I knew one day he would leave, but I had hoped by shoving my head in the sand, chatting about nonsensical things and keeping busy, it would be later rather than sooner. He was my first love and the father of my children, but like many couples, we had grown apart. I know that sounds like an excuse not a reason, but it was true. He didn’t like my cooking, too provincial, peasant food. He didn’t like my family; they talked loudly, ate too much, and hugged everyone. He didn’t like my appearance. I wasn’t svelte and lacked sophistication.
On the day of his announcement I was preparing dinner for my grown children, who were coming to visit. As much as I thought I knew what was happening around me, I was struck dumb.
After his little but devastating speech he turned and walked to the bedroom. I stayed glued to the kitchen floor, my brain processing his words. After thirty years was this how it ended. Our life had become a minor battlefield, him complaining and me ignoring the complaints, finding solace with my family. I followed him down the hall.
‘What am I suppose to do now. What do I tell the children, our friends and family?’
‘That I found someone who wants to have fun; that we fell out of love.’ He looked up from his suitcase, ‘At least your family will be happy. That never did approve of you marrying an Aussie.’
And that was the end of that; thirty years of marriage dissolved in an evening. Initially I cried, ranted, raved, made a spectacle of myself and embarrassed my children.
Over the next twelve months I became retrospective and with that came questions of my past and my ancestors. My values and attitudes were a product of my early family environment. I sought help from a psychologist, from friends, from counsellors. I was given self help books by well meaning friends and relatives. Some I read, some I shoved in the bottom of the drawer and others I put in the Salvo bins.
I tried to ‘Feel the Fear and do it anyway.’ I analysed my emotions, my every thought and feeling. Slowly I began to awaken to life and the revelation that we control our thoughts and actions, negative or positive. There is no one else to blame. And then a friend gave me ‘The Monk who sold his Ferrari.’
I was certain I didn’t want to travel to India and look for the Sages. Was it possible I could find the wisdom and knowledge needed to grow both spiritually and mentally, in the home of my ancestors? Although I was Australian born both my parents were Sicilian.
My marriage was over, that much I knew. My new life and its success or failure was now up to me. My children were independent; they would survive. My friends would decide whose friendship they would pursue, and my family, he was right, ‘Your father would be so happy. We never wanted you to marry an Australian.’
And so began my journey of change and the re-establishment of my self- worth. I wasn’t sure how I would accomplish this but my inner self told me to start at the beginning and it followed that if I was to take the route of self development and change this couldn’t be done in the security of my home.
With a new hairstyle and weighing ten kilos less, I half packed a suitcase, so I could shop. I left Brisbane three days before Christmas, arriving in Catania Sicily, Christmas Eve. What was I doing here? Starting at the beginning; researching the secrets and stories spoken of in the sanctum of Nonno and Nonna’s home; validating my values and most important of all, having fun. One thing the last twelve months had taught me was how important it was to laugh, love and be in the moment of each and every day.
Sicily, the football to Italy’s boot, this was the home to my parents and their ancestors. What had prompted my grandfather’s on both sides to immigrate to Australia in the 1930’s. A quick google search showed poverty levels at the time were very high along with an overcrowded existence. Emigration was encouraged. Both grandfathers’ immigrated first, together or separately, I didn’t know. After years of working in the cane fields in North Queensland they accumulated enough money to send for their families.
So here I was on a cold, crisp Christmas morning huddled in the corner of Piazza Duomo. My hands pushed deep in the pockets of my fur lined jacket, woollen scarf about my neck, ugg boots warming my frozen feet, breathing in the long ago lives of my family. Would my heart and soul bring forth their memories so I could feel an affinity with this country? I closed my eyes and let their lives, their experiences flow through my veins.
I smelt my Nonna’s cooking coming from the kitchen in West End, Caponata. I heard voices, a language I hadn’t learnt but seemed to understand and across the piazza came the distinctive smell of roasting chestnuts; an Italian winter tradition.
I opened my eyes and walked towards a group of elderly men sitting under the Fontana dell’Elefante. Some were sitting, some standing, some pointing, some speaking and some listening. What brought them out this cold Christmas morning? Was this a Sicilian tradition; a chance to chat with friends, make a point, pass on knowledge, feel part of the community. I sat away from them, but close enough to hear.
Much of their discussion was of a political nature; ranging between Silvio Berlusconi and his divorce settlement, the Mayor of Catania, Rosario Crocetta and the fact he was gay. Their speech was rapid but I was able to piece together enough to understand. They were passionate and forthright in their opinions with fingers stamping the misty morning air. Sitting this close, I could see there were a few younger men listening.
I had seen similar gatherings back home when I was a child. West End in the 70’s had been the home of a large Italian population. Each morning the old men of the neighbourhood would wander down Boundary Road to sit outside the local Italian cafe, discussing life and passing on their wisdom and knowledge to those who listened.
There is no place for these chats in Australian suburbs in 2013. There are no piazzas, only the traditional family dinner table; my first validation. With three brothers, many a night was spent around this symbol of family in noisy discussions on politics, business life, children, teenagers and religion. Our parents believed in the premise, our life’s purpose was to share our wisdom with others who would benefit from that knowledge, most often the next generation.
I walked back to my hotel to retrieve my car and drove out of town in the direction of Giarre, the home of my family. Driving on the right-hand side of the road was challenging, but fortunately it was Christmas and traffic was minimal. Today I was looking for both family homes. I intended walking the streets of Giarre, visiting the church and sitting in the piazza, also called Piazza Duomo. Later in the week I would come back to the Commune and search the archival documents for births and marriages of the Calderai and Vincenzia families.
The streets of Giarre were deserted. I parked my car and walked to the square. The church of Saint Isidoro Agricola was opened. I wandered in and sat down. Had my grandparents spent time here in their younger days? My heart said yes. My parents were five and three when they left Sicily, so it was my grandparents lives I was channelling.
I left the church and with my map walked to Via Carolina looking for the Calderai family home. I had found information on my father’s immigration papers, along with photos of their home. Although eighty years had lapsed I easily found the house. Nothing had changed except the bitumen roads. Vegetable gardens bordered the houses, grape vines above, used as protection from frost and birds; another validation. I prided myself on my vegetable garden; roma tomatoes, beans, melanzanes, scalora, basil and rosemary.
I had intended just looking but found myself at the front door. I knocked. It was 11.30am. ‘Buongiorno mi chiamo Nina e sono da Australia. I miei nonni Giuseppe e Nina Calderai hanno vissuto qui 80 anni fa.’ My Italian was rusty but improving.
‘Mama, mama, vieni veloce.‘ I was pulled into the house. Four people sat around the table, all eyes on me. Then they were beside me, talking quickly, gesturing. The Sicilian too fast for me to understand.
I looked at the woman who had opened the door, ‘piano, piano. per favore ‘.
She laughed and grabbed the young man, ‘Giovanni interpretere.’
‘Do you speak English,’ I asked.
‘Piccolo, a little,’ he said. ‘This is my mother Nina, my grandmother Francesca, my father Roberto and sister Lisa.’ I smiled, grateful for Giovanni’s English.
More Sicilian was spoken between Nina and Giovanni; the names of Michele and Maria were mentioned.
Giovanni explained. ‘My grandmother is the daughter of Michele and Maria Calderai, Michele was Giuseppe’s brother. This has been the home of the Calderai family for over two hundred years.
I was stunned. My grandparents had never spoken of a Sicilian family left behind. My puzzled expression was difficult to disguise.
‘Niente, niente,’ Francesca cried.
Giovanni interpreted. ‘Nothing had been heard from the family since the day Nina and her daughter caught the train to Messina where they boarded a ship bound for Australia. Francesca was ten but she never forget,’ he said shaking his head. ‘She doesn’t remember Giuseppe, but Nina, she live here while she wait for Giuseppe to send for her.’
And so with Giovanni’s help I stayed answering questions about my grandparents, my family. And in turn Francesca told me what she remembered of my family’s life in Sicily. She cried and hugged me constantly.
She watched and listened to my answers, evaluating each one.
‘Andare, Andare,’ she waved her arms at Giovanni. ‘Privato’.
‘She wants to talk to you in private,’ he explained.
I assured him I would be fine. And then Francesca did an amazing thing. Talking very slowly, making sure I understood, she told me a story, one I now knew I had heard as a child. That day was cold and wet. My Nana, Nina, lay in her bed, eyes closed, near to death. I had crawled in beside her. She had taken my hand and started to speak in Italian. I said, ‘English Nana’ but she ignored me and kept talking. I remember listening, trying to decipher her words. But sitting here now listening to Francesca, the words were the same. I didn’t need Giovanni to explain. This was the same story; a story about a baby born while Giuseppe had been in Australia. A baby left behind to be raised by his father, Giuseppe’s brother Michele.
His name was Rosario and Francesca told me he lived in the next village. He was eighty. Did I want to meet him? Oh yes I said, very much so. My father had died five years ago, never knowing he had a half brother. My grandmother had entrusted me with her secret. It fell on me now to share the knowledge of our Australian family with my new Italian one. We would have a piccola chiacchierata, a small chat.
My life had changed, my ancestors secrets divulged and accepted. I had found new family in a country where my DNA flowed freely. A diverse country of volcanoes, mountain villages, ancient ruins, caponata and gelati. No longer afraid of being alone, my self- worth intact I looked about the room and smiled. They were my family and for now I was home.