“Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.”
D. Elton Trueblood
I have had the privilege and opportunity to travel around the country to teach people new methods to create insight and break down brick walls in genealogical research using location, geodemography, and DNA. In my recent lectures I have opened with the following phrase: “Everyone in this room is a bunch of echoes.” We can “hear” the steps of our ancestors journey out of Africa and into the new world as it is imprinted in our DNA. We can literally “hear” where our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents grew up from the linguistic patterns in their speech. But one of the most subtle yet powerful echoes within us are cultural memes discerned through observing and analyzing how are parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, as well as their ancestors acted and asking the question, “Why?”
A cultural meme is an idea or behavior that spreads from person to person within a culture in time or across time. A meme acts as a container for carrying cultural ideals, values, or practices which are transmitted from person to person through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, behaviors, and other means. Some view memes as cultural analogs of our DNA as these ideas and behaviors can self replicate, mutate, and even respond to natural selection. Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene likened the process by which memes self replicate, mutate, or die through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution. Cultural memes are propagated across populations and time by the behaviors that they generate in one individual that are observed, copied, and imitated by another individual.
When you look at your ancestors lives through this behavioral lens – multi-generational patterns begin to emerge. Sometimes these cultural patterns last just a few generations – terminated in the melting pot of the United States. However some are startling in their longevity and are impervious to time, location , or economic circumstance. And if you see the same cultural meme four, five, and six generations back you have to pay attention because it probably means something very profound.
I have always wondered about the great faith of my immigrant Italian great-great grandparents through their progeny to my mother — this Italian Catholic cultural meme expressed through the ages via the rosary, a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother and other saints, going to Mass, celebrating feasts, helping the poor and downtrodden. Five generations. However it was when I interviewed my grandmother that I pushed it back one more generation and uncovered a miracle in the family.
Angelina Perrone was born in the Cilento region of southern Italy in 1861 and died in 1931 – the daughter of Giuseppe Perrone and Carmela Monaco. She emigrated to the United States in the 1880s and married Giuseppe Corbo who like his sons had emigrated from Sacco in what is now Salerno Province. Angelina who was nicknamed “Vave” was my 94 year old grandmother Rose’s great grandmother. Vave died when my grandmother was 14 years old but she remembers her vividly:
“Vave was a real peasant. Your great great grandmother Clementina really loved her (mother in law) as did your great grandmother and Aunt Jo (my great grandmother’s sister b. Maria Giuseppina). Vave was a small woman who never went grey and lived with Uncle Charles Corbo and Aunt Ginny in the 1920s and then lived with Clementina later in life. She liked to pick dandelions in the vacant lots around the house. Her dark brown hair was tied into a bun. She was the closest thing to a saint she had ever met. She went to Mass everyday. She always had rosary beads in pocket and prayed everyday. When she died your great grandmother (her mother) was devastated. She died from a flu that she contracted while taking care of everyone else in the family.
She remembered a birthday party for Vave – all the children were lined up from the oldest to the youngest while Vave was seated in the kitchen. Them, she came out and all of the children gave her money – she had a big smile on her face.
<And then the big one>
Vav was with your great grandmother when my brother Bobby was born. When Uncle Bobby was delivered the doctor said he was stillborn and that nothing could be done for the child. He was dead. Vave went over to the baby, wrapped him in a blanket, and ran down to the Church (she believes Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx) and had Uncle Bobby baptized.
Uncle Bobby lived to be 77 years old.
In this short story I saw cultural memes that are repeated today – how my kid’s great grandmothers’ great grandmother was cared for and revered by the extended family. And this repeated sacrificial love for ones extended family continues to this day. But it is the faith meme that struck me. Vave had absolute trust in God without reservation. The most important thing to do was not to cry, not to console my great grandmother, it was to save her great grandson both spiritually and physically. She did not hesitate. She ran with a dead baby in her arms on a cold February day to the Church. My grandmother looked me in the eye. “Vave saved Bobby. Mary saved Bobby. God saved Bobby.”
Angeline “Vave” Perrone Corbo was an uneducated peasant woman who picked dandelions. But she was a woman whose faith and love knew no bounds. What a story. But as I found out her absolute faith was not the source of the meme for my generation. She was just another transmission agent of the meme to Angiolina, Maria Giuseppina, and Rose. And just as the miracle of Bobby Vastano was an example of faith WITH proof for my great grandparents generation I discerned that Vave had been passed her faith meme WITH proof from a miracle that had happened 200 years earlier in Sacco Italy. A miracle so profound that is still celebrated today around the world. For more on that – stay tuned!