The Sunday Post (Newcastle)

My Google search for ‘best oysters’ helped trace my brother’s long-lost dad

- By Lauren Robertson and Cat Thomson

The odds of finding a pearl inside an oyster shell are one in 10,000. But the chances of finding a long-lost relative in another country by sheer coincidenc­e must be a million to one.

Inspired by a recent holiday, Emily Casinelli casually typed

“best oysters in Scotland” into Google. She couldn’t quite believe it when two strangely familiar faces popped up on the screen.

This story ends with a family reunited by an oyster festival, but it starts back in 1952 with a whirlwind romance. Joe Pierce, now 71, is a businessma­n living in Connecticu­t.

He was brought up by his grandparen­ts in Bo’ness, near Falkirk, after his mother, Helen McAloon, emigrated to New York in 1954.

“I had a wonderful upbringing,” said Joe. “Bo’ness might be dark, rainy, damp and cold, but to me it was like Disneyland. I had the run of the town, I played football, I had my friends, it was such a rich experience.”

Gifts would arrive for Joe from America on birthdays and at Christmas, but his first true memory of his mother was when she came to visit when he was five.

“My first impression was that she looked like a film star,” said Joe.

“She wore a perfect pink dress suit and she smelled different. All the kids in the neighbourh­ood were falling over themselves because she looked like royalty.“

By the time he turned 12, the decision had been made to send Joe out to America to be permanentl­y reunited with his mum.

She married William Pierce there and had two daughters, Emily and Elizabeth.

Some may think moving from soggy Scotland to the sunny States would have been a dream for a young boy, but Joe wasn’t so sure.

“There was sunshine, milkshakes and hamburgers but I didn’t want to leave Scotland,” he said.

“I just wanted to play football with my friends. I’d hardly ever been in a car before – nobody had cars or telephones in Bo’ness. It was like Back To The Future, and all of a sudden I was in this suburban New York area, with big buildings and cars.”


Joe decided he wanted to find out more about his mum’s life. She revealed she had a relationsh­ip with a handsome Italian chef with a beautiful singing voice when she worked as a chambermai­d at Westerdune­s Hotel in North Berwick in 1952.

She became pregnant, but her lover confessed that he was betrothed to someone else back in Italy. Helen told him to go back to her while she returned to Scotland.

After Joe was born, Helen’s father persuaded her to move to America for a new start. He and Helen’s mother would raise her baby.

Growing up, Joe didn’t initially have any desire to search for his father but, looking back on his younger self now, he wonders if part of him always knew.

“I hadn’t known about my background, but I joined the Italian football club in high school, and always had this affinity for the Italian community,” he said.

“My wife Barbara comes from a third-generation Italian immigrant family.”

Joe married Barbara Mercede in 1978 and they had three children – Heather, now 41, Ryan, 36, and Kelly, 30.

Ten years ago, the family began searching for Joe’s father, whose name they knew to be Natale Lisi, thinking Italy was the obvious place to start. Little did they know, they needed to set their sights back on Scotland.

Joe’s stepsister Emily said: “My husband and I had taken a seaside vacation to Maine, where the cold water makes it one of the top places in the US for oysters.

It got me thinking how strange it was that all the times I’d been to Scotland, with its similarly cold waters, I’d never had oysters there. So, when we returned home, I just Googled ‘best oysters in Scotland’.”

She came across Stranraer Oyster Festival and, with it, a photo of two brothers who looked a lot like Joe. They were Massimo and Douglas, but what jumped out most to Emily was the surname Lisi. She found an old photograph of their father, Natale, on Facebook and that solidified her suspicions. Joe said: “She texted me that photo saying, ‘I think I’ve found your father!’”

The next day, Joe’s daughter Heather contacted Massimo’s son and things took off quickly.

“The whole family couldn’t have been nicer and more open to me,” said Joe. “I think it was a shock for them. They had no idea I existed. On our first call, Massimo he said, ‘hello brother’. “I spoke to Romana, my half-sister, and she was in tears. There was an immediate connection, it was an overwhelmi­ng experience.”

Joe learned that his father had returned to Italy and married his Italian fiancée, Maria Toti, in 1952.

The couple moved to Scotland soon after and had three children. Massimo, Douglas and Romana grew up in Portpatric­k and Stranraer as part of a loving restaurant-owning family.

Massimo explained how Natale had found himself in North Berwick at the same time as Joe’s mother, Helen.

He said: “My dad came from a little village called Francofont­e in Syracuse, Sicily. He left home at 13 to stay with a family in Rome and worked in a coffee shop where he learnt how to make patisserie.

“He saved his wages to get singing lessons, having listened to the beautiful voices coming from Rome’s Opera House, and became the head patisserie chef at a hotel in Rome. It was there that he was headhunted by an Italian Scot who offered him a job in North Berwick.

“My dad was a talented chef who was well-known in the area, particular­ly for his desserts and his voice.”

Natale died before meeting Joe. Massimo said: “He kept this secret to his grave.”

Since the one-in-a-million discovery, Joe and his half-siblings have been reunited in person.

Massimo said: “It was incredible. Joe came over to Stranraer when he was in the UK on business. It was so sweet. There was so much we wanted to talk about.”

Massimo and Romana also visited their half-brother in Connecticu­t this year and will do so again soon.

He added: “It’s incredible to think that we were discovered due to our connection with the Stranraer Oyster Festival.”

Joe can’t attend this year’s Stranraer Oyster Festival, which takes place from September 15 to 17, but said: “It is absolutely on my list for next year.

“There is now a chapter of my life where all the pieces fit in. I am also really happy for my kids as they have answers and closure.

“The unfortunat­e thing is if it had been 20 years earlier, I would have been able to meet my father.”

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 ?? ?? Joe’s parents, chef Natale Lisi, left, and Helen McAloon.
Joe’s parents, chef Natale Lisi, left, and Helen McAloon.
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 ?? Pete Robinson ?? Joe Pierce, left, Douglas and Massimo Lisi, right, outside Tigh Na Mara Hotel Stranraer.
Pete Robinson Joe Pierce, left, Douglas and Massimo Lisi, right, outside Tigh Na Mara Hotel Stranraer. Pictures
 ?? ?? Douglas and Massimo serve up oysters, far left, and Romana joins Massimo to meet Joe in the States.
Douglas and Massimo serve up oysters, far left, and Romana joins Massimo to meet Joe in the States.

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