My maternal grandmother, "Susie," was born Assunta Mansolino in 1904. Susie's mother, Amalia, died when I was just four, so I have no memory of her. I wish I had been old enough to know Amalia, however, for she had led a very full life, being thrice wed.
I did have some clues about Amalia. The widow of her first husband, Susie's father, she had divorced her other two. A tough woman, she battled the men in her life, including Susie's husband, my grandfather Lou. Over the years, their feud corroded their relationship to the point that in her will she directed that Susie not receive any legacy until Lou died, a fate that did not occur for almost 20 years.
My first cousin Jim still jokes about the photograph of Amalia that he found so formidable that he called a set of her dishes "battleax-ware." Long before Amalia menaced my grandfather, she had been the young wife and widow of Michele Mansolino, who sired Susie, Tony, and two daughters who died very young and were both named Filomena. Amalia's shadowy first husband and her dead daughters remained more elusive.
The best place to start genealogy research is to request a death certificate. In seeking dates of birth and death, fatal illnesses, and last known addresses, death certificates really constitute a mother lode. A death certificate may enable you to trace another generation, since it often names the parents of the deceased.
To order a death certificate from a department of vital records, however, one must at least have an approximate date of death; a detail often obscured by the failing memories of the living or lost altogether. I had no dates except that Susie's father died when she was five. In many cases, fortunately, the records maintained by cemeteries can often aid in this search for dates.
Amalia, having been divorced when she passed away, was buried alone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA. I inferred from this that maybe Michele and the two Filomenas could be buried there as well. My mother and I, however, searched for a Mansolino headstone to no avail. Stumbling over markers and trying not to step on graves for a few hours suggested to me that their grave might be unmarked.
Having no luck in finding them, I decided to write to Holy Cross Cemetery, requesting records of the burials. I did not receive a reply for quite a while. The cemetery eventually sent a cemetery map and a "lot profile" listing the three deceased, as well as the dates of their interments, and their location in a single grave. My suspicions were correct!
Now having the dates, 1909 for Michele, 1906 for the first Filomena (named Marie in their records), and 1916 for her sister, I was able to contact the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records with dates of interment, which are usually quite close to dates of death. After a wait, the three certificates arrived in the mail on the same day.
I learned that thirty-eight-year-old Michele had died of lobar pneumonia, three years after his toddler, Marie, perished of confluent measles and typhoid fever. His death left Amalia with a year-old son and two young daughters. Filomena, named Mamie on her death certificate, succumbed seven years later, during Christmas week, to peritonitis following the rupture of her appendix.
Putting all of this together, I realized Amalia had lost half of her family in less than ten years. A young widow with small children to support, she probably had no choice but to repeatedly open the single grave. I need to go back to Holy Cross with my cemetery map to look for a single marker, but I still suspect that the three lie together in an unmarked grave.
Pursuing this inquiry created complex feelings in me: compassion for the young wife and mother Amalia had been and sadness for my great-grandfather and my young great-aunts, all dead so young. It made me curious about Susie's brother Tony, a year old when his father died, someone whom I never met, although he lived into his eighties.
Lastly, I felt strangely reassured after I told my grandmother Susie about the name "Mamie" on Filomena's death certificate. My grandmother, now 95, smiled lovingly at my mention of her long-dead playmate. Defying the separation of 83 years, her smile testified to the tenacity of human affection: love is stronger than death.