We look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are.
The role of origin stories...is to enlighten the present by recalling the past.
Origin stories are rarely straightforward history.
Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.
—Rachel Held Evans
I stared at the keyboard, not quite clear where to start this strange project.
My ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Porro, used to say, “Just tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.”
In retrospect this was hardly unique advice in high school English classes. But it struck a chord at the time, even though Miss Porro’s long-term commitment to education might have been suspect after she reportedly ran off to join the Country Bear Jamboree at Disney World shortly after the school year ended.
So. “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.”
This is an “origins” story. Specifically, it’s a story about the “origins” of my family.
I’m not sure where my sudden interest in my family roots came from, but it has become an obsession that won’t quite go away. Perhaps it was after becoming a grandparent, when I realized there is a strange and tenuous connection between generations. The realization that there is an underlying and continuing story that is useful in understanding our own story. That there is a power in being part of a bigger story, a story connected both to what was and what will be. And that there are voices that need to be heard and stories that need to be told.
It’s only with the connection to our own grandchildren—a connection with none of those pesky parental expectations, just pure, unfiltered love—that I realized something was missing when we were growing up. I only had one-quarter of a full grandparent contingent of four. My grandmother Sarah Anne McEvoy from Conaslee, Ireland, was the only grandparent I ever knew. I knew of my maternal grandfather, John Oliver Manson, but that was about it. He died in 1948.
Like many of their greatest generation compadres, my parents, Joseph and Sallyann, quickly headed for the suburbs shortly after they were married in the late 1950s. They arrived in New Jersey, and began their own personal population explosion, having six kids—John, June, Joseph, Jennifer, Jeffrey, and Jeanne—within an eleven-year span. Yes, all Js. It was a typical story of life in the suburbs. Imagine the Wonder Years set in New Jersey, and you can get the picture. I would like to say that my role was Kevin Arnold, but truth be told, I was more of a Paul Pfeiffer.
On the Wonder Years, you always had a feeling there was some untold story concerning Kevin’s father Jack and his father. Bit by bit over the years, the backstory is revealed. Kevin’s father was born in 1927. He grew up during the Great Depression, served in the US Marine Corps during the Korean War, and worked as a product distribution manager at NORCOM, a somewhat mysterious large military defense company. Later, he started his own business building and selling handcrafted furniture. In the last episode, it was revealed that he died of a heart attack in 1975.
There are certain parallels. My father was born in 1925. He grew up during the Great Depression, served in the US Navy during WWII and worked as a business analyst at Union Carbide, a somewhat mysterious large chemical company. Later, he started his own business with a friend, but I have no idea what they did. In my father’s last episode, he had a heart attack in New York City in 1987 shortly after officially retiring. He survived in a coma for another week or so and lasted until the day after my wife gave birth to my son William. I guess he wanted to make sure everything turned out OK with William.
There is one significant difference between Jack Arnold in the Wonder Years and my father. Jack’s father and Kevin’s grandfather, Albert Arnold, is a recurring character in the series. He has a bit of a difficult relationship with his son. In one episode, Albert buys Kevin a dog named Buster and in another one he sells Kevin his car for a dollar. Kevin’s grandfather is a widower; his grandmother appears only in flashbacks. His grandfather is a cantankerous character, but there is evidently an extended family out there; one episode features a rather grim family car trip to go to the funeral of a cousin named Rose.
There was nothing like this rich background story in our own New Jersey version of the Wonder Years. To put it bluntly, there was no backstory for my father.
The Chinese consider ancestors and their ghosts or spirits to be part of this world. They are neither supernatural (in the sense of being outside nature) nor transcendent in the sense of being beyond nature. Ancestors are humans who have become godly beings, who keep their individual identities and who stay alive through the stories of their descendants.
In our family, we have many fine attributes, but curiosity about this strange vacuum of Italian ancestors was not one of them. I don’t really know my father’s full story. Who was he, really? Why the silence about his family?
My father, Joseph Mancini, was a man who loved a joke and who didn’t mind being the butt of a joke. We once convinced him to wear my Ramapo High School band uniform and put on an Oscar worthy performance of a street sweeper (a “Strassenputzer”—likely the sum total of three years of high school German) with many mouths to feed. He even allowed my buddy Ron and me to gather all the kids in the neighborhood for the photo shoot. It was for a German class video and shot on 8 mm film. I can tell endless stories about my father and the crazy things he did.
My father used to joke that during the years he commuted into New York City from New Jersey he would “leave his brain at the office” and not notice anything that occurred between home and the Union Carbide Building on Park Avenue in New York. He said he kept work in one box and home in another, and anything that occurred in between was just a mystery to him.
I got to experience this one summer when we both worked at Union Carbide. We would take the train into Hoboken, then the Path tubes to 33rd Street, and then walk—Lord, he could walk fast—the twelve north-south blocks and five, long east-west blocks, and usually arrived like clockwork at around 8:30. I would like to say that we used this time to bond deeply and discuss important issues, but truth be told, I was mostly half asleep and/or looking at girls, and he was, well, in his own self-confessed interim space in which nothing registered between home and Park and 47th.
His incredible skills of both avoidance and focus were demonstrated one morning to me walking up 6th Avenue. Looking ahead, I noticed a six-foot, six-inch man coming toward us, wearing purple high-top sneakers and nothing else. He seemed to accelerate as he approached, ultimately walking directly in between the two of us.
As we continued past our chance encounter with the purple high-top man, everyone he had left in his wake was of course pointing and laughing. It was a strange sight even in New York. My father stirred a bit from whatever internal conversation he was having.
“What is everyone looking at?” he asked.
He hadn’t seen it. Nothing. Nada. The at-home world and the at-work world were in their boxes, with the daily trip to and from New York somewhat of a no-man’s land between the two worlds.
My father would go to any lengths to avoid conflict. The phrase, “We just won’t go there anymore” was used so often and in so many contexts in our family that it became something of a legend. If we had been older, it would have been good fodder for a drinking game, a game that he would have refused to play.
It may sound like we all collectively suffered from the most pathetic lack of curiosity not to know more about my father’s family, but every family has its blank spots. And my father’s family was ours. Without any memory of my father’s parents, I sometimes wondered if they even existed. If their lives went unrecorded and forgotten, what then? What did it mean to my father to have this void in his life? What did it mean to us to be missing half our family? We didn’t know anything about them other than their names and a few very sketchy details. What does it mean to have no ancestors to honor or remember? I don’t know if it matters to the rest of the family, but it matters to me.
Truth be told, I think we were oblivious to this void growing up. After all, there were a lot of us to keep each other occupied; we were only one player short of a baseball team. There are many families that have gaps in what they know about their origins. But perhaps we were a bit over the top in this regard.
I wonder why we never knew more.
I realize now that I was dodging the core issue when I started this project. So, let me formally restate the “tell them what you are going to tell them” challenge from Miss Porro with regards to this story:
This is the story of the search for my father’s mystery parents. And in telling their story, I hope to better understand my father’s story.
The story of the search itself is a rather typical family history journey, albeit one that revealed things I never could have imagined about our family. One thing I found along this journey is that genealogy people are incredibly helpful. I spent a good portion of the last twenty-plus years of my career hanging about with records managers and archivists. I will admit that in the rush to embrace the latest and greatest technology, I didn’t always understand or appreciate them. But I do now. Any errors in genealogy are not intentional. But they are my fault.
The story of my Italian grandparents is in fact a story. But it is, as they say in the movie industry, “based on a true story.” The facts that surround the story of Elizabeth and Frank are true, but the color and texture that surrounds those facts are my own creations to give them life. As Christian columnist and New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans said in her 2018 book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, “Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale.”
As to what this all means about my father’s story—Dad you’ll need to trust me for a bit; I did my best. We see each other dimly now through a lot of years and a lot of unknowns, but someday we’ll sit down together, and all will be known.