Italian family tree's leaves blow far

June 15, 1994|By Albert Mobilio | Albert Mobilio,Newsday

My wife and I were out with another couple recently, and we were talking about ethnicity. We realized that if our friends had a daughter (half Jewish-half Irish) and we had a son (half Italian-half Jewish) who married, our grandchildren would be a mish-mash of cultures, practically deracinated and stripped of any real heritage.

That may be true, I said, thumping my chest, but they would have my name. What that name might be worth, in the face of eroding European ethnic identity, is precisely what Bill Tonelli sets out to discover in his sociological picaresque, "The Amazing Story of the Tonelli Family in America."

Mr. Tonelli received a mailbox pitch to buy a "burgundy leatherette-bound, gold embossed" book listing the roughly 350 Tonellis dispersed across some 22 states. Just how amazing you or I might find it that a Tonelli lives in Alaska or one is named Abner doesn't matter; Bill Tonelli was sufficiently amazed. He decided to mail them all detailed questionnaires, then conquer his longtime fear of driving to go on a cross-country trip and meet a few dozen of his nominal kin.

Mr. Tonelli starts out from his home in South Philadelphia, where his extended family holds their turf dear and regards wanderlust with great suspicion. He heads south to such places as Savannah, Ga., and Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where janitor Ed Tonelli scrubs the logs from the log-flume ride.

In Texas, Peter Tonelli says he feels lucky "there's something in me that's not just plain American," and in California, Lori Tonelli tells the author she was offended by his mail-survey, particularly by the question, "Which of the Godfather movies was your favorite?"

Tonellis, he learns, are a varied lot, and few matched his South Philly family and friends in either ethnic fealty or hometown loyalty. Most are the products of intermarriages (Italian-German combos predominate) and view their ethnic heritage as little more than a characteristic of personal style, like being loud or liking food. They might wear one of those "Kiss Me I'm Italian" T-shirts, but actual Old World language and customs were long ago cast off as inconvenient.

This bothers Mr. Tonelli, a full-fledged I-tie homeboy who was raised in a Little Italy neighborhood in which uncles perched on front stoops and the term "Medigan" (American) was a term of derision. He mourns for that rapidly disappearing world, while at the same time realizing that mobility and assimilation are not merely desirable (he moved out of Philly to take a good job in New York) but historically inevitable.

"Tonellis once lived," he declares, "where they were supposed to live -- where they were born." But then they were swept up in "a stampede, a real-estate rush, a contagion of self-improvement," or just plain America, where the hallmark of a solid citizen is not to live anywhere long enough to cast a shadow. That's how Bill ends up in a one-room cabin in northern Alaska paying a social call on Stanford Tonelli -- the most far-flung citizen of the Tonelli Nation -- who fled there because, as he says, "I just don't like people." That's an American's truest pledge of allegiance.

Woven through the author's own roots tale is a good deal of sociological data and speculation. Did you know that 100 percent of the non-Italians in a survey done by sociologist Mary C. Walters said they think of the Mafia when they think of Italians?

The ethnic chords Mr. Tonelli strikes are indeed vestigial -- one Denver family sends out for pizza once a week -- if not entirely lost. Like an echo sounding down a mile-long Ellis Island gangplank, the Italian thing, as his parents and grandparents knew it, grows dimmer every year.

In this observant, funny and sometimes moving meditation on that quiet passing, Mr. Tonelli smartly avoids nostalgia. He quotes Woodrow Wilson in 1902 to put the Italian-American journey in perspective: "Now there came multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy . . . men out of ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence . . . as if the countries south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more helpless and sordid elements of the population."

From sordid to assimilated, it's been a century's big trek, and Bill Tonelli's "Amazing Story" takes us along for the last few steps.


Title: "The Amazing Story of the Tonelli Family in America: 12,000 Miles in a Buick in Search of Identity, Ethnicity, Geography, Kinship and Home"

Author: Bill Tonelli

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

Length, price: 264 pages, $20

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