This is an extract from Prickly Pear: A Memoir (a work in progress). It is a creative work, a contemporary memoir, that aims to create an intimate experience of the world inhabited by the migrant family. It places the experience of being a migrant in a dialogue with the experience of being a first-generation Australian and draws out the complexities and the fluid and shifting nature of identity—especially for migrants and their children.
Prickly pears have been declared noxious weeds in many parts of Australia. In Italy, they are cultivated. Italian migrants, including my parents and grandparents, planted them in their Australian gardens. This fruit was a favorite of mine as a child.
I grew up on stories told to me by my grandparents and parents, by my uncles and aunts, of a village on a hill and a life that was better than this life. My childhood was haunted by these stories, by my family's nostalgic longings and the ghosts of the people they left behind.
I was born on the day my grandmother turned 55 and inherited her name, Providenza Salvatrice Gandolfo. The first daughter named after the paternal grandmother, a tradition that creates a chain, a link, a connection between the living and the dead. After my grandmother's death, my father and uncle divided her belongings into piles. There were things to be thrown out, and things to be kept. The to-keep pile was carefully divided between them—half a dinner set each, three chairs each, all sets pulled apart. There was nothing, of course, for their estranged sister; and I inherited the gold necklace. My grandmother wore that necklace every day, even to bed; from it hung a locket with a photograph of her dead son. The locket was gone. I bent my head as my uncle hung the chain around my neck. For more than 30 years now it's lived in a box with other jewelry I never wear.
My grandmother was taller than my grandfather, and heavier. I heard my uncle whisper once that she weighed at least eighteen stone. In family photographs her eyes glare at the camera; she is dressed in black, firmly girdled and corseted, her shoulders are pulled back, her lips pursed together as if she is trying to stop a rush of words or a scream. It's only in a photograph of my parents' wedding that I find her dressed in blue, that I can see her legs through the fine flesh-colored stockings. She has on a matching hat with a small feather pin, the feather points back as if the hat is a bird in mid-flight.
This Providenza is too rigid. She is not the grandmother I remember, with the wide and ample lap, her breasts drooping to meet her belly, providing a soft cradle for my childhood dreams. By the time I am old enough to sit with her at the kitchen table while she tells me the stories of her life, her shoulders have rounded and her hair has turned gray. She shakes her head when I suggest outings or colored dresses. “My life is over now,” she tells me, but I can see her life is not over, and until the day she falls ill five months before she dies at the age of 76, she is the family matriarch, quick-witted and cunning.
I inherited Providenza's name, her gold necklace, her wide hips, and her inclination to go to fat. I inherited her taste for chocolate treats and peasant food (though not her ability to cook it). I inherited her addiction to black espresso coffee, her love of family gossip, and a tendency to worry far too much.
“You are just like your grandmother. Your eyes come from your father's side. Your eyes, like hers, are as dark as cooking chocolate,” said my mother many times over the years and with numerous variations in tone—the laughter of regret, the smirk of loving amusement, the forced grin that hides a curse.
In the early morning, the breeze from the south carries the salty smell of the sea, eleven kilometers away, but as the traffic increases, as the covers are pulled away from the market stalls, the air becomes saturated with the scent of fermenting grapes and wine, and the voices of men bargaining over prices at small tables in cafes or leaning against crates with cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths.
Women carrying baskets move between the stalls. They touch and squeeze the fruit; they unfold bolts of fabric—and flashes of color—red, blue, green, florals, and stripes—are held up against skin in search of the right tone for a dress or skirt. Friends greet each other and stallkeepers tease and cajole customers. Horses, mules, carts—some empty, some overloaded with goods not yet delivered—crowd the narrow roadways. Dogs bark at passersby, and at each other.
Providenza and her brother Roberto play on the streets with their friends, Angela and Lucia, Pietro and Tomaso. Tomaso is the leader. A year older than Roberto and Pietro and two years older than the girls, a thin boy with spindly legs and long arms, he leads them far beyond where they are allowed to go, down unfamiliar laneways that narrow into the poorer parts of town where the stone houses are surrounded by long grass and the choking smell of urine.
From the safety of their hiding places—the alcoves of apartment buildings, the wide trunk of a chestnut tree, the children muffle their giggles as Tomaso snatches a mandarin from the center of a carefully constructed pyramid. As the river of orange fruit flows and tumbles along the roadside, the fat stallkeeper yells abuse, his angry arms flapping in mid-air; the too fast, too clever Tomaso runs out of sight and the other children gather the fallen fruit, fill their pockets, and weave their way to the other side of the piazza where Tomaso waits. Exhausted, they eat, their fingers sticky and sweet, the citrus juice staining their already grubby faces.
“Let's go,” Tomaso says.
“Where?” But Tomaso doesn't wait to answer Roberto's question.
He runs, and runs, his laughter leaving a trail for the others to follow. Providenza catches a glimpse of him pulling the plaits of a young girl shopping with her mother. She hears the older woman's abuse, sees her shake her fists at Tomaso, but he doesn't stop. She has to run faster to keep up. She runs blindly through the streets chasing the echo of his footsteps. She hears her own laughter bouncing against the walls of the houses, racing ahead of her on the road.
They have almost reached the main square when Providenza, short of breath, sees Roberto and Pietro have stopped and that a crowd is gathering around them. She pushes through several layers of people until she reaches the inner circle. In front of her Tomaso is lying on the road. She hears a woman crying. A man lifts Tomaso up.
“Let him go,” Pietro yells at the man and pulls at his friend's jacket.
“Let him go. We were just playing. Not doing any harm.” Angela cries. The man doesn't move.
“I'm sorry but your friend is gone. Non c'é niente da fare,” he says without looking at them.
“Gone? What do you mean, gone? He is here, in your arms. We won't let you take him. Put him down,” Providenza yells at the man, afraid he is one of the kidnappers from her father's stories.
“I'm sorry my child but he is dead.”
Dead, Providenza repeats the word in her head—dead, dead. She is not sure what it means to be dead, but she can see Tomaso is very still and she has never seen anyone that still, ever before.
“What did you do to him?” Lucia asks the man.
“I didn't do anything to him. He wasn't fast enough to get out of the way of the runaway horse. You must tell me his name? His father's name?”
Lucia begins to cry. Providenza grabs her hand, but she doesn't cry, she holds her breath, until beads of sweat form across her forehead. She stares at Tomaso. She does not take her eyes off him. She wills him to move, to wriggle and squirm, to jump out of the stranger's arms. But he doesn't move. The crying woman grabs Roberto's arm and shakes him.
“What is his name? Where does he live? You must tell us, we must find his mother.” She makes the sign of the cross over her chest. “Tell us his name.”
Roberto tells the man Tomaso's name. Whispers spread through the crowd—Tomaso Lippani, Lippani, Lippani Via Vittoria, like a chant. They form a procession, the man carrying Tomaso, followed by several women with their rosary beads in their hands. Roberto and Pietro, Angela, Lucia, and Providenza are dragged along by the crowd as they walk back across the city.
Before the door is fully opened, Tomaso's mother screams; neighbors abandon their washing, their sauce-making, their cooking and come running out of their houses onto the street. Soon Providenza can't see Tomaso anymore.
“Dead.” She repeats the word to herself over and over again.
For months, whenever she goes out Providenza secretly searches for Tomaso. Sometimes she catches glimpses of him, his curly brown hair, his arms waving about as he runs; she hears echoes of his laughter in the street outside her door. She follows him but each time he slips away.
Night after night Tomaso's mother's wailing haunts the neighborhood.
“Tomaso is gone and his mother will never be the same again,” Domenica says.
“Where has he gone?” Providenza asks.
“He is with God.”
“When will he come back?”
“He can't come back Providenza. But Heaven is a nice place and he will be happy there.”
“I miss him. He will miss us. We are his friends. He will be lonely without us.”
Death was a major theme in my grandmother's life. A central trope. The death of Tomaso, a childhood friend, ended her worry-free years. It laced the edges of her childhood with grief and foreboding. The death of her father changed her status from child to adult, from cared-for to carer. My grandmother lived a long life but remembered every death, the dates and the circumstances, they were her markers and signposts; it was on the 40th anniversary of Father's death, that was the year Signora Fannata died…
It was death she thought of in those moments when her sons were late home or my grandfather did not arrive for dinner as expected. She was sure then that they were dead; that death had come for them on the roadside—as the victims of accidents, of thieves and murderers. She could see their blood-covered bodies. She could feel the icy coldness of their flesh. She could hear the sound of their coffins scraping the sides of their graves. These visions were so real, it took her a while to believe them alive when finally they arrived at her door.
I remember her vigils at the venetian blind peering out into the darkness, waiting. “He's never this late, something happened. … He rings if he is going to be late. It's so wet what if something happened?” She lived in the dread of something happening, the dread became a plague seeping through the whole house. No one could escape it.
My memories have always been connected to places. Turning a corner, entering a room, looking at a photograph—and my past becomes present. The sight of a fig tree transports me to my grandmother's yard, my sticky fingers pulling apart the fleshy medieval fruit. I can taste the red-sugar lingering on my tongue. The smell of roses wafting into a bedroom window is the smell of mornings in my childhood and with it comes the sound of my mother's voice calling me awake and the wet touch of her lips on my cheeks—the morning's first kiss. A scattering of children at a suburban bus stop is the anxiety of school, wog girl, fat girl. A reminder of hell, a place populated by twelve-year-olds, by web-cheeked nuns in long brown habits and half-pint bottles of warm milk. Driving down the Princess Highway I can smell my grandmother's coffee. I can hear her stories of my father's childhood and her versions of the latest episode of Days of Our Lives. So strong is that connection, that memory, that at the turnoff I still forget sometimes that she's dead. Forty years dead.
My life, my history is mapped, written, and carved into places. Most of them in Melbourne, at my fingertips, within my reach. I sometimes mourn the memories left behind on my travels—in a small village in Goa, in a back street in Delhi, on the rooftop of a bus in Nepal. They are too far for me to visit on Sunday drives just for the hell of it, like watching an old movie again and again. The pleasure in the anticipation of the familiar, the joy of the forgotten moment revealed.
Am I too nostalgic? As a child I envied my Australian friends. Their parents would point out the familiar landmarks—that's where I went to school, where I rode my horse, where we lived, where I met your father. My parents' landmarks were too far away to visit. They told me stories and I imagined the places from their descriptions. I constructed their homes in my imagination. I visited their school, played on their balconies, knelt in the pews in their churches. I imagined I could breathe the mountain air of the village, that I could hear the church bells, that I could taste the prickly pears.
I look forward to my first visit to Licodia. I expect to find it historically interesting, maybe even romantic, as I see for the first time the settings of the stories that filled my childhood. A small village, population 2,000—“if you count all the chickens”—and the nearest city, Catania (an hour's drive away), is as different from Melbourne as the ocean is from the mountains. I expect to be quickly bored, to want to move on to Rome, Florence, and Venice. My father warns me, “you can see all of Licodia in less than half a day.”
Instead, I have a sense of coming home and I sigh with the relief of finally arriving. My life starts to take hold in the village, I start to see myself in the landscape, in the stone houses, and in the faces of the strangers I pass in the street. Everywhere is new. Everything is instantly familiar.
What would it be like to be born, to grow, to live your whole life in your ancestral land, to know beyond a doubt that this is the place you belong? That it is this place, this climate, this landscape that you have been created, shaped, and destined for. To never feel the outsider, to never be on the fringes of the culture, to know, to understand, to never need to question that this is your home. Who would I have been? In Licodia, as I walk, as I talk, as I meet people, another possible life takes shape.
“There,” she says pointing to the map. “There, that's where you come from.” The map is laid out on the table, its creases are worn, stained brown. I sit on her lap. I am eight and I know that the place she's pointing to is not where I come from.
“I'm Australian,” I say to her, “I was born here. I'm Australian.”
She looks like she's going to get angry with me, like she's going to yell. Instead she laughs, and I can smell the baccalà she had for dinner last night. I turn away.
“You're Sicilian,” she says, “no matter what you do you'll always be Sicilian.” A curse. My grandmother is a witch. I wiggle and push until I escape her hold.
“I'm Australian,” I chant as I run out of the kitchen. Out of the house and into the back yard. “I'm Australian.” But even then, even at seven I know I'm not Australian.
“Where do you come from?” They ask me at school, at church; the parents of my blonde, fair-skinned friends ask me when I play with their children.
When I was a child, I wanted blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted a father called Jack who went to the footy on Saturdays, knew how to order a beer at the pub, and could talk about the nags at Flemington. A mother, called Susan or Cheryl, who watered the garden in the morning in her chenille dressing gown, the giant plastic rollers still in her hair. I wanted to eat shepherd's pie (one of the first meals I cooked when I was old enough to be allowed) for dinner, and neat white bread sandwiches for lunch. Sometimes at night this is what I would pray for—a family switch.
But my father drank homemade wine, played the occasional game of cards—briscola, not poker—and spoke English with a thick Sicilian accent. My mother's English was non-existent. Factory work had improved her language skills so she could chat with the Spanish neighbor, say hello in Greek, and understand any of the hundreds of Italian dialects. She would never have stepped outside the house in a dressing gown. She made all her own clothes and most of mine and nothing ever looked like the pictures in the magazines (though as an adult I can see that her sewing was quite good. … The problem was that I was never the tall and slender size eight of the models who wore the clothes in those pictures I cut out). She cooked elaborate meals—lasagna moist with tomato sauce and dripping with mozzarella cheese, roast chicken deboned and stuffed with rice, spinach-filled pastries. If we ever had sandwiches, the bread was crusty pasta dura, and the filling salami and sundried tomatoes, cheese and prosciutto. These were not subtle foods, the neighbors could smell the garlic, taste the basil.
I loved my mother's and grandmother's cooking, but I hated being different. I hated standing out. Being a wog.
I had no idea what it would be like being a “real” Australian. Until I was in my late teens, I had never spent more than half an hour in the home of an Anglo-Australian. I wanted to be the Australian stereotype. A cliché. As “normal” as possible.