Monday, June 25, 2012

Nonna or Antonuzza

Crossing the street one day with my mother-in-law by my side I realised that she only came up to my shoulder. She loomed so large in everyone’s life and I usually only saw her in her kitchen where she reigned supreme. She looked so vulnerable standing beside me at the lights but very pleased to be out with me.

Calabrians are short. Protein deficiency or more precisely a shortage of meat led to the ethnic characteristic of being short. When Salvatore went back to Fabrizia for the first time he was astounded that he had to duck his head to enter through the front door. He was not a tall man.  There was not enough meat. Although, Nonna as she became known after my daughter was born, always maintained that there was ‘abondante’ food when she was young. They may not have eaten beef or even veal which now is the staple of all pasta sauces but there was ‘abondante porc for salami and goat for festive days. Cheese was made from goat’s and sheep’s milk to make the delicious formaggio de capre or pecorino.

Antonuzza Monteleone married Raffaela Nesci in 194... It must have been a relief as from the age of ten she initially helped then was in charge of looking after her 7 siblings and cooking for the family. Even when she was married she still came and helped her mother. That only stopped when her family came along. It’s hard to imagine that starting a family will lessen your work burden.

Antonuzza went to school for one day and that was when she was thirteen years old. The teacher wouldn’t let her stay because her mother had not given her authority to go to school. Her life was to be looking after everyone and she did it so well. Breakfast, lunch dinner, the brothers and sisters left little time for leisure. The concept of leisure and holidays is completely foreign to Antonuzza. Her first ‘holiday’ was going back to Italy to visit the family.   She didn’t tell me this with any bitterness – it was just how it was.

Consequently she never learned to read and write but could always sign her name. I felt very guilty as a language and literacy teacher having an illiterate mother-in-law. I made noises to Salvatore and his mother that I could enrol her in English classes but she started to make the typical excuses that her eyes weren’t good enough or her health wasn’t good enough. She had coped until now and wasn’t motivated to change anything. I soon gave up my mission of teaching my mother-in-law to read.
She was a very intelligent woman with an incredible memory especially for dates. Illiterate people seem to have a very good memory. She remembers the dates of all birthdays, and any significant date in the history of the family. Only now, after the death of her beloved Turuzzo is she starting to waiver when asked questions such as “When did your brother, Antonio get married?”

Antonuzza Monteleone had 7 brothers and sisters -, Fiore, Gina, Rezieri, Antonio, Bruno, Damiano and Rosa. Two migrated to Sydney, four to Melbourne and two remained in Italy.  Only rezieri stayed in the village and worked in the mill while Bruno, like many southern Italians left to work in the north of Italy. He joined the Railways, a good government job and the goal of many Italians because it meant an easy job for life. Bruno, however was a hard worker and always had a pride in his work.

Salvatore on one of his early visits to Italy liked to visit his uncle working in such places as Canicatti in Sicily. He just liked to say the name of the town Canicati, Canicati. The 1990 film, The Station which I believe was set in Calabria romanticised the work of a stationmaster at a small station and I always had the image of this film when Salvatore told the Canicati story. Even though it was a very small village, nothing more than a railways siding, the stationmaster always dressed in full regalia with gloves and military style hat when a train went past. I always imagined Bruno did the same.

Salvatore and I went to Fabrizia in 1994 and Rezieri and his wife were down at the mill. They always still hung out at the mill. I felt that I was stepping back into another era. His wife had on a rough wool skirt and a scarf around her head. She couldn’t have looked more like a Calabrian farm worker if she tried. I think she was very embarrassed to be seen in her work clothes as we ‘sprung’ a visit on them as we hadn’t been able to contact them.

After so many years absence, Salvatore still knew the way down to the mill.  He was only five when they left. We climbed down a track down to the creek and there it was with the old mills stone propped up against the wall. When Rezierei realised who it was he was surprised, shocked then overjoyed and in true Calabrian style of complete hospitality to guests offered us food – olives, salami and some of the delicious Calabrian mountain spring water.

I tried to chat with......... while Reziere was having an animated conversation with Salvatore and gesticulating and pointing to the woods. He kept going without taking a breath for at least twenty minutes.

Afterwards I asked Salvatore what he was talking about. He said that he couldn’t really understand everything he was saying but it was wild stuff about ghosts, mythical creatures in the woods. I was surprised that Salvatore had just quietly listened and wasn’t really surprised to hear these stories and didn’t think to tell me about it.

People from the rural mountains in the past believed in a shaman type of Catholicism where protectors and mythical creatures and characters played an important role. I wanted to know more but Salvatore wasn’t forthcoming with detail so I let it go. 

                                            Salvatore in the backyard with his mother. Notice the stack
                                            of wood, boxes etc. All for the garden.

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