Our Zia Ninna, my grandfather’s sister was most helpful to us. She had emigrated shortly after WWI and had no need for the land she had inherited and so gave it to my mother. My mother did not receive anything other than a survivor’s benefit resulting from her father’s death. Her father died of pneumonia at the end of WWI. Her mother was three months pregnant with my mother when he died and any possible inheritance became her mother’s and it was eventually divided amongst her 3 half-sisters while her survivor’s benefit went to support her mother and her new family. On one hand, it seems unfair, on the other, it was the way it was.
My mother and grandmother had a conflictual relationship. Neither approved of each other’s choice of mates. Understandable under their particular circumstances. Any sense of belonging my mother had disappeared the day her mother, that is my Grandmother took a new husband– my Grandfather’s youngest brother. Apparently, he was a complex man who took out his frustrations on those around him with a sense of entitlement that was not uncommon for that era. This was not a good situation for my mother. In many ways, she was penniless and an orphan as her mother’s attention was now totally with her new family. He was the reason why she moved to Rome to be with her brother at the age of 16.
My mother blamed her Mother for her brother Eugenio’s death because under Italian law, even as an adult he would have been considered to be the head of the family and would have been spared war duty. The day my Grandmother remarried, he was no longer considered the head of the family and even though he was married with children when WWII broke out, he was conscripted into the army. He went missing in action in Russia. Quite likely his fate was like that of many–frozen to death. His letters home to his wife and children have been published in a book. He likely had the same love of reading and writing as my mother did. When my mother died, at 76 we found in her jewelry box his last known address. This scrap of paper is now in my jewelry box. My children will likely wonder what it is when they find it in my jewelry box. one day.
Italy was not kind to my Mother. Although she had fond memories of her time in Rome. She often said that if she could have lived in Rome with just 1/4 of the food she had in Canada, she would have been most content. My parents returned to their hometown before their second child was born. They rented a two room apartment and any money they saved was quickly consumed with the rising costs of living associated with wartime. When the war was over, they moved onto Zia Ninna’s land where the German soldiers had built their mess hall before the townsfolk could stip it bare. One took advantage of whatever supplies there were. The materials that could be removed from this mess hall were fair game.
It was there that my brother Gino and I were born.We were born on land given with love and compassion to my mother by our Zia. It was also the same land where the German soldiers returned to after they had machine-gunned my father’s brother, Gino. My uncle Gino died in the local cemetery crying for his mother who could not come to him as it could have cost her life as well. It was also where the German soldiers became most unwelcome and eventually unsafe as the underground resistance began to build against Mussolini and Hitler. It was the land that my family called home from 1945 to 1957. My father bragged that it produced the best wine.
My brother Gino was named after both his uncles who died in the war. Gino, my father’s brother and Eugenio. my mother’s brother. Gino was most beloved by my father and Eugenio was the only family my mother felt she had. These were just some of the memories my mother and father were trying to leave behind when they left Italy and start anew in Canada.
We left Italy for many reasons. Both personal and economical. My father worked in the coal mines in Belgium. He hated working underground. He would be away for months at a time and send money home. He would come home for short periods and do some odd jobs for a local carpenter who became a friend of the family during the war. He became my brother Gianni’s godfather and was most generous to him. In some ways, this was a godsend as he ensured that at least one of us had the opportunity to eat well.
I realize that this seems like an odd statement. It was the way it was. No one questioned.
It was also customary to start “Asilo” as soon as you were out of diapers, usually at about the age of 3. It was a very disciplined form of daycare run by the Nuns, where children learned cursive writing rather than printing, simple math, how to sit still and be quiet. By the time one started grade one, children could read, write, and do arithmetic. Classes started at 8 and ended at 1. Lunch was with the Sisters and then the girls learned how to do needlework. My mother purchased some fine material for my Zia Ninna as a way of saying thank you for all the parcels she sent to my Mother from Canada. Anna Maria created a finely embroidered tablecloth that eventually found its way to one of Anna Maria’s daughters. She would have made this tablecloth when she was between the ages of 10 to 12. Skills and creativity, my siblings did not lack.
My brother Gino failed grade one, not because he could not do well in school. He failed because his grade one teacher like many others favored the children from well to do families. Children from economically deprived families tended to be ignored. Gino eventually was at the top of his class. He did not like it when a student did better than him. When it happened he would come home and study more because he did not like anyone ahead of him. As a champion cyclist though, he did not have the same passion. It was not unusual for him to encourage a teammate to go ahead of him and win the race.
Religion was important to my mother, while my father had no use for it. He did not trust the church or the priests. My mother’s dream was that one of us would become a nun or a priest. My brother Gianni came the closest to giving my mother her dream. Gianni went to study to become a monk. Gino remembers missing him terribly at that time. Thank goodness that lasted only 2 weeks. He returned home to apprentice as a carpenter with his Godfather. It was a much better choice that gave him a skill and a profession later in life.
Upon graduating from grade 5, my sisters went to help out other aunts who could afford to feed them in return for extra help around the house. This meant one less mouth for my parents to feed. In return, Anna Maria received some material to make a dress. One did not buy off the rack back then. One went to a dressmaker, everything was made to measure. Anna Maria apprenticed for the dressmaker and picked up the skill herself. Later she made all her daughters wedding dresses and the dresses for their bridesmaids. My sister Adriana also worked for a dressmaker. Again these skills came in handy as she not only made many of my dresses when I was young, she also made many of her children’s clothes. Later she transferred these skills to a most successful upholstery business. Please note that when I say worked, I mean is apprenticing without financial compensation. Working without pay was simply what one did in return for learning a skill.
Adriana, at 13 worked as a maid for a year or so in return for the equivalent of $5.00 a month she went home. There she was made to feel very much the servant, sometimes fed spoiled food in the corner, while naturally, the family ate at the table. She asked to come home. When she came home she went to apprentice at a factory that made men’s clothing where Anna Maria already worked. Anna Maria was technically paid and Adriana was not. She was paid a stipend for herself and her siblings which was completely subsidized by the government. Their job was to learn how to do the understitching of men’s clothing. When Anna Maria left for Canada, Adriana received the stipend for the family. Subsidized and legal child labour was a norm. The wealthy got wealthier and the poor felt privileged to be learning a skill.
When Zia Ninna told my mother that Canada would give her a brand new lease on life, my mother began to convince the family that Canada was where we needed to be. First, she had to convince Anna Maria to put off her possible marriage to the young man she was engaged to so that she could pave the way for our entry into Canada.
When people move to a new country, they come gratefully for better opportunities. They also come with their personal and collective history. Not many come with a real understanding of the customs, the traditions or the history of the country they want to adopt as their new home. Most come because others have told them that Canada is a wonderful place to live.
On the surface, it appears that my family had not much to offer Canada and much to gain. If we would have applied to enter Canada today, we would not have been accepted. In 1957, Canada needed people who knew the value of work and were willing to work.
Systemic Constellation Work has shown us that the way we leave a country influences how the new country will receive you.
Above is a picture of my mother with my 4 siblings taken when my father was working in Belgium. Fathers absent for either war or work have been the norm for centuries.
On October 28, 2017, we will explore the relationship between settlers that have landed on Canadian shores since the days of the Vikings to the present, the Indigenous People, and the Soul of Canada. What does the Soul of Canada want from you? What do you offer the Soul of Canada? A special workshop with Diana Claire Douglas.
Space is limited. If you are student or graduate of the Foundations course please follow the “learn more link” for special pricing.