This is my nonna, Maria. On paper I guess she is a typical Italian matriarch, or symbolic of the universal housewife that lives a life of domestic service. But as I get older and grand gestures become less and less aspirational, I find my points of reference
to be more subtle.
My family’s origins are in a small farming town in the foothills of the central Apennines in Italy. While my aunts, uncles, great grand mother and parents moved to Australia to pursue education and work, Nonna is the only member of the family that has stayed in Ortucchio to build a life with the man she married at 17.
Nonna is the first woman I ever heard say that motherhood was incredibly difficult for her, something that is taboo even today. Her family speaks for itself – there is no less than ten years between my mother and her younger brother. Of course it is those who are open about such struggles that are often most capable and life has certainly pushed this role on Maria. My parents had me young so in many ways I have always felt a stronger sense of paternity toward my Nonna, a grandmother at the ripe age of 36, with my parents taking on the roll of sometimes reckless older siblings. My first memory of childhood is at a table telling her that she couldn’t let my parents take me to live in Australia, they don’t look after me like she does. Nonna replies “I know Luana but there is nothing I can do, you are not mine”.
Circumstances have meant that she has had a hand in raising all three of my young cousins and at 69 she is the primary carer of a 4 year old grandson. It has taken becoming a mother to realise what sacrifices she has made for her family. Wealth humbly accumulated by a lifetime of hard work in small business was sacrificed in an instant to remedy one bad decision, retirement years now filled with the gruelling task of rearing young children.
Nonna has never driven a car and gets about town on a push bike with a basket that she fills with bread from local purveyors and vegetables from her plot of land to make the most delicious peasant fare imaginable. Whenever somebody asks me the secret to Italian cooking I think of Nonna digging up a single potato and asking the local butcher for discarded lamb necks to turn into gnocchi ragu. Frugality is the secret. All the love she has for her family is put into every meal by way of the most delicate ravioli, dough kneaded into pizza that defies description, hand cut paperdelle and ragu that she labours over for hours, for days. There is not a single meal served from that kitchen that Maria has not started and finished herself. She has instilled in me that these tiny, seemingly mundane gestures can be performed with as much creativity and pride as grand ones. The last time I was in her house she caught me hastily finishing a task and told me “Luana the way you do anything is the way you do everything”. I was left aghast at the depth of her remand.
She is as rough and tough as they come, swears like sailor, works like a horse, looks older than her years, has never worn a stitch of make up and is in possession of that old school, un-shockable true grit that is so rare these days. My dad told me recently of a time many years ago when our schizophrenic uncle had been beaten by some townspeople. Nonna cleaned the blood from his face in the main piazza fountain, screaming up at the surrounding houses that if anyone had the gaul to beat her sick brother they may as well come and raise their arms to her too.
Her few valued possessions are treated with upmost respect, she still wears clothes from 20 years ago and her home is her castle. In Italian the term for house proud literally translates to be jealous for your home, that always sticks in my mind. Before farm to table cooking was fashionable Nonna was raising and slaughtering pigs every year on her own, something that my weak stomached grandfather could never bring himself to do. I spent three life shaping months in Italy on my own at 13. A day I’ll never forget was my uncles 60th birthday party – upon arrival my grandfather tells me to go into the back yard with the women. The scene was a sensory overload that I can conjure easily, the garden humming with the sound of women of every age chattering and laughing while they peel fava beans, knead dough and pluck feathers from chickens for boiling. In the back corner I see my Nonna and am delighted when a tiny lamb jumps in her lap. She nuzzles it’s sweet face, tenderly holding its head with one hand while the other slips into her apron, takes out a knife and swiftly cuts its throat. I am aghast and feel faint, she looks at me and says “Where do you think the meat you eat comes from Luana, the supermarket?” An hour later there is a roasted rack on my plate that I dig into with thought and appreciation, an invaluable lesson.
Through the years she has managed to make me and my brother feel more loved and special to her from half way across the world than our family members in the same city. I only get to see her every few years when one of us can make the journey but we always mange to slip into that comfortable familiarity that feels so good, I know she is proud of that. My brother married in February and I was able to present my daughters to her, one of the greatest moments I have experienced.
Whenever I am plagued by my ego, sabotaged by my vanity, I try and remind myself what kind of legacy I am striving for. To become a woman of character.