My Italian Ancestors – Discovering The Past

A visit to my 99-year-old Aunt Ann’s attic is like stepping into a time machine and soaring back to my Italian ancestors’ days. It’s exactly how you would picture an attic to be; creaky floor boards, dusty particles flittering in the window’s light, and hundreds of treasures.  As a small child, the attic excited my imagination. I went on fantastical exploration and searched tirelessly through trunks and boxes for gold. Much to my 6-year-old dismay, I never found the gold. Instead I remember finding stacks of newspaper articles about men named Hitler and Kennedy.

New York Herald, Nazi Defined as Will to Destroy, 1939
New York Herald, 1939


“Hmm, these guys be important,” I thought.

I remember finding sepia portraits of strangers and letters in a foreign language.

I frustratingly wondered, “What’s the point of writing a letter if others can’t read it?”

Twenty years later, the significance of these relics is vastly different. I realize now that the treasures were always right under my nose.

When I dusted off The Tragic End of John F. Kennedy cover article on Sunday, I was struck by its historical relevance. When I unfolded the same letter I had once found incomprehensible, I translated the beautifully written Italian calligraphy into English and recounted a hundred-year-old tale of my Sicilian cousin. When I looked into the occhi scuri of my ancestors’ faded portraits I saw a familiar reflection my own dark eyes.

U.S. News & World Report, Tragic End of John F. Kennedy 1963
U.S. News & World Report, 1963


Here is one of my favorite finds. It’s a photograph of my great-grandfather’s, Union Square barber shop dating back to the early 1900’s. I can imagine the Italian barbers reminiscing with patrons about life back in Italy, swapping stories about friends and family who had not yet made it through Ellis Island. I can hear them sharing tips on where to find the best salumi and caffè in town or how to pick up an American girl…

Great Grandpa, Andrea Scattareggia, in his 4th Avenue barber shop in Manhattan

I’ll save my insights on the latter for a future post.