Crossing the Seas to Make a Legacy

07/08/2011 07:09 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

Recently, my husband and I took a beach vacation, along with our kids, to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. Driving along the coastal roads, it was hard to ignore the cutesy names of the beachfront homes in the vicinity of our rented condo. Some of them include Kai Sera Sera, No Snow, Parrot-ise and, as a gerontologist this is my favorite, Legasea.

Since it was the 4th of July while we were travelling overseas, we watched Alexandra Pelosi's documentary on HBO, "Citizen USA," in which she traversed the states, interviewing newly minted Americans on what they love about this country and why they renounced their native lands. Most of her subjects cited religious and personal freedom as well as opportunity for their children as reasons for pursuing new citizenship status.

Annual anniversary celebrations are a must for us. Most of our friends and family question why we take our kids on our anniversary trips, but since we were married at the end of June, our anniversary trips are our summer vacations. For me, each trip we take is a chance to make new memories, to leave a legacy of experiences and opportunity for our kids. This year, the legacy was about biological phenomena in the ocean. Previous years have been geological, checking out the amazing landscapes in the Southwest. Last year however, we had two summer trips that were genealogical, starting with a family reunion where four generations of Italian-Americans rallied around our nonagenarian patriarch, my great uncle John Balma.

Growing up just outside Chicago, most of my friends never understood why I, an Italian-American gal, was not Catholic. I never really understood it either until my father, Frank Cicero Jr., began his quest to find out more about how his four grandparents immigrated from the rugged Northern Italian Alps and the Mediterranean island of Sicily through Ellis Island to Chicago more than 100 years ago. After my father reached retirement age and started winding down his professional workload, he turned his lawyerly investigative skills to hunting down birth and death records, steamship receipts and marriage documents. He also developed a voracious appetite for learning to speak Italian.

For my dad, this process has been part personal memoir-writing, part family genealogy-building and part autobiography-making. Aging specialists like me lead people of all ages in writing a Guided Autobiography (GAB), a method developed by gerontology pillar James Birren. A psychologist who is now 93, Dr. Birren insists that GAB is not therapy, but it is therapeutic. The first step in GAB is for participants to assess which branching points changed the course of their life stories. A cross country or transnational move, a death in the family, a marriage, a birth of a child, or a change in career typify most major branching points in people's lives. GAB also urges participants to retrieve their memories and write about influential love relationships, death experiences, religion, education, health, sexuality, family, money, work and career. In addition to writing their life stories, many retirees are finding meaning in starting encore careers and seeking out fulfilling volunteer opportunities in order to mold the legacies they will leave behind. My father's own form of civic engagement brought him to assess his personal and familial story through the lens of the prickly issues of immigration and church history.

My father Frank wrote his family history into a just-published book, "Relative Strangers: Italian Protestants in the Catholic World." The book details the process that brought him to uncover the two disparate sides of his Italian family tree. It also details his mother Mary's spiritual heritage which hails from a little known pre-reformation Protestant sect called Waldensians. As children of Ellis Island immigrants, my Northern Italian Protestant grandmother Mary secretly married my Sicilian Catholic grandfather Frank Sr. in Chicago in 1935. At last summer's family reunion, my great uncle John told us about how he secretly witnessed his sister's forbidden marriage.

Later last summer, my husband, kids and I accompanied my father to Italy to find out where my great-grandparents came from, and why and how they eventually settled in Chicago. They came for the same reasons that today's immigrants mention: religious freedom and opportunities for their children. For centuries, Waldensian Protestants in the Italian Alps secretly worshipped in caves, to pursue their personal faith. If discovered, their lives were at stake. It wasn't only their religion that threatened their lives. My great grandparents had several babies in the Italian Alps. They all died, making my American born grandmother Mary their first child to live to adulthood.

Thanks to my bold immigrant ancestors and the legacies they left behind, I have had the freedom to choose whom to marry as well as where to worship and how to raise my children.