My dad Peter Smith never met his father.
He grew up not knowing his name or whether he was dead or alive. Going through life not knowing your father is an indescribably haunting experience.
Dad was born in Gloucestershire in 1945 and his mother was called Betty. She was a young widow living in penury with two children from her short-lived marriage.
Betty loved dancing and would have cut an attractive figure to the GIs stationed locally. In 1944, she had a passionate affair with a soldier and fell pregnant. The GI’s unit was repatriated soon after.
Apparently, the young man knew that Betty was expecting, but GIs were actively discouraged from marrying British women. Betty always said that he was the ‘love of her life’. The GI never returned and his son Peter was registered under his mother’s married name, Smith. The space for the father’s name was left blank. At that time, illegitimacy carried a huge social stigma.
One day Betty remarked that I looked like my grandfather; it was the first time she had ever mentioned him. Gradually, Dad managed to coax snippets of information from her, including his name: Peter Amelio. My grandfather had come from New York and was of Italian origin. Betty thought he had a younger sister, but wasn’t sure.
Until 1990, the US government’s files on GIs were confidential. Betty had tried to find Peter via the Red Cross and even the Pentagon, but all to no avail.
Our 'eureka' moment
A huge breakthrough came in the 1990s when Dad’s elder sister found a piece of paper that Betty always carried in her purse. It had Peter Amelio’s address on it: 412 W 39th Street, New York.
Dad discovered a website that helped find GIs, GI trace, and a few months later obtained through it some revealing documents. His father’s name was actually Peter Ameglio and the address on the piece of paper matched his demobilisation record. Without doubt, we had found my grandfather.
Dad felt a combination of joy and frustration. We had Peter’s date of birth and profession (he had been a butcher), but we also discovered that he’d died in 1981.
Peter never married and our hopes of meeting his family and of seeing a photograph of him seemed dashed. Betty passed away in 2007, but at least at the end of her life she knew that Peter had died and that he’d remained single.
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Delving into US records, I found Peter Ameglio as a 14-year-old in the 1930 New York census. He was living with his father Giacomo (Jack) and his stepmother Antonietta, both of whom were Italian migrants. Peter’s own mother died of tuberculosis when he was three. Using passenger lists, we pieced together his early life.
After his mother’s death, Peter was sent to live in Mombaruzzo, Italy, with his grandmother Margherita Leva. He returned to America in 1928 after Jack remarried. Dad and I visited Mombaruzzo in 2007 and were thrilled to meet our second cousins, Luigi and Luisella.
On Ancestry, Dad found a 1938 application for naturalisation for Peter’s stepmother. His heart skipped a beat. The record showed that Antonietta had a daughter called Rita. Betty’s recollection of the GI having a sister had been correct.
A cousin helped me find a possible match for Rita in America. The lady had married and therefore changed her name but was still living in New York. My cousin paved the way for Dad to telephone her.
In an emotional call, the lady confirmed she was Rita – Jack and Antonietta’s daughter and Peter’s half-sister. The family knew that Peter had a son in the UK and Rita had always felt curious about him. Jack and Antonietta were disappointed that Peter hadn’t taken responsibility for his child.
They exchanged letters with Rita and Dad was thrilled to receive a photo of his father. In 2012, my parents visited Rita at her home in Long Island, New York, where they spent a delightful afternoon talking about the past. Sadly, Rita passed away only weeks later.
This whole journey has stirred up many emotions, but at the same time it has brought us closure. Peter Ameglio is no longer a mystery to us.
Gail Dixon is a writer and regular contributor to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine