Family stories told over generations have a way of morphing over time. Sometimes the tales grow tall and fantastic, while other details of family lore become so fuzzy that they simply fade into obscurity.
But now, solving enduring ancestral mysteries is much easier with genealogical tools such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and FamilySearch.org. DNA tests offer another intriguing window into family histories, providing insight into who we are, reaching back thousands of years.
People launch genealogical digs for many reasons. Some may want to verify or debunk family lore; others may want to illuminate the life of an elusive relative. But whatever the spark that begins it, the search can provide many surprises. Sometimes tales of a family member’s criminal behavior are verified through newspaper accounts. Other searches uncover answers to questions that living relatives have forgotten, often healing old wounds. And for some, connecting with family members from across the world brings unexpected joy.
My search started with a mystery.
My interest in parsing family fact from fiction started many years ago when my mother, Dolores Bertholdo, shared a painful memory from her childhood. As the story goes, after one can of beer, my grandfather, Martin Nienstedt, would cry and babble out the word, “Manina.” As a child, my mother thought her father was speaking gibberish fueled by alcohol. Every time it happened, she would bristle, and as a result, her relationship with her father was strained.
“I used to get so upset with my father,” Dolores said. “I would see the devil when he cried ‘Manina,’ but my mother had promised him she wouldn’t let us know why he did this.”
On the day her father died, her mother, Theresa Nienstedt, revealed the long-held secret.
Martin, it turned out, wasn’t talking nonsense at all. “Manina” was actually Martin’s endearing mispronunciation of his sister’s name, “Lena,” who died at the age 10 when he was only 3.
But knowing that there was a sister who Martin loved and lost didn’t put the mystery to rest. Why had her life—and her untimely death—been kept secret? The question gnawed at my mother (and me) for years. Had she known the truth about her father’s loss sooner rather than later, life with him might have been different.
Regardless, shame seemed to surround Lena’s death. So, how did she die?
My genealogical dig started on Ancestry.com, which offers a treasure trove of information through census records, marriage and death records, ship passenger lists, obituaries, news accounts, and much more. Simply plug in a name, choose a record you want to investigate and information pops up on the computer. The site provides little leaf graphics attached to names to provide hints for your search.
Ancestry.com revealed that Lena died on May 24, 1908, in Manhattan, N.Y. She was listed in the 1900 U.S. Census, but by 1910, Lena had disappeared from the historical record.
Lena’s death certificate said that she died of double tuberculosis, or the Great White Plague as it was called at the time. Sadly, my grandfather mourned his sister his entire life, but was only able to express his grief after drinking that bottle of beer.
But, my genealogical dig became more than just a quest to find out about Lena. I continued with the search because when it comes to family matters, details are difficult to resist. Plus, the journey has given me a chance to reconnect with distant family members.
I contacted New York cousins on Facebook with a request to share old photos. I was able to copy a wedding photo of my mother’s aunt, Julie, and her mother, Carmella Mona, my mother’s beloved grandmother, who she remembers leading the large family in song after every Sunday dinner.
While searching for Lena’s fate, I also gained insight into her era through Ancestry.com, which offers information about daily life. It was interesting to learn that, during Lena’s time, New York was in the midst of building its first subway system.
My father’s story
On my father’s side, family lore says that my great-grandmother, Maria Rizzo, emigrated from Italy to New York when she was 11, working first in a cigar factory and then a doll factory. She married Vincenzo Marraro in 1898 at the age of 14 and worked as a seamstress doing intricate bead work for wealthy families—possibly even the Vanderbilts. Any dress she saw, it’s been said, she could reproduce with ease. She continued with this work after she was widowed in 1911 and through the Depression, making enough money to support her two daughters, Concetta Veronica, who went by the name Anna, and Annunciata, or Nancy.
I found my great-grandmother’s name on a ship’s passenger list through Ancestry.com. At 53, she traveled with six pieces of luggage to California on the SS President Cleveland through the Panama Canal.
She met and married her second husband, John Cuccio, in California.
Although Maria Marraro didn’t know how to read or write, the money she earned as a seamstress in New York paid for a diner and a block of businesses in East Los Angeles, that included a barber shop, beauty salon, grocery store and bar.
Family stories vary on just what happened. It had been said that someone was either murdered or killed in a fire at the bar, which prompted the sale of the property and land. My recollection is that the block of businesses was destroyed in a fire during the 1965 Watts Riots.
My sister and I plan on further researching this aspect of our great-grandmother’s story by visiting the Los Angeles Hall of Records and the County Recorders.
I always naively thought my ancestral makeup was three-quarters Italian and one-quarter German. But when my mother, Dolores, sister, Patrice Bouffard, and I each took a saliva-based DNA test from the company 23andMe, we discovered some surprises.
Turns out that I’m only 49.8 percent Italian and 9.8 percent German and French with a smattering of broadly southern and northern European ancestry, 5.4 percent Middle Eastern and North African, with a touch of Asian, African, British, Irish and Scandinavian genetic links.
I also have a smidgen of Ashkenazi DNA in me, which means I have distant Jewish relatives.
My sister and I also assumed that we would have the same concentrations of heritage but that’s not the case. I happen to be more genetically Italian than Patrice—her genetic breakdown revealed that she is 31.7 percent Italian.
We both have a higher than normal amount of Neanderthal DNA coursing through our cells.
What that means is that we’re all connected. Neanderthals are the closest evolutionary relatives of today’s Homo sapiens, having lived side by side with them for thousands of years. Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago, but their DNA has survived. Studies have shown that people from countries in southern Europe, like Italy, have a higher level of Neanderthal DNA than people from Great Britain. The differences may point to how Neanderthal populations migrated geographically in Europe.
A new mystery has arisen for my mother from the 23andMe experience. The organization provides a service that connects genetically matched 23andMe users. Generally this means third to fifth cousins are identified.
My mother found that she has a new second cousin, Karen Harper, from New Jersey with family ties to Brooklyn. Karen and I discussed family surnames to try to land on the common relative. So far, no match.
We have theorized that a child was either born out of wedlock or given up for adoption. So far this seems likely since my mother and Karen would have to share a great grandparent in order to be second cousins. We know that the family connection would have to be from my mother’s German side because of Karen’s German ancestry. Also, both my mother’s and Karen’s great-grandparents once lived in Brooklyn.
Karen and I have delved into many possible scenarios of who in our family trees might have given birth to a baby conceived outside of marriage. It seems likely that a child was given up for adoption, or handed over to another family to raise without going through legal channels.
What seemed like an easy trace turned out to be a lesson in frustration. Yet I don’t think either Karen or I will give up on this new mystery. We hope some other new relatives will pop up through 23andMe connections and give us further clues as to the intersecting relative.
Agoura Hills resident Jan Meisels Allen, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County, said roadblocks like these are called “brick walls.”
Brick walls or not, there are all kinds of ways to dig up the past. We could travel to various locales where our ancestors lived and snoop through historic records that are not linked to online sites, talk to living relatives who may have undocumented historical tidbits to share, or admit we’ve reached a dead end and just enjoy the ‘what if’ theories about those genetically linked relatives who defy cross reference. The hunt for family stories is never ending, but with every little tidbit that emerges, the story of your life comes a bit more into focus. My journey into the past has just begun.
By STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO
Stephanie Bertholdo, shown here in her high school senior photo, is a staff writer for the Acorn newspapers.
Several collections of major genealogical data are available online at the Thousand Oaks Library at no cost:
• Ancestry Library Edition
• Heritage Quest
• Los Angeles Times 1881 to present
• New England Historic Genealogical Society
For genealogical societies, visit: www.ancestry.com/wiki/index.php?title=List_of_Genealogical_Societies