From the Back Step...

She sits on the back step, knife in hand, peeling.

"How do you say ‘knife’ in Italian, Nonna?" I would ask.

"Cotello" She’d reply.

”..and how about, ‘cucumber’?”

"Googootz"

(Now, I’ve asked since, and googootz is not only Italian slang, but also the name of a squash or gourd, so who knows why she called it this, a
dialect thing perhaps? It’s too strange a name for me to have made up or
misheard - though I am wont to do that on occasion).

She’d hand me a slice of the fresh vegetable and continue tolerating my
inquisition.

This was probably a rare break for her, resting and sharing the garden’s
harvest with her eldest grandchild, ever present apron wrapped about
her, slip on shoes, perhaps a head scarf on. Her dresses were the
simplest of garments - I remember mum told me she used to whiz them up
from curtain or tablecloth fabric. Two seams up the sides, holes for the
neck and arms and a zip up the back. She always looked marvellously
colourful to me, but her clothes either meant nothing to her or were a
source of embarrassment. She was a shy woman who rarely left the house,
rarely had company for meals, and spoke little to no English, but queen
in her own kingdom. Somehow we got by with her broken attempts at our
language and we grandkids really didn’t need to know much Italian to get
her drift. “Mangia mangia!” (eat, eat - obviously) “Sporca!” (when we
were getting into what dirty, outdoor mischief we probably shouldn’t
have been, and “Brutta” (when she was calling us ugly but meaning
precisely the opposite). I recall she spoke very fast and yelled a lot.
Not in anger, just a wog thing, but even if it was, the woman raised 8
children. She could yell if she wanted.

I don’t know quite where I’m going with this, but I wanted to wrap the
memory of her, my Nonno, and their house in Woodville in the security of
words, my words. I spent a lot of time there as an infant when my mother
needed to go back to work, as a small child after my father had left and
mum became the sole earner, and as an older child on weekends and
holidays. As my daughter does even now, I spent time with the two
youngest of my aunts who still lived in the house at the time - the
youngest of these is only 5 years older than I. My uncle, the only son,
poor creature, still lived there too. I was perhaps 7 or 8, certainly no
older for they had sold up and moved to the North East only short years
later and Nonna passed away when I was 10.

This image from the back step colours my memory of the time because it
was painted by the sun. Always outdoors, always things to do with my
grandparents, aunts or my other cousins. Indoors was a place for meals,
occasional watching of an Elvis or Jerry Lewis movie on the tiny Black
and White television, and for sleeping. I hate to disappoint, but apart
from one fleeting wisp of a memory of watching Nonna mix cake batter and
letting me lick the wooden spoon, my recollections of this time and
place aren’t of cooking. Rather they are of the provenance of what we
later found at the table, and the eating of it.

My grandparents kept chickens, for both meat and eggs, and also rabbits.
They had a giant vegetable garden that my Nonno somehow kept tended as
well as attend his full time job at the gas company and later at Actil.
There was a giant concrete and brick vat that was used for wine making.
They butchered a pig and bottled tomato sauce every year. I wouldn’t be
at all surprised if at one time Nonna made her own bread and pasta. I
seem to recall a pasta machine and ravioli stamp being tucked away at
one of the aunts houses years later, but as all good things become
convenient and available commercially, it probably wasn’t something that
persisted.

The garden produced all the usual seasonal suspects, zucchini,
capsicums, eggplant, greens of many varieties, tomatoes of course, and
cucumbers. In the winter, though it always felt out of season to me -
more of a summery taste when raw, Nonna would cut off a fennel bulb, or
fennochio, tear thick outer leaves off and give one to each of the
grandchildren. I would pretend it was some strange, crunchy aniseed
ice-cream as I held it upside down by its green stalk. In those days
there was no fennel in the supermarket, probably quite rare to even see
one in the greengrocer. They weren’t roasted with pork, or braised with
salmon or caramelised in a tart, all of which I enjoy now, but no. They
were crunched on just like that, perhaps sliced into a salad.

There was an almond tree in the corner or the garden. Huge, gnarled
thing it was, I loved to pick the flowers, then later, the sweet kernels
straight from the shells. I recall a sunny day - there were no other
kind - when I had let myself in the garden to pick almond blossoms. I’d
chosen to reach a high branch for some reason, but couldn’t look
directly at the blooms for the sunlight directly in my eyes. I had
looked down briefly at the concrete path to see the shadow of my hand
reaching upward, the branch and petals a mere finger stretch away, and a
buzzing black shape hovering around it all. Next thing I know Nonna had
swept in with a clean ice-cream stick (who has those just sitting
around?) and was expertly removing a bee sting from my thumb. I had a
small red dot in its place for years to come. Such things are deeply
ingrained on my psyche. Simple things, but colourful, unusual things.

The house in Woodville became too large to care for after a time, and my
grandparents sold up and moved to Highbury. Still there was a garden and
my Nonno’s frightening tool shed, but no chickens, no rabbits, no
longer. They were there not long enough when my Nonna died suddenly and
left us all in shock. She was 59. I have spoken of her some here, and
there is more to tell, but of course there is the story of her partner
in life. He lived on until the age of 84 , my daughter was 18 months old
- one of two great grandchildren by then. My memories of him in Woodville are no less vivid, and I share them in this piece I wrote for
his funeral. I like to think my writing has changed in the past few
years, but I’m being brave and sharing this in situ for integrity’s
sake:

I've been keeping this quote by Gail Lumet Buckley tucked away in my purse for many months - I've never known quite what for, but it seems apt to share it with you all now.

Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present and future.

I look around at my family faces and see reflected back at me a lifetime of memories. For me, a childhood with Nonno will always be filled with the memories of tastes, sights, sounds and smells - always in the garden, always in the sun.

I can remember the taste of fresh sunflower seeds picked straight from the centre of the yellow blooms, seeing his red stained feet as we stomped on grapes to make the wine he loved so much, the sound of his booming voice, and the smell of the warm mash we fed to the young chickens. What felt like fun and adventure I realise now were probably closer to work for him. Nonno in the garden, in the shed, somewhere outside doing something that would end up translating to food for the table. My few memories of him inside the house when I was a child were usually those spent waiting for dinner. He could pinch harder that anyone I knew. He could make us laugh by making faces with his false teeth sticking out. When his family was together - wife, children and grandchildren, he had a sparkle in his eye and a smile on his face.

Even early in my childhood his actions taught me what family is worth. It is worth uprooting your loved ones to start a better life in a country where the language is foreign and the food is strange. It is worth working hard, to provide a good home, good food and to continue much loved traditions. It is worth sacrifice, compromise and sometimes heartache.

And so now I say to Nonno, thank you. Thank you for your part in the creation of these family faces before me. Thank you for teaching me that my family is worth everything.

We are all sitting here because you lived, and because you did we met our husbands, wives and partners, had children and grandchildren. Our lives are shaped in some way because of how you lived, the choices you made and what they taught us. I will take the best of those things in the journey forward - pass on the memories and the lessons to my children and continue the traditions so that one day they may do the same.

I look at the people who belong to me and feel fiercely proud, and incredibly fortunate.

Thank you and goodbye Nonno, we loved you.

Again, I’m not sure what the point of all this was, save to further
explore the journey to discover why the kitchen and family table means
what it does to me. Watching these human beings work and live for the
food they provided us, was an inspiration and left an indelible imprint
on me. I feel I could never live up to the investment of time and energy
that must have gone into these lives. I owe them some effort, some
tangible result of their impact on me, so perhaps that’s it. The search
is on for my perfect homage to their legacy.