My grandmothers: an example for life
I often think about my grandmothers, with admiration for what they have achieved and endured in their lives and with boundless affection. I go back to how they were, what kind of lives they have had and how similar or different I feel from them.
They both had strong characters and strange, old fashioned names: Conforta, born in November 1903, my mum’s mother, and Orsola, born in February 1896, my dad’s mother. Though they came from different social backgrounds both spoke dialect all their lives, could barely read or write, dressed in a similar way and cooked similar food.
This might be because in Italy there has never been much money to go round and wealthy people were a small minority, especially at that time. Most people had only a few sets of clothes and two pairs of shoes, one for every day and one for Sundays and they ate meat only once a week. Education was not compulsory after Primary School. During holidays, if you had any, you could play in the town park or see relatives in the village where you came from.
Conforta came from a family of farmers from Cortona, near Arezzo in Tuscany, and moved to Rome when she was twenty to work as a maidservant in a middle class family. She wanted to be more independent and the work at the farm was too hard for her.
She was tall and strong with big hands and big feet, mild brown eyes and long fair hair she used to braid and fix in a coil on the back of her neck according to the country girls’ style.
In Rome she met my grandfather, a short sinewy Sicilian man with dark curled hair and light grey eyes and the pretentious name of Napoleone. She fell in love straightaway … and got pregnant. It happens. They married in a hurry keeping the secret though her sister in law, who made the bride dress, complained that she had to let it out at each fitting. My mother was their first child, born in May 1930.
After my mother my grandma had another child and she had to work hard too, much harder than she would have thought in her worst nightmare. My grandpa was a hard worker as well, he woke up at four in the morning and came back home at night. He was a butcher’s boy and also carried meat with his tuc-tuc. But he had ‘holes in his hands’, as we say in Italy, and spent most of his money with friends and women. So Conforta had to earn enough money to feed and dress her children and pay the rent of the hut where they lived in the outskirts of Rome. It was countryside at the time and there was no running water, no gas and no toilet. Afterwards they moved into an apartment in a working class district of Rome, San Lorenzo, famous for being bombed-out in 1943.
Working hard became the faith of my grandma’s life and her only way to survive. She had been maidservant, gardener, seamstress and washerwoman. She never had a holiday. Once she cut up her blue velvet coat to make skirts for her daughters while she used to wear cheap, thin dresses because she couldn’t afford more.
She had seven children. The fifth one , a boy, died of gastroenteritis when he was a baby. In 1936 there were a few medications available and my grandparents couldn’t afford any anyway. She put the blame on herself because she couldn’t breast-feed him as she had no milk. Or maybe this was what people maliciously whispered behind her back. She had a breakdown and attempted suicide by throwing herself in the oven where she was baking the bread. My mother was only six and had three younger siblings to look after while my grandma slowly recovered.
During the war they spent a year in the farm near Cortona where their relatives lived. They could relax a bit there and enjoy the countryside but they had to earn their living all the same reaping, sowing, collecting and selling bundles of sticks.
Grandma was also a very clean person. My mother told me that they had to scrub and polish every inch and corner of the house when it was cleaning day. When I was a child she taught me to wash and iron and she was particularly keen to show me how to use elbow grease to attain the best result.
I remember her still working in the laundry of a private hospital in Rome when she was about seventy, her tall figure slightly bent, her white hair short and tidy, her hands deformed by arthritis fumbling with the iron roller.
Five of her six children married and she had fourteen grandchildren. We all used to meet at her house for Christmas and Easter. Finally she had managed to buy a two-room apartment by paying a mortgage. It was a plain, ordinary home with a few photos on the walls and a huge table in the living room with heavy dark oak chairs around it, engraved with wreaths of fruit and flowers.
During the festivities, everybody was involved in the cooking or setting the table and serving food. She prepared delicious meals with homemade gnocchi, ravioli and lasagne, juicy roast beefs and crisp lamb ribs. In the afternoon she called her grandchildren one by one and gave us a bit of pocket money each from her meagre pension.
My grandfather, six years older than her, suffering from dementia, went around the house with his walking stick and hit us, the children, on the legs or tried to trip us up. His sharp profile was unchanged, his hard eyes staring at us while we played hide and seek or hopscotch.
In 1971 my grandma’s youngest son, aged 28, unmarried, died in a motorbike accident. It was his fault, he did not stop at a crossroad and exceeded the speed limit. He was flung in the air like a puppet and banged his head when he fell down. He was not wearing a helmet. I was playing with my cousins in my aunt’s garden when she arrived supported by her daughters. She was crying, delirious, totally devastated. In spite of all her care and hard work she could not save him.
She attended Mass regularly but never talked of God or religion. She kept her feelings to herself. Her way of speaking was frank and witty, typical of Tuscany people, her words in dialect as pointed as a dart right on target.
When I came to England for the first time, aged seventeen, and worked as washer-up and maid in a restaurant in London for a month she came to fetch me at Termini railway station in Rome, extremely proud of what I had done.
In 1982 she died of kidney cancer. She spent the last few months in our house where my mother looked after her. She couldn’t speak any more and was lying on a bed most of the time, her big bones sticking out under her pale skin, her white hair long and loose, looking unreal like the hair of a doll.
My other grandmother, Orsola, was from Meta di Sorrento, a village on the coast of the Gulf of Naples. She came from a family of carpenters and shopkeepers and was the only daughter with six brothers. Her mother died when she was six years old and she had to help a lot at home, though her father remarried shortly afterwards.
She was a short, chubby woman, the typical shape of a southern Italian. She had thick black eyebrows and dark clever eyes, still twinkling in her portraits and photos. She had worn long hair all her life and used to keep it loose at night and tied in a bun during the day. It was a mistake to be misled by her plump cheeks and round figure. Under it there was an iron will.
Four of her six brothers were sailors and died on the sea in shipwrecks or of fevers. The only two who survived till old age were the ones who found a job in the village.
Her father did not want her to marry because they needed her at home. But she met my grandfather and it was love at first sight. He was tall and elegant in his uniform of Guardia di Finanza with a fair, toothbrush moustache and a big nose. He was bit of a "head in the clouds" kind of man, a real challenge for a woman like her.
She used to call him ‘Ciccillo’, the affectionate nickname for Francesco in Naples area. Guardia di Finanza (Financial Police) is a sort of Army in Italy that deals with custom and financial matters. He was from L’Aquila in Abruzzo and came from an aristocratic background but he was not wealthy. His father died when he was eight years old and he joined Guardia di Finanza when he was sixteen. He was a lieutenant when he married Orsola, a kind, extremely well mannered man with a big heart. He did not fine or jail cigarette smugglers in Naples because he knew they were poor families who had no other way to earn their living. He had a stable wage even during the war and my grandma knew how to thrive on it.
Needless to say she was the commander in chief of the house and controlled the purse strings as well. Some people hinted she was stingy but her frugality came from the customs and the mentality of her own village. Most of the men in her village worked in ships and could be aboard for one or two years or never come back. Women stayed at home and had to make ends meet with the money their husbands had given them before leaving. I believe this was the reason for her ‘stinginess’.
As soon as she married in 1921 they moved to the north of Italy, Villa Opicina near Trieste, at the border with Slovenia. It must have been a shock, especially the climate. In the Gulf of Naples the temperatures are mild most of the year. In Friuli they had snow all winter, low temperatures and a wild wind blowing all the time. Besides she spoke the smooth, musical dialect of Naples while in the north of Italy they have a very different kind of dialect. She must have felt in a foreign country. She never went out, my father told me, and soon had two children in 1922 and in 1924. My father, her third child, was born later on in 1932.
Every summer she went back to Meta di Sorrento to enjoy the warmth of the climate and of the people. Before the war she thought it was time to buy a house there instead of staying with relatives. She started with an apartment on two floors in the main street and as the prices of real estates had fallen, and she had saved a bit of money, she thought it was a good idea to invest her money this way. She bought several apartments and shops and let them. She also bought furniture, pictures, silver and china from an aristocratic family in need of cash. Over the years they proved to be a very profitable investment. As I said she was very shrewd. During the war she was stuck in Meta for about two years while my granddad was further south in Bari.
After the war my granddad was detailed to a post in Rome and they rented an apartment in a basement in a middle-class district. When my parents married in 1960 they went to live with them and finally they all bought a house together on the outskirts of Rome when I was one year old.
A few months before I was born my aunt Carolina, her first child, died of a stroke. She was only forty and left two children, who came to live with us as well. Her husband, an Air Force official, managed to remarry soon afterwards and reunite his family.
I never met my aunt Carolina but everybody said she was a mild, sweet person and her death was a hard blow for my grandma. She still had her two sons and my father lived with her, but Carolina was like an angel and the lack of her presence left a gap that could not be filled. She was the one who never complained and adapted herself to any difficulty. An ideal woman, the buffer which absorbed all the frictions.
According to my grandma’s frame of mind, when you are born with a certain ‘character’ you can’t change much of it, so we all need to be flexible and accept each other’s ‘characters’ without being too nit-picking. Like a jigsaw puzzle, family relationships should interlock with one another and affections are more important than principles. In this way family ties have an emotional, subconscious basis and can’t be broken by occasional rows or cheating, rightly or wrongly as it may be. Is this the secret of the Italian family? Yes, maybe it is.
My granddad also died in 1971 and Orsola spent more and more time on her rocking chair reciting the rosary. She was a fervent Catholic and had several pictures of Saints, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on her bedside table near a tiny light which was always on.
Her favourite farewell was ‘La Madonna t’accompagni’ (=the Virgin be with you) and her favourite exclamation was a list of the people of the holy family: ‘Gesù, Giuseppe, Sant’Anna e Maria (=Jesus, Joseph, Saint Ann and Mary). She taught me how to recite the rosary and insisted on making my sister and myself attend the catechism for the First Holy Communion. My parents did not bother about it but accepted her point of view. She also taught me some cooking, how to make dough, custard cream and pastiera, a special Easter cake I was fond of.
When she went to Mass she put on a misshapen black hat with a dark veil on the front and a dusty silver fox fur on her shoulders. She sang the hymns with a firm well-tuned voice till her death in 1976 of a stroke. She was eighty.
I also played cards with her, scopa, ruba mazzo and asso pigliatutto, three easy games with the colourful Italian cards. She cheered up and laughed during the games like a child, her exclamations in dialect and her mimes more entertaining than a comedian's performance.
She loved watching TV, especially quiz programs like Rischiatutto with Mike Bongiorno on the old black and white TV we had in a small bare room between her bedroom and our bedrooms.
Her favourite opera aria or song was Un bel dì vedremo (One fine day we shall see) from Madama Butterfly by Puccini, she was always moved when she heard it and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.
Though we were eventually comfortably off, my father being a doctor and my mother a nursery school teacher, grandma always wore the same dark dresses and had only one bracelet, one pair of ear-rings and one ring. She left me her golden bracelet and a bag made with a silver net, a present from my granddad when she was a young bride.
I don’t believe in spirits and ghosts but I like to think from time to time that my grandmothers may still linger around my house and protect me and my family from jinxes. Their peaceful rest must be seriously disturbed by all the work we give them.