Meeting my grandmothers: examples for life
Carla Scarano D’Antonio.
In their humble domestic lives, my grandmothers were not romantic and did not fight for civil or women’s rights. They did not personify any ideal of femininity or heroic endeavour. They simply carried on with their ordinary lives caring for their families and working hard. For these reasons, I often think about my grandmothers with admiration for what they achieved and endured in their lives and with boundless affection. I go back to how they were, what kind of lives they had and how similar to or different from them I feel. Compared to them, I had more opportunities both in education and in my everyday life. I lived in a different period and had better economic means, could access higher education, go to university and travel. I was allowed to vote and take part in social debates. Nevertheless, their attitude towards life and their ethos still inspire me; they are examples that guided me in troubled waters.
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 have been because in Italy there was never much money to go round, and, especially at that time, wealthy people were a small minority. Most people had only a few sets of clothes and two pairs of shoes, one for every day and one for Sundays, and they only ate meat 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 that 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 for 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 curly hair and light grey eyes and the pretentious name of Napoleone. She fell in love straightaway … and got pregnant. They married in a hurry, keeping the baby a secret, though my grandmother’s sister-in-law, who made her wedding 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 other children and she had to work hard too, much harder than she could ever have imagined in her worst nightmares. My grandpa was a hard worker as well; he got up at four in the morning and didn’t go home until the evening. He was a butcher’s boy and also delivered meat in his tuk-tuk. But he had ‘holes in his hands’, as we say in Italy, and spent most of his money with his friends and on women. So Conforta had to earn enough money to feed and dress her children and pay the rent for the shack where they lived in the outskirts of Rome. It was still countryside at the time and there was no running water, no gas and no toilet. Later, they moved into an apartment in a working-class district of Rome, San Lorenzo, which is famous for being bombed out in 1943.
Working hard became the faith of my grandma’s life and her only way of surviving. She had been a maidservant and now she worked as a gardener, seamstress and washerwoman. She never had a holiday. Once she cut up her blue velvet coat to make skirts for her daughters, but she used to wear cheap, thin dresses because she couldn’t afford anything better. She had seven children. The fifth one, a boy, died of gastroenteritis when he was a baby. In 1936 there were few medications available and my grandparents couldn’t afford any anyway. She blamed herself for her baby son’s death, believing that it had been caused by her inability to breastfeed him as she had no milk. She had a breakdown and attempted suicide by throwing herself into the oven where she was baking bread. My mother was only six at the time and had to look after three younger siblings while my grandma slowly recovered. During the war, the family spent a year living at 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, by sowing and harvesting crops and 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 of the house, when it was cleaning day. When I was a child, my grandma 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 over sixty, 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. She had finally 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, engraved with wreaths of fruit and flowers, with heavy dark oak chairs around it. 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 beef 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, Napoleone, six years older than her, was suffering from dementia; he 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 and unmarried, died in a motorbike accident. It was his fault – he did not stop at a crossroads and was exceeding the speed limit. He was flung into the air like a puppet and banged his head when he hit the road. He was not wearing a helmet. I was playing with my cousins in my aunt’s garden when my grandma arrived immediately after the accident, supported by her daughters. She was crying, delirious and 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 Tuscan people, her words in dialect as pointed as a dart right on target. When I travelled 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 could no longer speak and spent most of the time lying down on a bed, 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 her parents’ only daughter; she had six brothers. Her mother died when she was six years old and she had to help at home, though her father remarried shortly afterwards.
She was a short, chubby woman, the typical shape of a southern Italian, with thick black eyebrows and dark clever eyes, which still twinkle in her portraits and photos. Her hair was long and she used to have it loose at night but tied in a bun during the day. It was a mistake to be misled by her plump cheeks and round figure. Underneath there was an iron will.
Four of her six brothers were sailors and died at 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 the Guardia di Finanza (Financial Police), 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 the Naples area. The Guardia di Finanza is a sort of army in Italy that deals with customs and other financial matters. Francesco was from L’Aquila, in Abruzzo, and although he came from an aristocratic background, he was not wealthy. His father died when he was eight years old and he joined the Guardia di Finanza when he was sixteen. He was a lieutenant when he married Orsola, and he was 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 from poor families that 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 that she was stingy, but her frugality came from the customs and mentality of her own village. Most of the men in her village worked in ships and could be aboard for a year or two years or never come back. Women stayed at home and had to make ends meet with the money that their husbands had given them before they left. I believe this was the reason for her ‘stinginess’.
As soon as the couple married in 1921, they moved to Villa Opicina, in the north of Italy, 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. Another difficulty was that Orsola spoke the smooth, musical dialect of Naples, while in the north of Italy they use a very different kind of dialect. She must have felt as if she was in a foreign country. She never went out, my father told me, and they soon had two children, born in 1922 and 1924. My father, her third child, was born later on, in 1932.
Every summer, Orsola 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 estate 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 profitable investment. As I said, she was 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 eventually they all bought a house together on the outskirts of Rome when I was a year old.
A few months before I was born, my grandmother’s first child, my aunt Carolina, 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, remarried soon afterwards and reunited his family. Everybody said Carolina 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, she was the buffer which absorbed all the frictions.
According to my grandma’s way of thinking, 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 affection is more important than principles. In this way, family ties have an emotional, subconscious basis and can’t be broken by occasional rows or cheating. Whether this is right or wrong, it might be the secret that lies beneath the surface of every Italian family.
After my granddad Francesco died in 1971, Orsola spent more and more time in 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 next to 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 that formed 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 me attend catechism lessons for our First Holy Communion. My parents were not bothered about it but accepted her point of view. She also taught me some cooking: how to make dough, Italian pastry cream and pastiera, a special Easter cake I was fond of. I also played cards with her – scopa, ruba mazzo and asso pigliatutto – three easy games played with colourful Italian cards. She cheered up and laughed during these games like a child, her exclamations in dialect and her mimes more entertaining than a comedian’s performance.
She loved watching TV, especially quiz programmes 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 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 schoolteacher, grandma always wore the same dark dresses and had only one bracelet, one pair of earrings and one ring. She left me her gold bracelet and a bag made with a silver net, a present from my granddad when she was a young bride. When she went to Mass she put on a misshapen black hat with a dark veil on the front and wore a dusty silver fox fur on her shoulders. She sang the hymns with a firm, well-tuned voice and continued to attend Mass till her death in 1976 of a stroke. She was eighty.
I like to think that my grandmothers may still linger around my house and protect me and my family. In my memory they are examples of resilience and care that have given me strength in odd times that is always comforting and dear.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio © 2021.