a memoir about growing up Italian in regional Victoria
It was the end of the Millennium when the voice in my head was the eco of the red bubble-gum MAC computer, whenever I hit the wrong button: “It’s not my fault”– became embedded in my head on repeat. I did not know that this was the warning of what was to come. My subconscious apologised on repeat “It’s not my fault, It’s not my fault”, and no amount of prayer- “Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed”– was going to save me.
The voices amplified in quiet times, like when it was bedtime, as if someone was turning up the volume out of spite. Alone, the voices were on stereophonic. I was sleeping awake, experiencing fantastical nightmares that manifested as hallucinations from Pirandello’s Six Character’s in Search of an Author, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and I was the Alice in Wonderland stuck in a deep dark hole of my own imaginings- catatonic- frozen, like the hard-drive of the computer.
I stayed there for two weeks, before the reboot.
Where do I belong?
Who am I?
Why can’t I find my place?
Where do I fit in?
What is wrong with me?
My sense of identity, my self-worth and my value, plagued my demise to a nervous breakdown. I had played the good Italian girl, subservient, accommodating, though it did not work when I had to leave home, and fend for myself. I had to find my own path, make choices, and discover ways of being. There was no culture to guide my sense of purpose- only the story of what it meant to be a migrant, to be misplaced.
I landed in a mental hospital. An involuntary patient- no rights, it felt like being imprisoned and becoming a drug addict at the same time. I was to follow strict orders, do what I was told and take the pills they shoved down my gullet, whether I liked it or not.
I was going on more trips than were possible in one day, without leaving my room.
Two weeks spent dishevelled, crawling around in my brain, trying to find the neurons that would bring me back to myself. Visited by my family and cared for by my partner, they all helped to put me back together again.
I was a heretic, looking for connection to my culture. Was there mental illness in our lineage that no one had unpacked?
Mental illness does not discriminate. I felt petrified, violated and punished.
In this catatonia, I was dying, because at the time I was clinically depressed and there did not seem to be anywhere else to go.
It took six months to fully recover and 20 years to come to terms with it. Have I come to terms with it?
I have come to learn how ordinary I am, for the common story of mental illness. It affects each of us in different ways. We continue to live very settled and successful lives with it in tow- we need more stories of our diverse experiences to truly appreciate the benefits.
This was a turning point when I understood that if I wanted my freedom I had to prove that I could look after myself. I had been living in the fantasy world of aspiration without action, stumbling towards what I thought I should be seen to be doing. I thought that inspiration came in bubbles and the effervescence of Spumante.
Being culturally diverse is more than what we drink, our culinary exploits, our physical appearance or our cultural dress. To be culturally diverse is often defined by the tangible, rather than what touches our soul. We are not static beings. Ever evolving is culture and identity. It is dynamic and malleable like growing sour dough, like the act of photosynthesis, the preservation of pickles. Takes time to ferment, grow, preserve, then becomes something new again. Cultural diversity is a process that thrives.
Multicultural in the Australian discourse, is fraught with neatly packaged labels of the gastronomic, the ‘uniformity’ of what makes me “I” – talian, what I look like, what I wear and finally, how I dance! Can you believe it?
When I do not comply with the expectation of the “I” in Italian, then I am labelled a fraud. I was born in Australia at a time when Italian meant wog. So I did all I could to deny the “I” tie, to speak English, eat vegemite sandwiches & tic tock biscuits, wave the Australian flag, sing to the Queen and dance around the maypole.
As the child I was the misfit, as an adult I was a fraud and then at the same time exclamations of identity: “You look SOOOOOO Italian!” Visions of a rag doll tug of war- I’m that doll in the middle, being pulled one way, then the other, a schizophrenic inertia.
The babushka doll of layering, of what is on the surface, of what we put on and what we take off, trying to find the right fit though reminded that this is not where I belong.
I have become more nostalgic as a result. Wanting to go back to the point where life was as I remember it to be, simpler.
To be a worry free child again, the one who played, and screamed and laughed, barefooted amongst the prickles and the pig fat stained soil left from making salami.
I return to play the dutiful daughter, obedient to the expectations of parents from another era.
The act of returning cannot exist without the act of leaving. When we leave a place we also have an urge to return and this feeling of never being whole until we get there. It’s like finding something precious.
Mildura for me has become like the piccola Italia that my parents left and the place to which I return. My home. I fold myself into my truth, where unconditional love finds me at peace with myself.
I document what I see now, so I can remember what I was taught, what I know and where I come from, time has given me a space to find meaning in my own humble journey.
Each time I remit, I reacquaint myself with my Mother’s kitchen cupboards. I need to know where everything is, in case I’m called upon to serve, it’s like needing to know the location of the first aid kit in case of an emergency.
I wasn’t aware of my shrewdness, until I saw my mother and sister watching me and laughing as I opened and closed cupboard doors, searching for the familiar. I needed to know that I existed just like the plate or cup given to my Mother as a wedding present over 60 years ago.
“What are you looking for? My mother would ask.
“I’m just looking”.
Exploring then is to discover, is to find the story in the object and how it came to be there. How I came to be here.
When I go back I reacquaint myself with my Father’s junk pile, the tip, where rusty objects, become interesting sculptures against the sunset. Watching the skyline brings a peaceful acceptance of impermanence.
I took photos of these objects, wrote a poem and made a film about leaving home. I had missed something. Each time I returned, the harvesting became less arduous and the pile of implements got bigger. There were less people to do the work at hand, as the children had grown and left to find their own path.
The production of food and farming has become less manual and highly mechanized. My brother now manages the family farm. He can water the whole block with an APP on his IPHONE. I recall Dad walking up and down the rows with a shovel over his shoulder to mend the broken furrows. It would take a week to water the acreage.
The final black and white image in the film is of my Father sitting on a tractor with a finger pronged implement on the back ready to shake the rack of dried sultanas, a practice of ‘blockies’ from that time.
This single image, proves what a rack looked like, it’s purpose in drying fruit and how fresh grapes came to be sultanas. The coloured images are an inventory of what the rack has become. Dismantled, piece-by-piece, like a puzzle, placed in the dust, for another day that will never come- home to lizards, centipedes, ants and snakes, a museum of farming methodologies – embedded in the landscape of what was once the story of our family’s livelihood.
I get caught in my own web of imaginings, tangled. I suppose that notion of going back begs us to return to a place that can only be found in memory.
My parents have not gone back to Calabria; excuses made for lack of resources, though I imagine that anxiety stopped them. They say that they are too old to venture. I have inflicted this trait upon myself, this sense that I am not worthy to receive. Given it to the next generation like the herpes virus, passed on by an infected cold-sore kiss.
We know our culture and where we come from, but we are afraid to return, because we do not belong there either.
I have come to appreciate quantum physics, the universality of all things. Non- attachment is freedom from this sense of having to be defined in some way by how you look, what you wear, what you own, what you eat and how you dance. There is a great deal of comfort in knowing that I am connected to a life force, that I am one with nature, the universe and all other living things.
Within this paradigm I belong anywhere and anytime. It shifts so many boundaries and provides an expansion of the self to the other. In this way my pain is your suffering, is my gain is your achievement.
We are interwoven and connected, the same but different, united by our humanity: birth, life and death. This much is true, though here we never truly die.