I grew up in San Francisco in the Irish Catholic tradition. Both of my parents and most of my relatives were Irish Catholics. The church where we worshiped and the school we attended was mostly Irish Catholic. As we transitioned into adulthood it looked like we were going to continue this tradition for another generation: My sister Pat married a Casey. Betty got hitched to a Murray and Joan latched onto a Murphy. But my brother and I veered off-course a tad — my wife is a Catholic from Guam and Jim married a Presbyterian! And then my youngest sister Marie began dating a guy named Lozano who was half Spanish and half Italian and when they got married in 1973 we all concluded that we were now a truly diversified American family!
We never got to know Dennis’ mother very well. She died not long after their marriage. Her name was Beatrice Maniscalco, the daughter of Antonio and Josephine Maniscalco. Her father was a Sicilian fisherman who came to San Francisco as a young man and settled down with many friends and relatives in North Beach, the city’s Italian neighborhood, in the early years of the 20th century. Beatrice had many brothers and sisters and she asked her youngest sister Pauline to be her son’s godmother.
When Dennis was young his family moved out of North Beach and settled down in St. Cecilia’s parish in the Sunset District, a much more diversified area of the city than North Beach. Dennis started hanging around with a lot of Irish Catholic kids in the neighborhood, some of whom began dating girls from Mercy High School. And that’s how he met Marie.
Marie and Dennis moved to Alaska shortly after their marriage and there were long periods over the years when we didn’t see each other. They raised their family in Eagle River, Marie continued working for the IRS, and Dennis dabbled in a number of occupations before settling down — in his grandfather’s tradition — as a fisherman. They would usually come down every year for Christmas but we seldom ventured up North. Our first visit to Alaska was in 1977 shortly after their son Dominic was born. And our second visit was 24 years later when Dominic and Andra were married. We also attended Eric and Angela’s wedding a few years later.
My fourth trip to Eagle River occurred in the summer of 2008 when two of my sisters and I decided to surprise Marie and attend her IRS retirement party. We had a nice weekend that included an overnight visit to their cabin in Healy and Dennis and I found some time to have a few long conversations.
Dennis and I did not have too much in common and we were never too close. He was an outdoorsman who loved to laugh and he embraced life. His dream was to someday compete in the Iditarod mid-winter thousand mile sled-dog race and one year he did. I, on the other hand, am an indoorsman who prefers to read and reflect and avoid cold weather at all costs. On that long Alaska weekend, though, we found that we had two things in common: a strong interest in family roots and a desire to travel to Italy.
We talked about my trip to Ireland in 2002 and my quest to find the birthplaces of my Irish ancestors. Dennis told me that he was interested in visiting the village of Sciacca in Sicily where his grandfather was born and that he would like to also travel to Rome and other places in southern Italy. I talked to him about our plans to visit Rome and other places in northern Italy in 2009. We were drawn to Italy because of its history and art and architecture. We also decided to spend a week in my Ireland. Dennis wanted to spend a few weeks in his Italy, the land of his ancestors. And, of course, we both looked upon Rome as the home of our Catholic religion, what Irish and Italians have the most in common.
We corresponded for several months on genealogy and I told Dennis how I found many members of a long lost branch of my family and gave him a few tips on using the Internet for genealogy. I even volunteered to do some research on his Maniscalcos and discovered that someone else — one of his cousins from whom he hadn’t heard in a long time — was also researching his grandfather. I passed along to Dennis the website address where I found the Maniscalco query and he wrote to his cousin.
I drew Dennis’ name out of the family Christmas Present Hat that year and sent him a book on the history of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. There was an entire chapter in the book about the Sicilian crab fishermen including many Maniscalcos who were declared aliens at the outbreak of World War II and had their fishing boats confiscated and were told that they had to stay a mile away from the Wharf. Dennis’ grandfather never learned English, never became a citizen and so was considered a potential Fascist spy even though at the time he was in his early seventies! Antonio loved his adopted country, though, and he couldn’t understand why the goverment took away his livelihood. Several of his sons, in fact, served in the US Army during the war. Marie tells me that Dennis was late for Christmas dinner that year– he couldn’t put the book down until he read all about San Francisco’s Sicilian fishermen during World War II.
Well, in the Spring of 2009 my wife and I spent three weeks in Italy, spending four days each in Milan, Venice and Florence and an entire week in Rome. But Dennis and Marie never made it. Dennis had been fighting myelofibrosis for many years and his condition took a turn for the worse and they had to cancel their plans.
Later that year Dennis spent three months at UCSF hoping for a stem cell transplant but he got so ill that his doctors told him that he could not survive an operation and at the end of the year they sent him home to die. As soon as he got home, though, he felt better and he lived another three years until the medicine he received from an experimental program at Stanford could no longer work and he died on November 30th last year.
We had a memorial service for Dennis in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. He’s gone now but his spirit lives on in our memories and the Italian heritage that he introduced into the family continues with his children Dominic and Angela and their offspring. And now my own two daughters have joined this new tradition: each of my sons-in-law are half Italian. And so my own four grandkids are a quarter Irish, a quarter Guamanian and another 25% Italian! Sempre Famiglia!