How do people decide what to keep for posterity? Why hang onto the 1932 guidelines for Civil Service exams, a letter from an Italian gentleman you never even met, a dinner invitation, a letter congratulating you on a job well done? These questions came to mind forcibly as I worked briefly this week with a small collection donated to us by the Archives at Queens Borough Public Library a couple of years ago. This small collection of papers belonging to several members of the Rainone family, and their brother-in-law Ernest Morra, throws light on the immigrant journey of an Italian-American family living in Brooklyn in the early to mid-twentieth century. The family patriarch, Carlo Rainone, had worked as a barber to support a numerous family, allowing his son Michael to advance into a career in medicine, while the four girls who did not marry all seem to have found gainful employment in offices or educational settings.
Is this Louis Rainone? Who is the little girl?
For whatever reason, each family member kept papers that were important to him or her: for son-in-law Ernest Morra, documentation of his business successes was paramount; for son Michael Rainone, his certification as a doctor; for daughter Lucy, her writing; for Julia, a few personal letters and some photographs sent by a relative named Louis Rainone; and for Adelina, invitations to events celebrating her long working life.
Picture of German cemetery somewhere in North Africa sent to Julia by Louis.
Another of Louis's World War II pictures
Fragmentary and superficial as they may be, these documents allow us to see the trajectory of a family from Italy to Brooklyn and Queens, from working class to lower middle class occupations, and to note the different degrees of success that were likely for the men and women of the era. That's making the best of what one otherwise might call a bad job; for so random are these scraps of text, these photographs without captions, that they seem to call out, "Name me!" "Explain me!" Clearly little planning went into the compilation of this material. We do not know what other legacies these people left; but in the sad detritus of five lives richly lived for all we know, we catch only a fleeting glimpse of the striving, the successes and disappointments, the hope and promise of youth turning into decades of employment in the same job.
With the meteoric rise of interest in genealogy, we are more aware now of the value of family and personal papers. For those wishing to select, arrange and preserve their family memories, excellent resources are available, such as the Northeast Documentation Center's Hints for Preserving Family Collections or the National Archives and Records Administration's Caring for Your Family Archives.
Little did I know it then, but around the age of ten my own fate as a librarian/archivist was already sealed--I went through my family's entire photograph collection writing names on the backs of images, in pencil.