I visited ‘home’ recently, Mildura, Little Calabria, my home-land. I equate the move to Melbourne like the move of my parents from Italy to Australia. Not quite the same, I know, but I need to imagine and understand their journey as I imagine and understand all the journeys of those who came here in search of the ‘la dolce vita’. To leave home is the essential step towards evolution.
I see my Papa through my child’s eye. I was one who was sensitive, naïve, seeking to please.
He was always angry with someone for not doing something right. He was also frustrated when things did not work and he could not fix them. It was not always clear what caused him such wrath, but if we talk about the amygadala hijack, we avoided this brain state as much as possible for fear of meeting with the sting of the belt worn on his waist.
My two older siblings seemed to get into trouble all the time, and so to be third place meant protection, their status a buffer, a place to hide, in my silence and insignificance. My strength was in silence. In his presence I would sit quietly, wishing he would go out to work so we could all relax and find some peace. Silence tames dissatisfaction, suffocates verbal anger like a blanket on the fire.
To live in this fear, established anxiety, lack of self-esteem, and a tendency to let others go first, without seeing my own self-worth. I simply learnt to do as I was told.
In this space I also learnt what it meant to be present, how to be well prepared, on guard, the art of manipulation, performance and pretence.
In his absence, we all learnt how to play and laugh and scratch each other’s eyes out, because authority was not on guard demanding ‘goodness’.
My chores were plenty and I attacked them with conscientiousness. One was to cut and fill the wood box, from a trap door on the outside of the house and leave a pile of kindling on the stove hearth in preparation for the morning ritual, lighting of the fire.
My Father was the hero of awakenings. He rose at five o’clock in the morning, we in awe, of his ability to rise with the sun. With the light of a match the machinations of the day set in motion and with metal bucket in hand, he set off to milk the cow. Enough milk for the day, for cheese and ricotta making, there was always plenty.
In this way my Father nurtured his family, as the stove provided us our warmth, cooked our food, burnt bloody menstrual pads, removed the evidence of cigarette butts left from Uncle’s visits- purified our sins, warmed our soul. It’s embers left to die at the close of the day.
He always cooked his own breakfast of percolated coffee, fried chili with eggs on toast. The bread toasted on the hot steel face of the stove, and the eggs in a single pan that he cleaned with the edge of the bread devoured as the last mouthful. No need to wash dishes. One fork, one knife, one-cup, one plate, for all the fuss of frivolity was waste.
To demonstrate affection was seen as a weakness. When we approached him with affection, greetings were met with “I don’t need kisses”, pushing us away, offering instead an extended acceptable handshake.
The day I fainted in mass was the only time that I remember being close to my Father. We did not eat breakfast before mass to receive the Eucharist on an empty stomach, a blessing. I remember one morning standing up from the pew and seeing stars, blacking out. I could hear my name in loud whispers as I imagined my parents frantic with worry, I was scooped up in his arms, my Mother washed my face with the holy water and I came to. My Father puffing and panting under my weight, I was a healthy girl who liked her food, and I realized he carried me. I was surprised that it was not a sin to faint at mass. I wondered about the fuss, smitten by the chaos I had created and thinking it was one way to get out of boring Italian mass.
We had good Catholic values that were strongly linked to the ritual of making the wine and bread. My Father made wine and my Mother made a traditional pane di casa in the wood fired oven. The wine was a symbol of strength. As children we were encouraged to drink a little at the dinner table to perk our appetite.
It was my job to bring the water and the wine to my Father while he worked in the vineyard on the tractor, as if he was the Messiah himself. He had inducted me on the appropriate time to arrive and I waited at the headland for him to stop and take each bottle in turn. He coached me on which bottle to give first, the wine, the water then the wine again. Massive gulps of water spilling down his chin, the wine carefully savored so as not to spill a drop and exclamations of “AHHHHHHHH!” after each bottle. I watched the red liquid disappear down his gullet, the empty bottle returned and the water stained his shirt soon to dry in the heat and dust. He continued to work and I skipped home, free from obligation, other than refilling each bottle and placing them in the fridge in preparation for the next thirst-quenching visit.
There was a time that Dad taught me how to drive the tractor. It was picking season. We worked our vineyard, as a family, producing dried sultanas like everyone else. Innovation came with the next generation and new technologies. When giving instructions it was often in a raised voice without trial and error. Beware of error, for it would be met with the threat of the belt and verbal abuse of being kicked in your backside so hard that you would reach the end of Mr. Sharman’s block. The evoked anxiety tainted concentration and understanding of the task at hand, not to mention the noise of the tractor made it difficult to hear, scolded for not ‘listening’! I kept a low profile whenever a tractor driver was needed, even though it was considered an easy job. I wanted the hard jobs, where I could find solace in silence.
Lessons learnt and we soften in that space.
For we could not leave fast enough,
Disheveled children of hope,
We left to be greeted more humbly on our return.
Tears for the pain inflicted, also for the guilt carried by our Elders,
Consumed by responsibility and work.
Will I find the courage to break the silence,
And the gratitude to replace the grudge carried in hurt?
Our parent’s teachers,
We learnt and taught
And taught and learnt.
When we leave Mildura from our visit, my Father stays to say goodbye, a softening. I pretend not to see his tears. I kiss both cheeks, shake his hand and hug him with forgiveness.