Sweet serendipity

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Gilbert Lorenzoni bicycled to the newspaper office from his Oak Bluffs home last week to tell us a story about connections and family, and how The Times played a role in the restoration of a family link he didn’t realize existed. Lorenzoni, 81, is originally from Nice, France, and how he found his way to the Island is another story in itself. But the story he wanted to tell that day last week began back in 2018, when we wrote a story about Lorenzoni’s sizable collection of World War I memorabilia and photographs. It was the 100th anniversary of the Great War, and we commemorated it in that piece. Among the many artifacts was a photo of Lorenzoni’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Mathieu Merengone, a soldier in the war.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Lorenzoni’s second cousin, Laurent Merengone, had begun doing some research on his family tree. He looked up the last name Merengone on the internet, and found the story in The MV Times.

“When I read your article on The MV Times,” Merengone wrote to the Times in an email from Nice, “I tried to understand who is Gilbert. I asked several members of my family, but they didn’t know anything about Gilbert’s existence. Only my Uncle Xavier, the patriarch of my family, seemed to have a memory of a cousin who had gone to the Americas during the ’60s. This cousin is Gilbert, the son of the sister of my grandfather Antoine Merengone, the father of my Uncle Xavier.”

As incredible as it seems that a reader in France could see an article online and then realize that a person in the story, whom he’s never met before, is perhaps a relative alive and well and living in the U.S., this story gets even more incredible.

Laurent Merengone has a real estate business in Nice, and Lorenzoni made a trip to France in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, to straighten out some long-standing business issues.

“The meeting happened because Laurent was the first in the family to ask about the family tree,” Lorenzoni said. “He put his great-grandfather’s name in the computer and your article came up. He saw the pictures and he said, ‘This is my great-grandfather,’ and then he saw my name. The way it happened is mind-boggling.”

Lorenzoni had an appointment with an attorney in Nice that particular day in 2020. He said he was walking down the street, on his way to see the attorney, deep in thought about the upcoming meeting. A man walked out of an office just as Lorenzoni was walking by. At first they passed each other, and then the younger man turned around and asked, “Are you Gilbert Lorenzoni?”

“He looked at me with wide-open eyes and said, ‘Yes!’ I told him we are from the same family, and he was stunned,” Merengone wrote. “I made him come into my office, and we had a chat and made the decision to meet again.”

Lorenzoni said they had a quick conversation that day because both men were heading to meetings, and Merengone was soon leaving for Moscow to visit with his wife’s family; they would get together when he returned.

“The young people in Nice have changed, I thought,” Lorenzoni laughed. “He must be a clever fellow.”

They met again, and Merengone brought along his Uncle Xavier and his wife, Maryse, and Merengone’s cousin Michel, who is a firefighter in Nice.

“This meeting was extraordinary!” Merengone wrote. “Gilbert told us about his difficult childhood in Nice, his departure as a soldier during the Algerian war, and his decision at the end of his military service to move to the U.S.A.”

Lorenzoni’s recollections of his own story really begin when his mother took his sister and left. He stayed with his father in Nice and never saw his mother again; he was 6 years old. World War II had just ended, and they were poor, very poor.

“The drastic thing was there was no food,” Lorenzoni said. “There was a mixture of grains they used for coffee, from whatever you could find. There were tickets with different ages and you were allowed so much meat for a week. In the countryside it was a little better, you could hide rabbits, chickens, but in the city it was different unless you had a lot of money.”

People think the war was over and that was that, he said, but the reality was that the effects of the war were much longer-lasting.

“People think May 8, 1945, that it was back to like it was before,” Lorenzoni said. “It was very bad actually, as far as I can remember.”

Lorenzoni’s father didn’t have much interest in raising a little boy, he explained. There was a series of “stepmothers” who cooked and kept house, none of them ever becoming close to the boy. Lorenzoni didn’t go to school until he was 9 years old, and then found he had a lot of catching up to do.

“My mother was nowhere to be seen all these years,” Lorenzoni said. “It was like I didn’t exist. Of course she knew where I was. After two or three stepmothers, every time we had to move to a different apartment to live with another person, and then I went to school. I was not a bad student. What I cared about was a little affection.”

Lorenzoni went to a trade school to learn carpentry when he was 14, doing well and moving to the head of the class. “We did everything by hand, sharpened your own tools. Nails didn’t exist,” he explained. “Assemblage was different then, we used chisels and saws, no machines ever.”

He worked in a shop making furniture, and got paid in cash once a month. His father took the money, leaving him maybe a dollar to see a movie or to get a beer. Life went on like that, Lorenzoni explained, until he made a final break with his abusive father when he was 19. He ran off and stayed with an uncle for a while, dropping the carpentry work as well as his relationship with his father. He walked past a new restaurant in town, a modern place he said, and saw that the waiters were dressed nicely in fresh, laundered clothing and understood that they must get something to eat there as well.

“The one thing I had in mind is once in a while on Sunday when I’d walk around, rarely I could go to a nice bar for rich people and get maybe a beer. And I looked around and saw all the staff was nicely dressed, clean … I said maybe I should get into this thing. I don’t know how it happened, but I was presented to a beautifully new bar and restaurant in Nice, very modern. The boss knows my family. He said the only thing I have is a busboy, and it pays five francs a day … less than a dollar a day. It was the night shift, and I said, Please take me. The boss was very well-known, very able, very gentle and professional. He said, I’m sorry I can’t give you more but you have to learn.

“It was hard to live, to find a place to stay and things to eat when you’re not working and to keep your linen clean when you have no one to wash or iron. You have to be on your toes.”

Not long after he got the job as a busboy, Lorenzoni was off to the military, where he served 28 months during the Algerian war. He kept in touch with a friend he had met at the restaurant, and after his military service, they reconnected. His friend had made his way to New York City, where he was doing very well working in fine restaurants. He encouraged Lorenzoni to move to the U.S., and met him when he finally arrived.

“I filled out an application to come to U.S. and obtain a green card,” Lorenzoni said. “I didn’t go as a tourist, but I waited and went to Marseille to present myself at the U.S. embassy. I had my last interview with all my papers in order, and went in 1964. I gave myself two weeks and thought I better go now, or I’ll never go. It was June 7, 1964.”

His friend opened a bank account with a minimum of $500 required when he came here. “He opened the account for me, I never had a bank account in my life,” Lorenzoni said. “The rent in Manhattan, a railroad apartment with a long corridor, was $55 a month on the Upper East Side, 73rd and York Avenue.”

Lorenzoni received more training in the art of serving in French fine dining restaurants, eventually working at Le Pavillon and La Côte Basque in Manhattan. He was a quick study, picking up the skills from watching other waiters along the way.

“Le Pavillon would cater to the best clientele, the richest. It was packed,” Lorenzoni remembers. “Le Pavillon was the place to be seen. If you only know the names in this place … the who’s who of Hollywood and politics. Entire family of Kennedys, Robert and Ted, who was a young man. Father and mother and so many kids. I waited on Frank Sinatra. Salvador Dalí used to come often when he was in New York. Maurice Chevalier, any name you can think of. Yul Brynner …”

Lorenzoni made many friends in the restaurant business over the years, eventually coming to Martha’s Vineyard to work around the time a friend of his from France came to run what became Chez Pierre at the Charlotte Inn. Lorenzoni also worked at Le Grenier and the Mediterranean, among other restaurants. Lorenzoni loved the Island, and after working seasonally here and in New York, Florida, and sometimes California, he finally settled here.

From Nice to Martha’s Vineyard, with a whole lot of living in between, Lorenzoni spent all those years never really knowing his mother’s side of the family. Now, because of an article in the newspaper here, he is getting to know his family in Nice.

“We didn’t have much time to visit. I explained what happened to me, abandoned by my mother. They knew my sister well. They knew her over the years. They knew my mother. She remarried,” Lorenzoni said.

As for Laurent Merengone, he says he plans to visit Gilbert on Martha’s Vineyard someday. “I promised to come and see him on his Island,” Merengone wrote, “when the flights resume and the health crisis is behind us, I will make the trip to see it. For sure!”