The Boy on the Boat: Seeds of an American Family
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The Boy on the Boat: Seeds of an American Family

The story of immigrants; the story of America

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

My family has been in the United States for over a hundred years. The majority of my ancestors comes from Italy with two exceptions: my great-grandfather from Greece and twice-great-grandmother from Sicily. As a child, I was taught the distinction between Italy and the island of Sicily, and that it was important not to confuse them. We came here as a part of the "New Immigrants", mostly southern and eastern Europeans often viewed as somehow less than white by their fellow Old Wolders.

Neither side of my family really knows our story, the true story, of who or what we were back in Europe. My maternal grandmother, Linda Giovan, says the Tancredis, her maiden name, were some kind of royalty back in Tuscany, north-central Italy. Being the history buff I am, I dove into the books and did my own research, then found a friend who was able to dig further, confirming, as best he could, the story I had pieced together.

The name "Tancredi" stretches back to a line of Saxon kings who later moved down to Italy, as well as Crusader knights including Tancred, the King of Jerusalem and Tancred Tancredi, the first Priory of the Dominican Order in Tuscany, both of whom are likely my ancestors. However, most of my family is southern Italian, originating from the now extinct Kingdom of Naples and the aforementioned Sicily.

But all that was a long time ago, in a much different world. That's not where this story begins. It doesn't begin on any sovereign soil, American or European. Instead, it begins on a ship, rocking away in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on a voyage to hope.

On an unknown date, in a vague year, we can only accurately date as being sometime before the First World War, my great-grandfather was born in the middle of the Atlantic, on board the SS Ivernia, a ship that ferried thousands of immigrant families across the pond to the Land of Opportunity.

"My grandfather was born on a ship in the middle of the ocean," said my father, Paul Mirro, who heard the story from the proverbial horse's mouth as a child. "They originally named him 'Sebastione' but when he got to Ellis [Island] they changed it to Benjamin. Where they got Benjamin from, I'll never know, but I always knew him as Ben".

Benjamin brought nothing with him. His last name, "Ragonessi", was too changed, to Ragonese, a surname many of my cousins still bear. His father was a laborer and was, according to my grandmother, Benjamin's daughter, Adrian Mirro, involved in a pretty famous project.

"My grandfather built that," my grandmother pointed to a photo of the Empire State Building on the wall. "He was on the crew. That was our first job here in America. We were construction workers."

You won't find any mention of any Ragonese on or in the iconic New York City Tower, trust me I've looked. Even the internet failed to provide a record of the men on the crews who built the Empire. I often image my ancestor standing above the bustling street of a rising and growing Manhattan at the very dawn of what would become known as the American Century, not knowing me or the large family I am today a part of because of him.

Benjamin Ragonese dealt with a common problem among most immigrants. As my father puts it:

"Immigration in the U.S. has always followed this pattern: Once some new kind of people come in, the people already here suddenly forget they used to be somewhere else. When the Irish came here, they were harassed by the descendants of German and English immigrants. When we Italians came to America, the Irish got their revenge. I remember my older relatives looking back and talking about how my grandfather [Benjamin] and his friends used to have to run home while Irish New Yorkers pelted them with rocks".

As a child, two generations removed from Benjamin and the SS Ivernia, my father was taunted with the nickname "Little Guins", short for "Little Guinea," a slur denoting Italian heritage.

Even on Thanksgiving, 2018, I could see the stratification of opinion among the generations. The oldest in the house still hold some awkward grudge against the Irish-Americans who had treated our family so poorly. The folk more my dad's age, in their 50s and 60s, played it off as a joke, still making the same comments but in a manner more comical, as though they were commenting on their parents than anything else. My generation could not have cared less. The days of divides over Old World lines were long gone. We didn't see Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans, we just saw Americans. My own fondness for catchy Irish drinking songs might have put my great-grandfather in an early grave.

In 1919, the first American generation of Tancredi's was born, in the form of my maternal great-grandfather, Nicholas.

"He could have been a rich man," my grandmother, Linda, told me of her father. "He had good business sense but not much sense anywhere else".

My grandmother had blocked out many of her childhood memories, for the longest time they were too painful and, in her mind, not worth thinking, let along talking, about.

"I spent most of my childhood on the run," she told me. "I don't know who from but you could take your guess. The law? His 'employers'? Someone he borrowed money from? Probably all three and more. He wasn't the best father".

"Was he a gangster?" I asked further. Her wounds have long since healed, her father died in the 80s. "Was he in the Mafia?" That's an all too familiar question for many Italian-Americans.

"No!" yelled my mother, Gina, eavesdropping on the interview. "My grandfather wasn't a gangster".

"Well know when you knew him," responds my grandma. "I don't really know what he was. I know he didn't make money legally and I know we weren't running around Upstate New York for our health. We were being chased. He was some kind of criminal, a fool really, but a criminal. But I don't know if he was involved in any official capacity".

Nicholas Tancredi, the descendant of kings and holy men of old Europe, was, without a doubt, some sort of outlaw. Maybe he was of the sort best categorized as "unsuccessful". Still, things stood out. My mother had an uncle whose real name I'm not familiar with. My mom always called him "Uncle Sonny" and his friends knew him as "Blackie". In the mob world, both Sonny and Blackie are nicknames you give those you're close with, a Mafia term of endearment. You don't tell anyone to call you Blackie. One day some will and after that, they'll never call you anything else.

My mother and her four brothers, John, Chris, Anthony Jr., and Nicholas, remember their grandfather much fonder than their mother.

"He was always gruff," my uncle, John, the oldest of my grandmother's children, told me. "He spoke both Italian and English but he really didn't say much in either language. He had a way of scamming the kids in the house and the neighborhood. He'd sit in a lawn chair in front of his house, they lived across the street from us, and he'd have a drink with him and what not. When someone would walk past, as long as he knew them (and they were typically our friends), he'd tell them to run inside and grab him something or do some kind of quick job for him. Nothing extreme mostly running like 'go bring this to so and so'. And they would! That's the best part. He was a scary, dude. People listened to him".

"I remember he used to have all his friends over for poker and he'd play in this furnished basement," said my uncle, Chris, as we visited Nicholas' gravesite. "So I liked to just hang around him and he'd let me clean up after the game. I was a young kid and one day he handed me a paper bag and told me to 'toss it'. Before I did, I looked inside. There were only two things inside: a black glove and a revolver. I threw it away, I don't remember where, and never brought it up again".

Nicholas is buried with his wife at Calverton National Cemetery, a military gravesite for U.S. veterans back home on Long Island. The plaque, visible at our feet once we scrape away the leaves, says he served in World War II, but even my grandma, who counts among her earliest memories the euphoric chaos of V-J Day in 1945, thinks that's underserved.

"He was in the service if you want to call it that," my grandma told me. "I don't think he was ever overseas but either way he used his connections to get out and come home".

She then told me about her uncle, everything but his name, and how he left the States to fight the Fascists.

"My uncle, he actually served in the war. He was in Italy".

"I have to ask," I'm half joking, and joking with humor that doesn't come from her side of the family. "Was he in the U.S. Army or Mussolini's?"

She laughed and brushed it off. "He was American. But he didn't live. He died from a Nazi sniper who shot him from the Leaning Tower of Pisa". During the war, the Nazis converted the landmark architectural disaster into a guard tower.

Nicholas' mysterious nature and shady dealings, coupled with his aptitude for saying as little as possible, has contributed to my family's lack of knowledge regarding our lives before immigration to America or immediately following. I know almost nothing about my grandmother's grandparents, Nicholas' parents, only that my twice-great-grandmother spoke not one lick of English and lived long enough to meet my mother and uncles. This is all hazy enough, yet it gets even foggier when it comes to the strange case of one Mr. John Giovan.

My mother's maiden name is Giovan. The only daughter in a brood of five children, my brother and I stand apart as the only grandkids with the name "Mirro". Still, what's in a name?

We don't know when we actually don't have the slightest idea. But in the early 20th Century a passenger liner approached Ellis Island when an anonymous Greek immigrant leapt from the deck and swam ashore on his own. He would enter America illegally, never passing through the famous New York immigration hub, and never legally changed his name. Everything about him, his life back and Greece and his reasons for coming to the United States were left right there on that boat and to this day we have no idea why he chose to avoid Ellis.

Nonetheless, the unnamed Greek took the name "John", a decidedly not Greek name, and based on this, likely adopted the fake name "Giovan", which is a truncated Italian surname, not a Hellenic one. For the longest time, the family assumed Ellis had changed the name until my grandfather, Anthony, who often shied away from talking about his father, told us John had never crossed through immigration and the name, essentially, came from nowhere. So it would appear, that the name my mother bore half her life, and which half my family still signs their name with, was a fabrication.

When my grandfather, born, like this country, in Philadelphia, was eight years old, John died and his mother, an immigrant from Italy who had met John after he came to the country became the sole breadwinner. She even converted the family from Greek Orthodox, John's religion from home, to her Catholic faith, the religion I grew up with after my grandfather had been so devoted to it.

Still further was my grandfather devoted to whatever vestige of his Greek heritage he could salvage. He remembers old mass conducted in Latin and once I spent the better part of a day trying to help him find a parish that still spoke the dead language. He had tried to get every grandkid to call him "Papu", what he told us was the Greek version of "grandpa". We all just called him grandpa, except for the occasional "Papu" in passing. All except my brother, the youngest grandchild, who would never call him anything but Papu, and still refers to him as such.

Anthony Giovan, the son of a mysterious Greek and a religious Italian, met Linda Tancredi when Linda was just thirteen years old. They grew up together on Sullivan Street and claimed, as my grandmother still does to this very day, to have personally known the same Mr. Cacciatore that Billy Joel mentioned in the song Moving Out. Where they lived used to be part of Manhattan's Little Italy but today it has been absorbed into Chinatown, something my grandpa didn't know until I discovered it and told him.

"That's what happens," he told me. "People move. We're not there anymore. We don't even speak Italian anymore."

In 1952 my grandmother Adrian Mirro, born Adrian Ragonese, daughter of Benjamin Ragonese, the boy on the boat, was traveling on a train to visit her husband, Francis "Frank" Mirro, in Georgia. The Korean War had begun and Frank, my grandfather, had been drafted into the Army. That year, he was at basic training, though he would never go overseas.

"I used to go by train. This was Amtrak," my grandmother told me, recalling back to the Truman Administration. "And every time I would sit next to this woman and we had quite a bit in common. We would talk about news and politics, books and our husbands. It was comforting to have that."

Yet, every time, this comfort was interrupted.

"Whenever the train would reach the first station in Virginia, the train officials and security would escort this woman to another train and I wouldn't see her until who knows when".

This woman on the Amtrak train, who was so like my grandmother and provided her with comfort on the long train from New York, was black and Virginia was gripped in the rule of Jim Crow and segregation.

"I remember feeling awful, just awful. This wasn't right. That really stuck with me. It never left me, it still hasn't."

Adrian and Frank met in high school, actually, they met at a party. And they came to that party with different dates. At some point, the two crossed paths and decided they liked each other better and that was really that. I always say that if you knew them both, and knew their relationship, that story is so perfectly them. And it was, trust me.

So, Frank and Arian got married and right out of high school my grandmother had six kids: Stephen, Guy, Jeffery, Michelle, my father Paul, and Francine. At that point, my grandmother, bored of domestic life, went back to school. She earned her associate's degree at Suffolk County Community College. Then she earned first her bachelor's degree and then her law degree from Stony Brook University. She would spend the next thirty years as a research lawyer and mediator in the New York Family Court and New York Supreme Court.

Always, Adrian remained concerned with the world around her, always paying particular concern with those mistreated in the country.

"I marched for Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman ever elected to Congress. And she was from New York, you know? This was when I was in college and taking my first political science classes. I became very active in these kinds of things. We ended up on a train going down to her office in D.C. and I remember all the black protestors in the sleeping car were so weirded out by this older white lady sleeping next to them. But I didn't care. We were all fighting for the same thing".

Again, if you know my grandma, this isn't hard to imagine.

"My dad told me you marched with Gloria Steinem?"

"Yes, I marched with Gloria. Your grandfather was with me, too. He marched with her. We were marchers. That's what we did. I can't tell you all the things we marched for but we marched for what was right".

I lot of people compare me to my grandma and she has always been a great influence on my life. And in that way, the likes of trailblazing journalists and politicians like Steinem and Chisolm have always been an influence on me, before I ever knew they existed.

In the mid-1950s, as the Korean War came to a close and Adrian stopped taking her rides to Georgia, Anthony Giovan enlisted in the Navy as a chef and was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. After my grandpa passed away, my grandmother took out an old jewelry box, unable to close it was so stuffed. Inside were dozens of handwritten letters my grandfather had sent my grandma from the ship, each envelop yellowing with blue and red border trim, promptly stamped with a UNITED STATES NAVY steal.

"At one point I told him I dropped out of college," she told me.

"I didn't know you dropped out of college," I said.

"I didn't know you went to college," said my brother, fiddling with the pieces of correspondence. I jabbed his ribs for being insensitive.

"I was worried he'd feel dumb for having a wife that went to college when he didn't. Those were the times. I wanted to marry him more than I wanted to go to college."

My grandfather wanted the opposite. His letter begged my grandmother to reconsider and resume her education:

"I always tell my friends 'I got a girl back home, she's so smart you have to meet her'. I brag about you always. You don't have to worry about me. I will never feel stupid. I have you".

In 1956, the Cold War threatened to thaw, and in the Mediterranean of all places. War erupted in Egypt when Israel invaded and was soon followed by their English and French allies. My grandpa wrote from the deck of his aircraft carrier bastion"

"You can only see the faintest thing coming from the shore. We're far into the sea but close enough that you can really hear the sounds of whatever is going on there. They won't tell us much but I've heard those are Brits and French there. If I am not able to write again, know that I'm sorry that I didn't keep that promise to marry you I made when we were kids. But with what might unfold I worry I might not come home. But if and when I do, I intend to marry you".

"He was dramatic," said my grandma, smiling.

The Suez Crisis lasted only a little over a week and, of course, Private Anthony Giovan survived to marry Linda Tancredi. In 1983, their only daughter, Gina, met Paul Mirro. Six years later, they were married.

The name Mirro itself is a mystery. All records indicate it existed from our earliest arrivals at Ellis but we don't have any of that information. As we say "Mirro isn't the most Italian of Italian names". Mirro appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the 1920s as a family of ice workers, folk who cut and delivered ice for cooling purposes in the days before air conditioning and refrigeration. How or when we got here is unknown. Even my Uncle Jeff's deep dive into provided only records from after we'd already been in the New World. This branch of my family, the one which gave me my name, has seemingly been in the country the longest and yet we know very little.

Yet, again, I'm drawn to ask what's in a name? Does it really matter where it came the names Mirro or Giovan came from or what we were back in Europe? Maybe not. I suppose it has only as much value as you give it. But that's not worth thinking about. I prefer to think, instead, about the SS Ivernia on that unknown date, in an unknown time, when that infant first name Sebastione cried his first breath, the breath that would bore a line in America leading to me, a line born in the Land of Opportunity, that Land of Freedom.

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