Family Secrets

The Mystery of Our Family Name

Who doesn't know their own family name? How do you not clear something like this up?

The picture of the man is no clearer to me than his memory. That's because my grandfather was a ghost.

Is a ghost, I should say. After all, my father's father's shadowy presence is as real to me today as it was when I was a boy. Which is to say that it isn't very real to me at all, and never was.

I don't know what he did for a living, how he spent his time, or even where or with whom he lived. How and where the man died is another mystery. I have no reason to suspect foul play but still, what's the big secret?

Hell, I don't even know my own grandfather's name, for Christ's sake. Not for certain, anyway. Neither do my brothers or their sons. And we're all named after him. We think.

Think about this for a moment. Who doesn't know their own family name? It's not like we're talking about people who were lost or separated from each other in a war. My grandfather's children knew him. He was around until they had kids of their own, me included. There was plenty of time to put to rest the mystery of the family name and to put everybody on the same ancestral page.

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But no such luck. Until the day that he died, my father used the surname that my brothers and I are known by, insisting that it was handed down to him by his father. But his two sisters went by another name, and they too argued it was the correct one—and handed down to them by the very same man who gave it to my father. End of discussion.

That's the part that makes me crazy. How do you not clear something like this up? My father and his sisters lived blocks from one another and saw each other regularly. What possible point was there in leaving a genealogical tree, even a tenuous one such as ours, exposed to the elements without benefit of a reliable root system?

I should mention that one of my grandfather's names is known to us. It is that which was given to him by his parents back in 19th-century Italy, and it happens to be one that we share: Raffaele. My mother and father simply went with the English equivalent, Ralph, when I showed up in Brooklyn in the late 1950s. It was their way to honor the man, though I was never clued in as to why they would want to.

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The fact is that I know precious little about my namesake. He had at least two wives, possibly twice that many. I've been told that my father's mother died at an early age and when he was just a little boy. After her death "they" are said to have "taken the boy away from" Raffaele because he was unable to care for his son all by himself and was too poor to buy himself some help.

How long my father lived in that first orphanage has never been made clear to me either. All I've been told is that my grandfather remarried just so that he could retrieve his children. But the marriage didn't work out. Apparently, his new wife was keen on beating the crap out of small children and so Raffaele got rid of her and prayed for the best. Evidently, the best never arrived. By the time my father walked out of the last in a string of foster homes, he was old enough to join the Army and so he did.

That's literally everything that I know about Raffaele Raffio, or whatever his name was. He died when I was just a couple years old. His son Michael, my dad, never talked about him while I was growing up. And by the time I was old enough to start asking questions, my father too was gone. His sisters and their children were around some, but on the few occasions that we saw each other they never seemed at all interested in discussing Raffaele. In fact, they wouldn't discuss him. Soon enough they were gone too.

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Shortly before she died, I asked my mother if she could tell me anything more about my grandfather than I've told you here. We were sitting in the courtyard outside the nursing home where she had gone to live. It was a perfect late summer day and we had just finished eating the lunch that I'd gathered from her favorite Italian salumeria.

"I know almost everything about your side of the family but absolutely nothing about Daddy's," I said turning Mom's wheelchair into the sun as she had requested. "What's up with that, Mom? For as long as I live, this just will never make any sense to me."

Even diminished, my mother remained pretty sharp. I've always taken great comfort in this. Dementia just never did find its ugly way to her.

"You know, I really wish that I could help you, but I just can't," she answered. "That family wasn't like ours. You know, together the way we are, there for each other. Your father went through Hell and he wanted to put it all behind him. I honestly don't know any more than you do. I wish I did."

I could see that she was getting emotional and for the first time in my life it occurred to me how hard this all must have been on her. You know, being married to a man whose entire past and much of his present are kept from you. Almost entirely.

In an instant, I decided to back off. What was the point? So I'm curious—so what. Is that worth making an old lady in a wheelchair who just happens to be the best mother anybody could ever hope to score for themselves upset?

"I'm sorry, Ma, never mind, it's OK," I said, taking her hand. "Really, just forget about it. Not a big deal. How about we take a little stroll?"

"No, let's not," she said clasping my right hand in both of hers. "You have a right to ask questions like this. Everybody does."

My mother was looking deep into me now.

"Your father's been gone a long time and I'm not going to be around much longer myself," she said looking into the sun again, not into me. "Sooner or later, we all have to accept the fact that we're never going to get all the answers we're looking for.

"You won't be the first person to be disappointed in that way. Understand?"

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