I’ve been trying to figure out who my great-grandmother was. What was she like. I don’t know anyone still living who would remember her. I don’t have diaries or other first-hand accounts. I have a handful of facts and my imagination. Her name was Alphonsine. I’ve never come across that name anywhere else. How unique was she?
One thing I know about my great-grandparents is they divorced in the 1930s. The divorce record cited “extreme cruelty” as the reason. Meaning my great-grandfather physically abused my great-grandmother, possibly also my grandfather and his siblings. I discussed this discovery with my dad. It made him think about how my grandpa never drank alcohol. Hated the stuff. So, I can surmise that alcohol was a piece of the puzzle. I got sidetracked into researching my great-grandfather as I wondered how did he turn out that way?
Carlo (“Charly”), born 1888, came to the United States from Italy when he was 16 years old. He worked as a coal miner in Illinois for a time and eventually applied for citizenship. On his petition for naturalization, his witnesses listed “bartender” and “saloon keeper” as their professions. Was he friends with these men because he liked to drink or did he drink because he was friends with a bartender and saloon keeper? Being all alone in a foreign country, you probably latch on to any friend you can. Perhaps any vice as well.
Charly briefly served in the military during WWI and by 1920 he was living in Detroit.
Alphonsine arrived in the United States in June of 1921 and two weeks later, they were married. On her travel papers, she had already named him her husband. Had she known him at all before they were married? Their families must have known each other in Milan. Was this an arranged marriage? Every uncovered fact raises more questions.
Alphonsine and Charly were separated by 1930 Alphonsine was head of her household in the census for that year. Her children were 8, 5, and 3 years old. My grandpa was the oldest. Whatever went on between Alphonsine and Charly, it probably created lasting memories for him.
My grandpa was a sweet man. I can still picture his eyes, twinkling with mischief. He always took my side when my dad and I disagreed on something. I have pictures of him as a young man with his friends where he always looks like he’s just told a joke. He’s more serious in pictures with my grandma, but very doting. He grew up with a drunk abusive father, yet he grew into a caring man with a good sense of humor. I imagine Alphonsine must have had a good wit and playful personality as well. Charly showed my grandpa what he did not want to be. But Alphonsine shaped the man he did become.
I have found very little about Charly’s parents and upbringing, nothing to shed light on how he turned out the way he did. Or what he was like before he started drinking. A judge granted Alphonsine the divorce in 1938. Charly died in 1944 at the age of 56.
Alphonsine eventually remarried and passed in 1959. I wish I could talk with her. I have so many questions. She is a person I would like to know. As a consolation, I have a picture of her near my desk. She keeps me company while I research and write. Every now and then I glance over and see her sweet and kind smile.