Alison Greene is four-foot-something with a gregarious personality, dark eyes, curly hair and a quick smile. You like her as soon as you meet her. I first met Alison at a meeting for an Italian memorial in Portland, where she intrigued me with the admission that she had discovered she was Italian only 8 years ago. Her comment brought to mind a book I had read several years ago, “Were you always an Italian?” by author Maria Laurino.
Family trees usually have an empty branch or two. Alison knew she was adopted from the time she was old enough to understand what it meant. Growing up in southern California, her adopted dad was an entertainer, working with Frank Sinatra among others. Alison graduated college and eventually moved to Vancouver where she has practiced law since 1989. Always in the back of her mind was the question, “Who am I?”
“I always wondered am I Mexican? Greek? Turkish? Italian?” Alison laughed, referring to her dark features. The answer came in a box of forgotten documents in 2007.
“After my mother passed away, I found a document. It was actually hand-written by my birth mother and signed four days after I was born. It showed my father was Italian and my mother was Czech-French Canadian.”
The handwritten paper also gave her father and mother’s names. The empty branch on the family tree was beginning to leaf out.
“My father was Joseph Samuel Di Gioia,” explained Alison. “The Italian side of the family intrigued me so I hired a company to search for him. I finally got a call saying they had found him.”
Unfortunately, her father had already passed away, but she learned that she had a brother and it wasn’t long before she made contact with his wife, Lisa, through social media.
“When I got in touch with her,” remembers Alison, “she said, ‘oh my gosh, yes, we’ve known about you. Joe always talked to us about having a daughter.’ ”
Months went by, filled with other conversations until one Christmas Lisa called Alison and told her that her grandmother wanted to see her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” laughed Alison. “Here I was 48 years old and I had a grandmother.”
Grandma Maria Wright Di Gioia was 98 when Alison drove to Bend, Oregon for their first meeting. As the door opened, the two women found themselves looking at mirror images of each other – same dark eyes and dark curly hair, same profile and complexion.
“I asked if I could call her grandma,” Alison recalled. “And she said, ‘oh honey, I’ve been waiting 48 years for this’ and then she hugged me and cried.”
There was an immediate bond between Alison and Maria. Maria showed her family photos and taught her how to make her mom’s sauce with meatballs and homemade pizza dough. Long conversations filled in the blanks about Alison’s father, his siblings, and extended family.
Maria was born in July 1912 in Leonforte, Sicily and immigrated with her family when she was only 10 months old. After arriving through Ellis Island, the family first settled in New York before moving to southern California. Since her mother didn’t speak any English, Maria eventually dropped out of school to help support the family. She did sewing and fabrication, particularly during WWII, and developed a lifelong love of needlework and crochet. She was able to go back to school when finances were stable.
Maria had eight siblings; Santo (Sal), Santa, Rose, Josephine, Carmela, Joseph, Sarafina (Faye), and Madeline. The first time Uncle Sal met Alison, he marveled at the resemblance to his sister Rose.
Armed with family history, Alison traveled to Sicily. The priest in Leonforte located many of the family documents, and the guide she was traveling with took her to the cemetery where they found several relatives, including Maria’s grandmother, Rosa La Porta Varvuzza. From there, they found the house of Maria’s 80-year-old first cousin, Rosa Varvuzza and more family, more photographs and more memories. Alison brought the family documents and connections back to her new family.
“It was an incredible experience,” Alison remembered. “On a prior trip to Sicily, I had called Maria and she wanted me describe everything to her; she had no memory of Sicily.”
It wasn’t long after her initial contact with the family that cousins started calling from all over the United States. The family welcomed her with open arms.
Maria spent the last several years of her life getting to know the granddaughter she finally met after 48 years. She passed away shortly after her 100th birthday. With grandma gone, Alison has developed close relationships with several of her cousins and they keep in touch on a regular basis.
“We were so close,” says Alison of her relationship with Maria. “I am so grateful. I have been treated like family.”