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Reader voices: DNA helped solving a family history mystery about my grandfather

Editor's note: The Deseret News asked for experiences of those whose trips have helped them connect with their family roots and how families have incorporated their history into summer vacations. Here is one of the experiences. It has been edited for length and clarity.

My grandfather took his secrets to his grave. Harry Mayo was a kind, faithful father and husband, but his family never really knew who he was. He was a small man, barely 5-feet, 4-inches tall, an Italian immigrant who never went past the third grade. Yet, what few details his family knew about him indicated that he led a remarkable life.

Harry told his wife and children that he was an orphan who came to the new world through the port of Boston at age 12. He told stories of stealing milk and bread from doorsteps on icy winter mornings so he would have something to eat. By the time he was 14 years old, he had learned the barber trade.

At 27 years old, he earned his American citizenship by fighting with the U.S. Army in the trenches of France during World War I. Upon his return, he spent the next 14 years earning his bread by following the oil boom across the American South, setting up a makeshift barbershop in each boomtown. Have scissors, will travel.

When he was 40, he married my grandmother, a fellow orphan, who was age 21. The two of them made a home in Longview, Texas, where he opened a barbershop and never traveled again. He spent the next 39 years cutting hair six days a week, 10 hours a day. He bought a home, reared four children, sent his three sons to college where they earned seven degrees between them. He was a well-known, respected citizen of his town and an elder in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 12-year-old hungry, homeless orphan with a third-grade education had come a long way.

Because both of his parents were orphans, my dad, Raymond Mayo, grew up with no cousins, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Their little family was a tight little entity unto itself. As the children grew older, their isolation in the world of extended families sparked a natural curiosity. They wondered who they were, where they had come from, beyond Mama and Daddy.

But when they questioned their father about where he was from or who his parents were or what had happened to them, he would obfuscate his answers, “I don’t remember. That was a long time ago.” If they pressed him, he was known to even become angry, “I don’t want to talk about it!”

In 1969, my father, his brothers, his sister, and mother buried the stranger who had loved, provided, protected and directed them. Now that he was gone, they began to assemble a paper trail on their father: induction into the Army, naturalization papers, barber license, marriage license, business license.

But each piece they gathered added to the confusion. Harry had given different names for his mother and father and birthplace on each document. Why did he do that? What was he hiding? They searched prison records. Nothing.

However, one recovered document provided a lead: the marriage certificate of Harry’s first wife. When my father contacted her, she had nothing kind to say about the husband of her youth. According to her, Harry was a liar, a gambler and a rambler. She said he was so mysterious that when he walked out of her life (50 years earlier) she wasn’t even sure if she knew his real name.

Four more decades passed and my father, now in his late 70s, had resolved himself to never knowing more about the man he called Dad.

Enter DNA testing. My father and his brother, Alvin, sent in their saliva samples. The DNA report stated that they probably had some Middle Eastern ancestry, most likely from Israel.

In the fall of 2017, someone reached out to them on, saying that their DNA indicated they were related. She emailed an image of a hand-typed piece of paper that had been in her family records, folded, aged and yellowing, for several generations. It was a homemade family group sheet. It detailed the family of Pietro and Caterina Meo (pronounced Mayo) of San Pier Niceto, Sicily, who had 11 children.

Several of the Meo family photos the Mayo family received after finding out that their grandfather Harry Mayo was not an orphan, had immigrated from Sicily and was one of 11 children in the Meo family.
Several of the Meo family photos the Mayo family received after finding out that their grandfather Harry Mayo was not an orphan, had immigrated from Sicily and was one of 11 children in the Meo family.
Provided by Lisa Mayo Murphy

Pietro and Caterina’s names were both names that appeared in some form on some of Harry’s documents. Check.

Among the 11 children was listed a Mariano. Harry had once told his wife of a brother, Marion, who had died as a child. Mariano was listed on the paper as having died as a child. Check.

Another child listed was Grazia, who had immigrated to America. This matched a story related to us by Harry’s first wife. Harry told her he had a sister, Grace, who lived in New York. Check.

Six more children were listed along with their spouses and children.

At the bottom right-hand corner, a note said, “Nunziato Meo. Came to America. And disappeared.” On one of Harry’s documents, he had listed his grandfather as Nunzio. Check.

We knew we had him.

At the age of 85, my father discovered that his father, Harry Mayo, was actually Nunziato Meo. He was not an orphan. He had parents and 10 siblings. My father had grandparents in Sicily. He had 14 aunts and uncles. He had 41 first cousins. All of whom he never knew. All of whom except six were now dead.

Thanks to social media, we have discovered more than 70 members of our extended Meo family. This discovery was 60 years in the making. Were it not for DNA testing, we would have all gone to our graves never knowing the true identity of Harry Mayo/Nunziato Meo.

At first, this discovery put my father a little off-balance. He had long accepted the situation of never knowing the true identity of his father. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know more at this point in his life. However, when a Meo relative posted a picture of Nunziato’s sister, Concetta, our jaws nearly hit the floor. They could have been twins.

What joy! We all, Meos and Mayos, strongly felt there was rejoicing in heaven as well as on earth for our long-lost family finally being reunited. On Aug. 11, we will have our first Meo/Mayo family reunion in Heber City. People are coming from six states to celebrate. Cousins will be meeting cousins. We are so looking forward to exchanging pictures and stories and recipes and hugs and kisses and a connection that will not be broken again.