by Frank Dunnigan
San Franciscans have always been highly attuned to the fact that people here do not remain “newcomers” for very long, because once the processes of work, friendship, marriage, and birth begin to play out, all of us quickly become interrelated.
In short, this means that you have to watch what you say around here, lest you make a nasty remark about someone to his sister-in-law’s second cousin’s husband’s mother’s great-aunt. Oh, those meandering family ties!
Going back to the original indigenous peoples, historians note that there was contact among various groups throughout the area. Those early Bay Area inhabitants exchanged information about water sources, weather conditions, and food supplies, and some eventually partnered with others outside their own group. Intermarriage continued during the rule of the Spanish and the Mexican governments. Once the Gold Rush began, the pattern continued—prospectors and merchants became intertwined, hotel owners, saloon keepers, and others—perhaps some with less-than-honorable professions—also began to forge alliances. The great waves of European immigration further contributed to various family, business, and social connections. Even among those who arrived more recently—during 1967’s Summer of Love or via last year’s JetBlue ride from Columbus, Ohio—there is some measure of assimilation.
Among San Francisco’s early Jewish families, going back to the time of the Gold Rush, intermarriage within the community was the norm, resulting in an incalculable philanthropic benefit to the City. The families of Zellerbach, Fleishhacker, Schwabacher, Ehrmann, Stern, Meyer, Steinhart, Heller, Haas, Lilienthal, and others are all inter-related through marriages and various family business enterprises. UC-Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life declares: “Marriages within the extended family were extremely common and were encouraged, even to the point of regarding as ‘outlaws’ those who chose to marry outside its accepted boundaries.” Even the geographically distant Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and DC area socialite until her untimely death in 2001, was a first cousin to many of these families.
The seven brothers and one sister of Alioto Family began to arrive in San Francisco from Sant’ Elia, Sicily about 1896. Over the years, through a series of marriages, often to siblings in the Lazio Family (and sometimes to their own distant Alioto cousins), there are now hundreds of immediate descendants, many of whom continue to be active in the local fishing industry as well as in city politics.
The Irish, as clannish and inter-married as any of the previous groups, used to stay within their own boundaries—in fact, Rose Kennedy’s parents were second cousins to each other, and so, too, were one of my great-grandfather’s brothers and his wife. By the dawn of the 20th century, though, some began to venture out from the herd. Two of my own grandparents, both born South of Market circa 1870-80, startled relations on both sides when they married in 1910 because his parents came from County Kerry and hers were from County Cork—an all-Catholic “mixed marriage!” One can only imagine the exchanged glares among the relatives on both sides during the reception held at the home of the bride’s parents on 21st Street, following the wedding at St. James Church on Guerrero Street. A week later, the bride’s father, my great-grandfather, was dead from a massive coronary—so much for jolly Irish conviviality.
My other grandmother, whose parents hailed from County Cavan, Ireland, really crossed ethnic boundaries when she married Grandpa, a local boy whose parents were originally from Germany. Given that their 1911 wedding was at a time when Kaiser Wilhelm was rattling his sabre toward the rest of the world, there was unhappiness among all their relatives—at least until Mom’s oldest brother arrived a year later (exactly 100 years ago on July 24th—happy birthday, Uncle John!) and was named after Grandma’s father, thus brokering a truce. During his half-century-long marriage, Grandpa became beloved by most of his in-laws, even though he had what might best be termed a chilly relationship with Grandma’s older sister Mayme—think of Redd Foxx in his role as Fred Sanford and LaWanda Page as his sister-in-law Esther who gave him the evil-eye look and her saucy retort, “watch it, sucka!” every time Fred opened his mouth.
Even through my Streetwise columns I hear from people with whom I have some connection—grammar school, high school, college classmates. Some have even turned out to be cousins of cousins or friends and neighbors of my own family’s long-time friends. Everyone has a few memorable incidents involving such interpersonal connections, and the following are some of my own.
In 1988, Mom and I were attending a funeral at St. Cecilia’s for a woman whose Irish-born parents were next-door neighbors of Dad’s parents in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. Theresa relocated to the Sunset with her parents in 1939, and lived just three blocks up the hill from us at 18th Avenue at Santiago Street. She never married and outlived her parents and two childless siblings. Walking down 17th Avenue after her services at St. Cecilia’s, Mom spotted a lady who lived on Vicente—someone who also happened to be the sister-in-law of one of Mom’s aunts-by-marriage. Mom recognized the lady immediately, and the three of us began chatting. This lady expressed some harsh remarks about the deceased’s distant relatives who were not in attendance—“they came crawling out of the woodwork once she was dead, looking for money”. The conversation went on as we strolled along, and the woman mentioned a small northern California town where these alleged money-grubbers lived. “Nice place—I just visited some cousins there,” I said innocently. She then mentioned a fairly common Irish surname. “My cousins there have the same name,” I replied, growing a bit curious. She then spoke the first and last name of the 74-year-old ringleader of this pack of mercenaries, along with a pretty nasty characterization. “That is my father’s second cousin you are speaking of,” I replied frostily, before Mom and I adjourned to the Gold Mirror on Taraval Street to repeat the story to others. Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks that based on this connection, I was also related to Theresa through a 1916 marriage of two cousins. Having always known her as a long-time family friend and then being told we were related—well, that takes some getting used to, but it’s not unheard of in San Francisco.
In June of 1970, at the time of my graduation from St.Ignatius, two mothers of fellow graduates had a chance encounter on 37th Avenue. I’ll quote from my classmate, Mike Pasini, who told their story a few years ago in Genesis, St.Ignatius’s alumni magazine:
The beginning was the moment my mother came out of the Orradre Chapel in the summer of 1970 and heard, to her surprise, a familiar voice. “Bernice?” she asked. “Barbara?” Bernice laughed. They hadn’t seen each other since they were girls, gathered at the Garbarino or Nassano home for one feast or another. They were, in fact, fourth cousins. And now that Bernice’s son Keith and I had just graduated from S.I. their paths had crossed again. Which is how, after four years at school together, Keith and I learned that we, too, were cousins. “Cousins?” we looked at our mothers. Then, without missing a beat, we turned to each other. “Cugino!” we laughed and embraced.
Mom’s mother had eight brothers and sisters, and in 1928, Grandma’s youngest brother married a girl from a large family in St. Anne of the Sunset Parish—and she also had many siblings. Most of these young people married and then settled in the Outside Lands, raising children of their own. When I was in grammar school, it turned out that one classmate’s father was the younger brother of the wife of Grandma’s youngest brother—Nancy and I jokingly called ourselves “half-cousins”. We had no real relationship at all, even though she and my mother—38 years apart in age—actually shared the very same aunt and uncle. And although many of the descendants of that original group eventually left the city limits in the late 20th Century diaspora of Irish-Catholics, each family retained a strong San Francisco identity. Fast forward to 2011, and two girls at St. Mary’s College in Moraga—good friends since their freshman year—decided to become roommates. In the course of conversation, each realized that their families knew some of the same people. A bit more conversation with their respective parents proved that the girls were actually third cousins to one another (their great-grandparents were siblings, each had a grandparent who was first cousin to one of other’s grandparents, and each had a parent who was second cousin to one of the other’s parents). And while one of them is no blood relation to me, the other is the daughter of one of my second cousins. And some people think Queen Victoria had a complicated family tree!
Growing up, my parents always received a Christmas card from a Mr. and Mrs. Dieden, an older couple who lived on 43rd Avenue in the Richmond District. I once asked Mom who they were, and she replied that they were “old friends” of my father’s long-gone parents. That’s how I thought of them for years, until Dad’s 1980 funeral when Mrs. Dieden, then in her 90s and still a strong presence (retired schoolteacher from the San Francisco Unified School District), embraced me. I finally asked, “Alice, exactly how do our families know each other?” She replied sweetly, “Why, dear, I’m your father’s first cousin”—she politely omitted adding, “you idiot!”—and then explained to me that Dad’s father and her mother were brother and sister. I soon came to learn that Dad’s father, who died in 1934, long before my parents ever met, was a full decade younger than his sisters, was 38 when he married, and past 40 before having children. Hence, most of Dad’s first cousins, including Alice and others, were 25-30 years older, so Dad never had any of the usual family interactions. This contact with Alice rekindled a dormant connection, leading me to a far greater understanding of history, and drawing me into the family circle where I met many more wonderful relatives, before eventually serving as guardian for the last of Alice’s two elderly children nearly a quarter-century later, in 2001-2002.
The ultimate story began in 1998. Armed with a new computer, back in the day when Yahoo! was mostly a search engine for email addresses, I received an inquiry from a lady in the East Bay, asking where my Dunnigan relations were from. I replied, naming the Irish town and county, and mentioning that they had come to California by way of Washington, DC. She responded that her own Dunnigan-born grandmother was from a different county, so we were probably not related, however, she had the email address of a man in suburban Washington, DC who was also searching for his own Dunnigan ancestors who had come from the same part of Ireland as mine, and who had also settled in DC. She suggested that I contact him.
Just a few keystrokes later, I was in touch with a guy my age, whose mother turned out to be my third cousin (her great-grandfather and my great-grandfather were brothers, born in Ireland in the 1830s, who came to America in 1850). Our mutual great-great-grandmother was right there in the 1860 U.S. Census in DC! That December, I attended a family reunion in suburban Virginia where I met dozens of cousins and saw hundreds of old family photos of people who looked remarkably like Dad and his brother. I met my third cousin, DeeDee (a childhood nickname, based on her older brother Frank’s inability to pronounce Dunnigan). It was spine-tingling to hear the story of how her brother—who, along with his father, my father, and myself all had the very same first and last names—and how her brother lost his life when his plane went down over the South Pacific in October, 1944, at age 26. I eventually came to know his widow, his son, his granddaughter, and his great-grandchildren, embracing them all as my own family.
Continuing with family research at various libraries, I discovered additional branches of our family tree. It turned out that various cousins were neighbors in the same northwest Washington neighborhood in the 1920s, but as time progressed, the family tie became unknown to younger generations. By October 2000, I had enough information to pull together a family reunion, reuniting several branches that are still in touch today. Over the years, dozens of us, all some degree of cousin to one another, have continued to reconnect as family, sharing intimate matters, filling in the blanks of history, rejoicing at marriages and births, and consoling one another at times of sorrow, often in person, at wakes and funerals on an opposite coast.
Someone asked me as I was headed off to the wedding of another remote cousin, “What in the world do you talk about when you get together with strangers like that?” It’s really easy—just like my S.I. classmates who discovered their family connection by accident in 1970—you simply know that you are a unique part of each other’s lives, and even after separation of a century or more, you literally pick up where the ancestors left off, as the ghosts of the past smile a collective approval on each and every reunion, right down to the warm smiles and the clinking of the wine glasses.
L’Chaim, Slainte, Salute, Prost, Salud…to all of us!
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Page launched 29 July 2012.