A little over 100 years ago, a farmer and former cavalry officer gathered together what money he had and boarded a steamliner in Genoa, Italy, destined for Ellis Island. His ultimate goal was the San Francisco Bay Area, where he would join his brother working as a farm laborer. Over the years that followed, he would earn enough by the sweat of his brow to send for his wife and child, and then to buy a parcel of land in the rich delta farmland in Stockton, California. His version of the American dream was coming true.
Giuseppe Ghio (what an awesome name…it glistens with olive oil) was my great grandfather. He planted deep roots in America, particularly in Stockton. Another three generation of Ghios would be born there, ending with me. His son, William (cool Italian names were abandoned pretty quickly), would continue to operate the family’s cherry orchard along with his brothers.
William passed away of a heart attack before he turned 40, leaving behind a wife and 10-year old son, Robert. William’s death was a traumatic event for the entire family, still eliciting tears a half century later when anyone mentioned his name. Something about the reaction of the local priest to the death, I never learned what, embittered young Robert against the Catholic church, a sour taste in his mouth that never would leave. He was raised primarily by his uncles and would eventually sell his interest in the ranch to his father’s brothers and leave farming behind.
Robert was the first in his direct family line to get a college education, at Stockton’s University of the Pacific. He would use that degree work his way towards a management position with a regional fruit cannery. He would spend his entire professional life with the cannery, with a short interruption during which he tried to go into business for himself. He eventually would be killed in a tragic accident at the cannery at the age of 61. As with his own father, years later people would quietly say he was the best man they ever knew.
My dad shocked the family when he married a divorced woman with two children of her own. It would create a divide between him and his family and further alienate him from the Catholic church. But Dad was a stubborn guy, and he wasn’t about to be told by anyone how to live his life. The strained relationship with his family would never completely heal, and he would never completely care.
Nine months later I showed up. (By this time, the naming of children had become hopelessly wheels off, with me landing the moniker of “Robin.” Dad excused it by saying that I was named after the pitcher, Robin Roberts…seriously, Dad, with all of the tough-guy baseball names out there, you had to go with “Robin?” I was condemned to endless fights through elementary school). By that time, Dad was pretty well severed from whatever culture and traditions that Giuseppe brought with him from Italy. His wife was a Texan. I was baptized a Lutheran. Dad was on his way to forgetting Italian (except the swear words) and I would never progress beyond “menu Italian.” About all that was left of his Italian culture was “figasa” (focaccia), the traditional bread that Dad baked for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That much he passed down to me. Besides that and a real affinity for “The Godfather,” you wouldn’t have known that I was Italian at all.
OK, the nose gave me away. But you get my point.
When I was seven, Mormon missionaries knocked on our door. My mother was home and had a hard time getting rid of them. She asked them to come back that night, trusting that Dad would give them an unceremonious boot off of the doorstep. To her surprise, Dad let the missionaries in that night. His principle reason was that he remembered his own father saying nice things about Mormons once when he was a little boy.
Shortly thereafter, my family was baptized into the LDS Church, beginning a new cultural and religious tradition. The next year my dad would baptize his mother and then me, when I had turned eight. My brother would leave about a year later to serve a full-time mission for the Church, setting an example that I was determined to follow. I did so a decade later.
When I came home, I married a Mexican-American girl (for the record, she was then and remains now COMPLETELY smokin’) who also joined the LDS Church. We’ve had five daughters who each have been very dedicated to the gospel in their early years.
With all of those girls, one would assume that I might be the last Ghio to serve a mission (since the family name will die out with me). But a curious thing happened when I was giving the “name and blessing” to my oldest daughter shortly after her birth. As I held that sweet baby in my arms, I was surprised to hear myself announce that she would serve a mission. No idea where that came from. I had changed her diaper several times and was well-aware that she was a girl. At that time very few young women served full-time missions for the Church.
Fast-forward 15 years when my oldest is sitting under the hands of the local Patriarch and is blessed again to serve a full-time mission. A few more years, and she is at BYU, and suddenly is bit by the genealogy bug, in particular with a desire to search out her Italian ancestors. Something drew her in that direction, but we thought nothing of it more than as a cool interest. But she was frustrated by her inability to access and read Italian documents.
Then October 2012. My oldest was coming close to getting engaged to be married, and I was quietly wondering what had happened to the impressions that both the Patriarch and I had received about her serving a mission (if you are going to blow a prophecy, however, at least you are keeping good company if the Patriarch does so, too). Then in General Conference, President Thomas S. Monson announces that young women can serve missions at age 19 instead of 21. My daughter, at 20, makes the decision there and then: She was going to serve.
A month later, our family was gathered in Provo for Thanksgiving, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a mission call. It arrived the day after Thanksgiving, and my sweet young warrior opened the envelope to learn her destination.
I was stunned. It took some time for it to sink in with me.
After a century, a Ghio was heading home.
And she was taking with her the most important thing that the family had acquired in America: A testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. A new set of family traditions and a new religious culture. A fifth-generation American and a fourth-generation Mormon. She returns with honor.
Tomorrow, my daughter leaves the MTC and boards a plane for Rome. Ghios on both sides of the veil have anticipated this for a long time. I feel blessed to be able to see our family come full-circle and to have been able to play some part in the process.
And I am glad that my wife and I gave her a cool Italian name.
Serve honorably, Francesca.