I Nostri Radici

I love the American Story. How did we all get here? We are all sons and daugters of criminals, slaves, fortune seekers and dreamers. More specifically, over the past years I have fallen in with love my own ancestral story.

My great grandfather, Joseph (Giuseppe) Lamantia emigrated from Termini Imerese, Sicily, around the turn of the century looking for a better life. I believe he came with his father, Vincent, and was quite young. He was so traumatized by the journey by sea, he never sailed again, nor did he ever return to Italy. Can you imagine leaving the shores of your homeland never to return to all that you knew and loved?Somehow the pair made their way from the docks of New York to windy streets of Chicago. He made a living first by selling fruit door to door. After some time, he had a little shop. That shop eventually morphed into the largest distributor of produce in the Midwest: Lamantia Bros. The money made it possible to bring over his mother and other members of the Lamantia clan.

Joseph married young to a woman also from Sicily, Rose Capodice; I think they were both in their mid to late teens at the time. Here is a picture of their wedding party. You can tell he must have been quite successful by then; the party is lavishly dressed for the time. And look at those flower bouquets! Smiling for photos must have been considered uncouth… I wonder of my great grandmother chastised her one smiling maid standing behind her when she saw the photos.

A close up of the bride and groom:

These do not look like happy people, now do they? And family legend has it that the marriage was not an easy nor loving one. Rose gave birth to two daughters; the younger, Anne, is my grandmother. Rose attempted to terminate her third pregnancy, out of spite for Joe, but accidentally killed herself in the process. Joseph remarried shortly after, and had four more children. The truth regarding the death of my great grandmother was kept in secret for many years. My mother didn’t even know until she well into her teens that her Swedish grandmother, Verna Swansen, held no blood relation to her. She had thought until that point that she was a quarter Swedish! And even when she found out, the family story was that my great grandmother had died of a mysterious illness. It wasn’t that long ago that the truth was revealed.It seems that everyone in the family (regardless if they were born or wed into family) worked for the business. August Arado was working for Lamantia Bros. when he met Anne Lamantia and later married her. Here he is in a photo, a young man working for his father in law:

I love this picture. Look at the cheeky smile of the girl standing behind him. I wonder who she is.

Sadly, Joseph and August both died around 1971, 3 years before I was born. My grandmother, only in her early 50s when her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack, never remarried. She’s still alive and still living in the same house she shared with Gus all those years. I regret never having met my grandfather. I think we could have had some really interesting conversations. I wonder what he would have though about my interest in all things Italy that started when I studied abroad in Naples as a teenager.

Just one more photo, since I can’t resist. Here is a picture of my great uncle Tony holding my first cousin once removed, Joan Riordan, standing with my other great uncle, Joe Scalfini . This picture speaks volumes to me… don’t they look like two sleek Mafiosi holding a little blonde angel? Tony in particular looks so dark and charming to me, although my Mom says Joe was the one considered better looking.

Speaking of the Mafia. I often wonder about the influence of the Mafia on my family. I have heard stories… that the Mafia contributed to their emigration from Sicily to the US; that Joseph would pile his whole family in the car in the middle of the night because he feared the Mafia was after him; that Lamantia bros. had employees dedicated to “Mafia Relations”. I don’t know what is fact or fiction, but it is true that my great grandfather’s business was gaining momentum at the height of Al Capone’s success in Chicago in the late 20s and 30s.

I look at these photos and wonder how I can be related to them… and it amazes me that I am not so far removed from their legacy. I try to find physical similarities in these photos…but just can’t see it. My blonde hair and fair skin must be from my father’s side of the family. But what I know for sure is: I definitely have that spirito Italiano.

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