is to find out why the Pacellis left Italy to begin with, and how much of the family lore is just lore, and how much of it is fact.

My great-grandmother, Maria, in Canada.

I’m not sure if it’s the melting pot aspect of America that makes so many of us curious about our heritage, but I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the story of my family– how people with last names like “Pacelli” and “Rizza” and “Cavallo” came to live in Southern California. The stories and names and loves and losses captivated me, and my sister and I were raised on a blend of old East Coast and new Italian.

After we buried my grandfather in April, we visited my other relatives’ graves, and the old stories came flooding back, as well as my fascination and desire to know more. On an impulse, I booked a plane ticket, and found myself in Edinburgh last Tuesday morning. We don’t know much about how two Italians met and married in Scotland, but I’ve touched the hard evidence that Michael Angelo Rizza and Antonina Pacelli married in the Church of the Sacred Heart on January 26, 1893.

Marriage certificate of Michael Angelo Rizza and Antonina Pacelli.

The surname and family lore suggests that Antonina was related to Pope Pius XII, though the stories tell us that her family was kicked out of Italy at least fifty years before he came to power in the Vatican.

Before crossing the Atlantic, I did my best to research the topic, and was ready with the name of the church where the Rizzas were married, as well as their known address, which I gathered from family members who had also made the pilgrimage.

86 West Bow, where the Rizzas lived around 1903, and the last address on record.

Initially, we struggled to find their apartment, but once we did, what we gathered exceeded any expectation I had.

Church of the Sacred Heart

The church was hardly around the corner, and we were a bit bewildered at first as to how to proceed, but eventually found a doorbell, and a kindly father who escorted us upstairs to the records. I had only planned to see the marriage certificate and look around the church, but it struck me that the Rizzas had probably baptized at least some of their children before moving to Canada, and the priest agreed, helping Izzie and I on the scavenger hunt that took us through three books of baptism certificates, and covered twenty years.

We found the baptism certificates of the first eight Rizza children (there were 13 in total) as well as the addresses where each had been born. The Rizzas moved three times, and lived in a Catholic Italian neighborhood (something we found out by tracing names and addresses through the church records). While I’m not certain what, exactly, I was searching for when I booked my ticket, I do feel a sense of closeness with my family, to know what it looked like when they left their apartment in the morning.

The view up the street

Although it was fascinating to see where they lived, to know their birthdates and names (as many of my great-grandmother’s siblings name’s had been lost to history), I am struck now by the questions I wished I would have thought to investigate, such as, when did they leave for Canada? Is there a record of deaths or immigration, so we could find out which siblings made it to Canada? What names did they use when they enlisted in WWI? (the Rizza sons who enlisted, and were killed, were too young to enlist under their real names).

While I will probably always have questions, I’m happy to have come one step closer to unraveling the convoluted tale. The following pictures are the baptism certificates:

VIncenzo Rizza, 26 October, 1896

Petrus Rizza, 25 January 1894

Caterina Rizza, 30 August 1901

Angela Antonia (or Angelo Antonio, I’m not particularly certain which) Rizza, 20 November 1903

Michael Angelo Rizza, 22 July 1905

Maria Carmela Rizza, 16 March 1907

Antonius Rizza, 24 November 1909

Carolina Rizza, 29 January 1911