I often think about the sacrifices my ancestors made so I could be here today. I think about the courage it took them to leave their homeland and sail to the New World. I am 50% Italian, 25% German, and 25% English. Sir William Morton and Lady Anne Smyth arrived in the early 1600s in Virginia. Peter and Elizabeth Schmidt arrived in Baltimore harbor, as did many Germans, in the late 1800s. Guido and Veronica Baldecchi arrived on Ellis Island in 1905, like so many Italian immigrants in that day. Whether they journeyed by sail or steam, acknowledging the risk each family took to leave behind what he or she knew as a way of life is a bit overwhelming. What fate brought them together?
Earlier this fall I was reading about the elective class opportunities our middle school teachers were offering our students. Debbie Arbaugh sent out an email about her genealogy elective, and with it there was a link to Ancestry.com’s educational website. It peaked my interest, and one Saturday I got on Ancestry’s website and didn’t come up for air for four hours. I was totally hooked.
Within the first hour I was looking at copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, passenger lists, census data, war papers, death certificates, grave sites – you name it – fascinating documents confirming bits and pieces of family lore. Once I interviewed my great uncle on my father’s side about his family’s years working in the Pennsylvania coal mines, like so many Italian immigrants new to America. I learned that the family moved back to the New York area after one son lost all of his fingers in a mining accident. My on-line search yielded the birth certificate of my grandfather in the town of Snowdon in Alleghany County, Pennsylvania.
Years later, from the 1930s, there is a census report that has my grandfather living in Paterson, New Jersey, working as a dyer in a textile mill. Did he know in just three short years he would have his first child, my father, and discover how to dye acetate fabric and start his own company? With both the German and Italian lines, the paper trail ended abruptly once the families immigrated to America, but with my grandfather’s family from Virginia, it just kept going and going. Clearly some researcher had made the genealogical jump back to England. The last known connection was to the birth of my 12th generation great grandparent born in 1545. It was so fascinating. I kept thinking about the myriad decisions, choices, and chances that led to my being alive today in Kentucky.
Along with this research, I started watching Henry Lewis Gates’s show on PBS entitled Finding your Roots. In this show Henry Gates takes famous individuals and traces their genealogy and their DNA. There is always some surprising revelation. For example, Carly Simon discovered that she was descended from freed slaves in Cuba. If you haven’t watched an episode, I encourage you to give it a try. This show and the Ancestry website have fueled my fascination with my people from the past.
In a long and winding way, this brings me to one of The Lexington School’s themes during November: Gratitude. I am grateful to those ancestors who boarded boats, whether a hundred years ago or four hundred years ago. That first step took courage. But that was just the beginning, because life wasn’t easy once they arrived. I am grateful for this “imperfect union” that is The United States of America because of the opportunities it provided my ancestors.
I also have deep gratitude for education. It gave my ancestors the freedom to pursue opportunities and have options. Because of education, I could pursue my passion for teaching instead of being limited to textiles, baking, or farming. The bottom line is I am lucky to be here alive and happy and free.
This Thanksgiving all of the Baldecchis will break bread around the same table. There will be dishes that have their roots in our diverse family genealogy. Sauerkraut next to the Smithfield ham, next to the oysters and Italian Ripieno, next to the Bourbon sweet potatoes and Boston creamed onions. It would be considered heresy not to have one of those side dishes around the table, both America’s and my family’s “melting pot” represented on a plate. For this and for many other reasons, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.