My Grandparent’s generation in the 1950s wasn’t the first to have left the island; the inhabitants of this region have immigration in their blood. Sicily’s ancestry comprises generations of colonising Greeks, from conquering Romans, to tyrannical Normans, cosmopolitan Arabs and imperial Bourbons.
Sicily’s timeline is made up of a long succession of dominations, thirteen different cultures and countries who have conquered the island, some multiple times, each one leaving behind footprints on Sicilian culture. The chronology of Sicily’s colonisers is complicated, beginning with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians in 900 to 700 and ending with the Bourbons from 1815 to 1860. Thanks to Garibaldi Sicily became a part of a united Italy under a monarchy in 1860 and finally a modern Italian Republic from 1946 up until today.
It was the constant rampage of these many other dominations whose influence has become ingrained into the Sicilians character in the form of a deep sense of restlessness, shrewdness, suspicion and a strong work ethic.
A turbulent and violent history of being submissive to many foreign cultures has created a deeply embedded angst. In order to survive these dominations Sicilians held tightly onto their own personal family and community connections in their close relationship to each other and their land. While they were restricted or pushed into living in a hostile environment they held their own culture in the foremost of their minds which in turn gave them the strength to resist.
Internal migration in Sicily has always occurred as the itinerant agricultural worker population from ancient Roman and Greek times slavishly followed the ebb and flow of seasonal work. But never before had overseas migration occurred on such an immense scale as it did in the Sicily of my Grandparent’s youth.
My grandparents never went hungry as their families owned property, land and animals and were always able to provide for themselves, but they were surrounded by poverty. They could have easily stayed, weathered out the difficulties of the period and lived just the same. They chose to risk and move away from the oppression of their families, who held a firm grip upon them both emotionally and economically. My Grandfather after he married, yearned for more freedom and to succeed on his own, beyond the family.
Post-world war two migrants in Sicily lived in a harsh semi-feudal reality marred by conflict. Work consisted of cultivating small plots for themselves, primarily using a bartering system to provide essential staples like bread, meat and other necessities for everyday life.
Apart from producing for themselves, their working life was based upon seasonal agricultural work for large property owners such as wheat harvesting in summer, collecting hazelnuts in autumn and olives and oranges in winter.
The landowners were Barons and other remnants of ancient Sicilian noble families who took advantage of the weak, uneducated majority. There was no getting ahead for most people, no hope of reward or betterment.
In the early twentieth century, many mothers were forced to give away their own children because they didn’t have the money to feed them. Some were sent to wealthy landowners to work for their keep, others became servants or maids and some were raised by the church. Young children were sent to work instead of getting an education; some were treated like slaves and subjected to physical abuse.
Today it is a difficult place to imagine. A world seemingly immersed in sorrow and hardships.
However, the stories my Grandparents told were far from sad; they were filled with animated friendships and families they had known all their lives. Their memories were made from laughter and fun and came from a close knit community which helped one another.
My grandmother’s father, my great grandfather affectionately known as Nonno Cosimo, was a special person. Even though we never met, I know many things about him. For example how he had a special connection with animals; he had gathered hands-on veterinary knowledge while working with the army vet in the seven years he was in the army first as a young conscript, to the end of the first world war.
The advantage my great grandfather had over other soldiers was that he could read and write, not many people of that generation were literate, great grandfather loved to read and tell stories. He always believed in the importance of education in life and insisted that his children had the best possible education.
Nonno Cosimo was a well respected member of the local community and was very generous with his time he was called upon to help cure most animals in his neighbourhood and was always asked for help or advice. He also knew how to make the most of an opportunity; he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil war, and with the money earned, he set up a convenience store near the inn and had one of the first payphones in the area.
The figure of Nonno Cosimo is crucial in my family history; even today, we still talk about his intelligence, how well respected and kind he was. Even though I never met him, I have a vivid picture of him in my mind. Both Nonno Cosimo and his wife Nonna Catena are painted within my mind as these formidable yet benevolent ancestors who are still guiding by their example.
Nonno Cosimo was a short man but, what he lacked in stature he made up with great personality. There was nothing he couldn’t do, he had a great intellect and courage.
He fought in both world wars and, as I mentioned before, volunteered to fight against the Fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil war. He was trained veterinarian and forward thinker, he saw many opportunities. His Bottega or inn would serve wine, food and pretty much anything that people would need. He would either supply it from his own production or find ways of providing it.
During the difficult times between the two world wars, Nonno Cosimo also became a skilled bateror and trader, selling wine and other products that were hard to find in Fascist Italy. He was part of an intricate local network of people he trusted that helped one another out.
Strangely enough, Nonno Cosimo was a staunch hammer and scythe old school Italian Communist who believed in the ability of people to help one another out collectively and in the equality of each individual. He always frowned upon the rise of the Christian Democrat party, which he always saw as the cause of Italy’s corruption. In later years he religiously watched the television news, demanding silence while watching and commenting on it as if he was directly involved.
He was a great judge of character; he would sum up a person rather quickly. He had no tolerance for the foolish and dealt out some harsh but apt nicknames which inevitably would stick.
Nonno Cosimo was small and handsome while Nonna Catena towered over him. They were very dedicated to one another and worked as a team.
Nonna always wanted to have sons because she was of the traditional mindset that boys were superior to girls. But they were only blessed with six daughters, who were as strong minded as any son could ever be. Nonno on the other hand was glad to have his girls, he grew up with brothers who had sons which turned out to be a disappointment to their families. So his loving, courageous and supportive daughters were his pride and joy.
Rosa, the eldest, never married and lived and looked after her parents until Nonno died, then came Carmela, my grandmother, who married and moved to Australia. Antonia,Tindara and Mariastella married, had children and lived in the same neighbourhood as their parents. Peppina (Giuseppina) followed her older sister to Australia with her husband and oldest son, having another boy in Australia later.
Nonna Catena, too, had a strong character; she was a robust lady, hard working andtenacious. Looking at photos of her, she seemed severe, with a solid square face; she wore her hair up and tightly pulled back, which showed off her well-defined widow’s peak (something I’ve inherited from her). My mother remembers her Nonna as a kind, warm person who would embrace her with all of her heart and soul. A hug from Nonna Catena was an all enveloping experience, like a new born being swaddled in love.
Nonna was a religious woman and would walk into town every Sunday for church services. Nonna Catena was very proud, compassionate and had a strong moral compass. She had only one good pair of shoes, so she would walk to church in an old pair, carrying her good ones then as she got close to the church she would change.
During the Spanish flu outbreak, when her neighbours were all ill, she would cook extra food and care for the sick. She was never ill, something she attributed to her daily ritual of drinking a single glass of red wine before she left home and washing her hands with wine after visiting any of the sick.
Nonno Cosimo even went to Australia. He was in Adelaide in the 1920s, where he worked for a few years but headed back to Sicily when he understood that the Great Depression was about to happen. He brought back many colourful tales, a smattering of English, and I’m sure his stories planted a seed in his children’s mind.
Interestingly enough, my other great grandfather was also in Australia in the same period. Nonno Cosimo’s friend and future compare Filippo Bongiovanni was working in Western Australia and also returned home when things started to slow down economically. The idea that my family could have ended up in Australia a whole generation earlier is intriguing.
The thought of having that whole generation of Nonni, Zie and Cugini together in Australia would have made things so very different. Our family would have been a lot bigger, and it would have been a tremendous support and benefit to them. There would have been less trauma; just the thought of having an extended family with you in a new country is good for the soul. Perhaps there would have been disagreements like most large families, or maybe it would have been an added strength. Either way, it wasn’t meant to be, and our small family struggled through and thrived anyway.
The narrative my Nonni left behind for us was made up of so much laughter and jokes, dancing, singing and playful teasing. There were many stories and strengths gained through their experiences
The world they described was made up of many people and things that filled their lives with beautiful energy.
My Nonni described a period in history in which life moved slower, seemed more simple and less complicated than today. Family and community was very important, although life was tough people were there for one another.
I was blessed with loving, stoic grandparents who were the products of a strong, feisty older generation, who lived with many hardships yet were able to overcome the difficulties and raise a family of strong minded, hardworking and adventurous individuals.
My family’s stories are from a place that grew from Greek mythology, and their tales have become my lore.