Marianna, Remembered

In 1912, my great-grandparents, Francesco and Maria Petrini, lost a five-month-old baby, Marianna, to pneumonia. Six years later, they both died in the flu pandemic.

I went down another genealogical rabbit hole yesterday and found something I never expected: My grandfather had a little sister we didn’t know about, one who died as a baby.

That’s not at all what I was looking for. I was searching for information on a different relative, born in or around 1912. I don’t know her first name; all I have is a middle name, Gemma, and a first initial, M. When other attempts turned up nothing, I started searching for various names beginning with M. Large numbers of women in my family (and all Italian families) are named Maria, so that was one of the names I tried searching. I found a long list of possible candidates with the name Maria or something similar. So I started going through them, one by one.

After several pages of this rather tedious work, I saw a Marianna Petrini and called up her records. But her father’s name, while a familiar one in my family, was not the name of Gemma’s father, so I was about to close the file. Then I noticed the name of Marianna’s mother’s, and something clicked. Her maiden name was not one I’d ever seen before, but it gave me an idea. I pulled up the original document, and was astounded.

Marianna, born in 1912, was not the Gemma I was looking for. She was a much closer relative. Mariana was my grandfather’s sister, a sister none of us knew about.

Her name had never come up in a search, probably because the official records had my great-grandmother’s maiden name wrong. Going back to the original document — which was in the original, haphazard handwriting — I saw how that had happened. Someone had transcribed the first letter T as a C.

I had always known that my grandfather had an older sister and three younger sisters, all of them born between 1905 and 1915. The oldest sister died before I was born, but as a child I knew my other three great-aunts. I never knew — even my father never knew — that my grandfather had not three but four younger sisters. Marianna was the fourth of the six siblings.

But it might have been seven. Family lore says there was another child, the youngest, born in 1917 or 1918. I’d always been told it was a boy. According to the story, when the parents contracted the flu during the 1918 pandemic, the infant was sent to a convent so the nuns could keep him safe. After both parents died, the siblings tried to get their baby brother back and were told he had died. But nobody ever saw a death certificate, and the siblings always believed he had been put up for adoption. When I mentioned this to my father and uncle recently, my uncle said the baby was a girl, not a boy. My father still believes it was a boy. I will continue searching for evidence of the infant’s life.

The girl I found today, Marianna, is not that infant. She was born and died in 1912, so she was not alive when the 1918 epidemic struck. And she was not the youngest; it’s unlikely that she would have been sent away to keep her safe, while her two younger sisters were not. But a half-remembered mention of another little girl could be the source of my uncle’s belief that the lost baby was a girl.

The discovery of an unknown sibling for my grandfather stunned me so much I was having trouble believing it, so I searched some other databases, looking for confirmation. And I found Marianna’s death certificate; she died of pneumonia when she was a little less than five months old. So now I have her birth certificate and her death certificate. The dates are right. The names are right (despite the transcription goof). Even the street address is right. Marianna Petrini was born in July 2012 and died in December of that year.

It’s not astounding to find an ancestor who died as a baby. My family tree is full of them. The surprising thing is that we never knew about a family member who is so close to us chronologically. Even my father, who grow up knowing all his other aunts, never was told that his father had another sister.

Maybe it was too painful for my grandfather to talk about. He was five years old when his sister Marianna was born, and six when she died, old enough to remember. Did he think of her often? Did he think of her ever? His life was turned upside a few years later — when his parents died in the pandemic and he was forced to leave school to help support his sisters. Was that upheaval so overwhelming as to dwarf the grief over his baby sister? Or was it her death that made him and his other sisters so determined to find their baby brother (if that story is true) and get him back, though their efforts came to nothing?

A family tree is more than a list of names. It’s a compilation of stories. And every name added to the tree brings in a wealth of stories, adding to the richness and texture that make families what they are, and that influence who we all become. It’s likely that I’ll never find further information about my great aunt Marianna. Even if I don’t, I know that by learning her name and knowing of her existence, I have, in a sense, resurrected her. She was forgotten, but now she is remembered.

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