“They really made my world a better place because of the things that they did.”
Actress and author Valerie Bertinelli has always identified with her father’s Italian heritage and remembers watching her “Nonni” (grandmother) cook at big family dinners. But that’s about as far back as her history goes. Now Valerie “doesn’t want to live in the dark anymore”—and her son, Wolfie, wants to know if they have a family crest.
Valerie begins by sitting down with her parents to learn what they know. Her father shares a picture of Valerie’s great-grandmother, Maria Mancia, standing behind a gelato cart. And Valerie’s mom says her sister once said they were English, and her mother’s name was Elizabeth Adams Chambers. Now Valerie has clues on both sides.
A search of U.S. census records shows Maria and her daughter Angelina—Valerie’s grandmother—living in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, so Valerie heads to the Lackawanna Historical Society to see what she can discover.
First, she examines a deed in which Maria grants the rights to her farm to her daughter and son-in-law within a week of her husband’s death. Then a newspaper article that leaves Valerie stunned: Maria’s husband, Gregorio, killed himself after firing two shots at his wife. Maria survived by playing dead.
Maria’s own obituary, 20 years later, reveals her maiden name: Possio. This clue lets Valerie use a passenger list (which lists Maria’s occupation as “cook”) to follow Maria and Angelina back to Lanzo, Italy. There, she finds a 1910 marriage document for Maria’s first marriage to Francesco Crosa. Unfortunately, Francesco died of a heart attack the next year.
But Maria has left one thing more behind, along with the photo and perhaps Valerie’s love for cooking: a third cousin who is still living in Lanzo and has a postcard that Maria sent to his father as she was getting ready to leave Italy for the United States. Her Italian journey has proven to be a rewarding experience.
Then it’s off to London to trace her mother’s English roots, which actually run deep in New Jersey before going back to England. Her New Jersey ancestors include a Mary Claypoole who turns out to be a “gateway ancestor,” a link to a family with a well-documented line.
Valerie’s Claypooles include a surprise: her 8x great-grandfather, James Claypoole, a leader among the Quakers both in England and later in the U.S. Valerie is surprised at this Quaker connection, especially when she learns James was a friend of William Penn and signed Penn’s Frame of Government, one of the first constitutions in the world.
Two generations further back she finds another James Claypoole. He changed the family’s fortunes by moving from the yeoman class to the gentry and was granted a coat of arms (Wolfie will be excited). This move to the upper classes allowed for social climbing among his descendants, and his son and heir, Adam, married into another “gateway” family, the Wingfields. Tracing this line back leads Valerie to her 16x great-grandfather: Edward I, King of England.
Valerie returns home with gifts for both her father and mother: a postcard written by her great-grandmother for Pops and a king in the family for Mom.
“It’s a history of people on both sides of my family who have wanted to make good for themselves and have wanted to improve their lives and improve the lives of their loved ones,” Valerie muses. “And that’s where I feel a connection because I’ve always wanted to improve the lives of the people that I love.”