Stories in the Genes

During my childhood, I was aware of only six relatives on my father’s side beyond his siblings’ families. It seemed as if the Delessios popped onto the planet from nowhere. They were Italian—I knew that much—but the first generation ditched their names and kept quiet about the past; my great-grandmother abandoned Catholicism when one Sunday she took the Eucharist and returned to her pew to find her purse gone. My dad’s generation never learned the language or the family recipes or anything about their heritage except the sketchiest of stories: My uncle was born frozen on the stoop. We weren’t really Italians, we were Albanians. After my great-grandfather’s first wife died, he ordered a second one by mail. He spoke Muschitan, a name that sent us into hysterics because surely someone made it up.

That’s the extent of what we knew.

This tragic loss is likely the result of anti-Italian prejudice at the turn of the century, the traumas of poverty and immigration, and the savvy survival instincts of my great-grandparents. Family history on my mother’s side is only slightly better, which means that I, like many European Americans, live with the sense that my family huddles in the present, isolated from the past and unaffected by our ancestors. I am my own person. I make my own decisions. I’m responsible for the life I’ve created.

About five years ago, however, my dad learned of a small village called Maschito where they do indeed speak a dialect called Maschitan and are descended from Albanians. My parents and I traveled there, dug around in government records, and found there the D’Alessio name in elegant script. That trip opened a portal; information kept coming. When a few months ago my aunt and uncle discovered old documents in their closets, we decided another genealogical research trip was in order.

In preparation, I got my DNA tested. And there, hidden in my genes, I found the enormity of my family story: Two hundred living Italian relatives who’d also been tested; the legacy of French and Turkish invaders in southern Italy; the pride of Albanian refugees; the grandparents of my grandmother who had seventeen children; the surname signaling that an ancestor had been abandoned; my great-grandfather’s three marriages; his father’s three marriages; deaths of children, deaths of wives, so much death.

I contain all this. I’m made up of my people. Their losses and resilience and courage vibrates in my cells. A person is a person through other persons, Desmond Tutu says, and I know this now. In Maschito, the young mayor translated for us the motto on the village flag: Our blood is everywhere. She gestured to us and said in clear English, “See? You’re evidence of this.” My ancestors are with me, in me. Their stories are my story, and somehow this is comforting. I’m not alone. I’m living out our story—and it’s so big, surely it’s holy.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


For the last few years I’ve been wondering whether the final stage of the writing process–that period after completing a project which we usually call “publishing”–can be creative, transformational, and life-giving for the writer.  This Saturday I’m offering a new workshop at the Loft based on my new thinking called The Launch: Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity.  I’d love for you to join me!  From 1:30pm-4:30pm.

Also coming up:

November 9, 1:30-3:30:  Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.

December 14, 1:30-3:30Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

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