It’s hard for me to imagine having to choose between love and family. If I could marry the person I love, but my family would disown me, would I do it? It’s possible that it wouldn’t work out, and then what? Luckily, this question is one that few of us have to face today, thanks to the general open-mindedness of many Americans in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, though, this was and still is a somewhat common occurrence in other places, where interethnic conflict prevails over love and happiness. My great grandmother, Eugenia DeFerrari, was forced to make this impossible choice when she fell in love with a man from Bari, in Southern Italy. So the story goes. Eugenia was from Genoa, in Northern Italy, where industry flourished and wealth flowed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The South of Italy, though, wasn’t so fortunate; it was poor, unindustrialized, and crime-ridden.
Due to this disparity of wealth, the two regions stood opposed to one another. The South raged with jealousy and indignity over the success of the North, while the North stuck up its nose at the petty and meager South. So when Eugenia told her family that she wished to marry a boy from Bari, well…you can imagine how her family took it. My ancestors disliked the idea of Eugenia marrying a boy from the South – but they also favored Eugenia’s sister, Lulu, over her, and so became suspiciously particular over Eugenia’s marriage prospects. That Southern boy’s name was Nicholas DePasquale – the same name my father bears. So, you can see what ended up happening, evidently. Both of their families came to the United States when they were kids – Eugenia’s family moved over conflict with other family members in Genoa, and Nicholas’ family immigrated to escape the insufferable and persistent poverty that gripped Bari. They met here and fell in love, much to the chagrin of Eugenia’s mother. Disregarding their disapproval, my great grandmother married Nicholas and bore Luigi, Josephine, Eugene and my grandfather, Nicholas.
After having already moved to Brooklyn from my native Long Island, I visited my grandpa in Greenwich Village to catch up and tell him how my semester was going and how I was finding my living quarters. I told him where I lived, and the proximity to the school. To my surprise, he said this: “It’s like things are coming full circle; I watched Brooklyn College being built; I went to elementary school right across the way. You know, I lived on East 19th Street and Avenue J, right near the school.” He asked me to take a picture of his old house, coincidentally 10 minutes from where I live currently. I was astounded. This whole time, living 10 minutes from where my grandfather grew up. My room has a view of East 26th street, quite close to 19th. He lived there with his Aunt Lulu and his grandmother. Lulu was a talented jeweler who owned an office in downtown Manhattan – unusual for a woman of the time. For my Communion my grandpa gave me a ruby that belonged to her; it’s my birthstone.
“You know the Brooklyn College athletic field?” he asked me. I affirmed that I did. “The circus used to visit that ground before the field was there. I’d go every time, as it was right by my elementary school.” I couldn’t believe it, this cosmic coincidence. When I’m lonely or feeling blue, it gives me solace to know that this land isn’t so strange to me after all, that I have some amorphous birthright to this place, where my grandfather spent his childhood. It makes me feel more at home, knowing that a house with strong family ties is just a few blocks away, and if I wished I could go see it, go see where Nicholas DePasquale II spent his tender youth. That house on East 19th street still holds quite the family significance, though we’ve long since moved out and the house has long since been sold. My great great grandma passed away there, taken by a heart attack right there in my grandpa’s arms when he was just a boy. It was at that moment that my grandpa vowed to become a cardiologist, having had his life affected so drastically and so tragically by the human heart. His profession and dedication built a bountiful life for my father, aunts, and uncles. He worked fastidiously and diligently, becoming one of the best cardiologists in New York, being named so officially by New York Magazine. He wrote a landmark book on Electrocardiography that, in the dedication, contains the names of my aunts, uncles, and grandma. Seeing that dedication as a child made me wildly proud, though I did not know what the feeling of pride exactly was. In 2002, he was named Chief of Cardiology at Lenox Hill Hospital, where he worked well into his 80s, even while being stricken by Parkinson’s. So, we owe a lot to that house in Midwood. I don’t know where we’d be as a family had my grandfather not experienced the shocking yet motivating death of his grandma. I know for a fact he’d be successful, as he possesses a strong natural proclivity for just about anything – but I doubt so many of our family members would have taken up medicine to follow in his footsteps. In this way, we have been shaped irreversibly by Brooklyn, and the human heart, too.
As we go into 2014 and I reflect on the immigration of my paternal great grandparents, just a tile in the cultural mosaic of my heritage, I realize the importance of remembering, acknowledging, and respecting one’s past. Our personal histories- going back generations – have truly made us who we are, though as human beings we naturally fight the idea of having no control over things. We need to realize and respect our forefathers and mothers, our true determinants. Our ancestors have an absolute and indelible effect on our lives; had their cosmic paths unfurled differently, we certainly would not be the same people. To me, this is a remarkable revelation. We owe so much to people we hardly knew, yet people we are intimately and immutably connected to.
In addition to being Italian, I am also Irish, German, and minutely English. So why did I choose this story, and not all of the other ones that I perhaps could have? I believe in the significance of names – names bear so much history and life and memory. My family name is DePasquale, coming from Nicholas DePasquale I of Bari, and from the men, unknown to me, that came before him. This name has come to mean very much to me as I explore my family’s past – it is a proud name, but it is not without its fair share of pain. “DePasquale” literally means “of Easter.” While this exact significance in terms of our family origin is still a mystery, just having a concrete translation is a sort of quiet comfort in itself. I don’t particularly care for Easter, but it holds a special place in my heart due to the special place it occupies in my name. In full, I am Happy Christmas of Easter. Festive, isn’t it?
We should all know where our family names come from, as they have more bearing on our lives than most people are aware of. Names revel in triumph, endure travail, and ultimately survive, bequeathing their swollen histories, tender memories, and deep battle scars unto their nascent inheritors. By writing this story I am paying homage to our collective history, acknowledging its distant yet heavy influence on my life. I feel that I am finally coming to understand the complexities and simplicities, joys and sorrows of the DePasquales. I am, as we all must, learning my past so I may brave my future.