Immigration Story – My Nonno

By Caitlin Matticoli, Swinburne University

I want to tell a story about my nonno Dante but all the Aussies called him Danny. He was a proud man; big, loud and full of life, your typical expressive Italian. The only thing he loved more than food was red wine – and of course his family.

Dante my Nonno but all the Aussies call him Danny.

Dante my Nonno but all the Aussies call him Danny.

Nonno grew his own vegetables in the backyard and smoked in every room of the house, even on the toilet. Whenever you went in to do your business, you’d swear you’d walked into a giant ashtray. The smell of tobacco was pungent and lingered in every room. On the toilet floor there’d be old newspapers, encyclopaedias at least 15 years out of date and piles of Italian renaissance books, too heavy for my small child’s frame to lift at the time. Nonno loved to read, I guess that’s something that must have rubbed off on dad.

Nonno Dante lived with my nonna Pina and their four children in a red brick house in Noble Park. A Lebanese family lived next door along with a Chinese and Vietnamese family a few doors down who came to Australia about the same time nonno and nonna did. They were all good friends.

There were always abandoned cars parked on the front lawn of nonno’s house in parts, ready to be fixed by my uncle Dave. My uncle was a mechanic at the time and would leave broken cars that mainly belonged to family members at nonno’s because he had no room at his own place. He’d often come over to work on them at night but nonno didn’t mind, it meant he got to see his son and nonno loved when his kids came to visit. Everyone knew nonno’s house was the in-between meeting stop.

Dave, Nonno and Trish

Dave, Nonno and Trish

Nonno’s brother in law Illario (Lazi) would make his own grappa – a potent spirit which I remember smelled like rocket fuel. I recall one afternoon when I was about 10, sitting at the round wooden table covered in plastic lino as my nonno, the next-door neighbour, my dad Tony and his brother Dave drank the potent stuff from small espresso cups. I begged Dad to let me have a wiff, and I’ll never forget how strong it was. It felt as though the hairs up my nostrils had singed off. “Have a taste!” Dad said with a teasing smile. He handed me the cup and I stuck the very tip of my tongue into the drink. My face winced up like I’d sucked 10 lemons at once and they all laughed at me. He was right, it was bloody potent.

Drinking wine and eating food was what brought my family together. I’ve shared many memories eating nonna’s famous spaghetti with my parents, aunties, uncles and cousins around that table and they’re ones I’ll cherish forever. My dad grew up in that house and ate at that same table every night for over 20 years with his younger brother and two younger sisters. He’d always share funny stories about the nonsense his family got up to before all the grandkids were born.

I remember how much I loved listening to dad’s stories. As a kid, I would often imagine younger versions of dad and his siblings playing out the events dad and I would laugh about. Feeling a sense of history and belonging to the past like that felt like the closest thing to magic. The rooms and corridors would come alive every time dad told me a story.

Everyone knows Italians like their meat fresh, by nonno took this idea to a whole new level. When I was little, I would feel joyed to find little caged animals like pigeons and rabbits in his backyard. I’d go out and play with them for hours but then I noticed they started disappearing. When Dad and I asked nonno where they’d gone, nonno told us he’d eaten them! I was shocked to discover that these fluffy pets were not pets after all. Dad would tell nonno off but nonno didn’t care; “That’s what we did back home” he would say.
When my nonno and nonna Pina came here with their families after the Second World War, they were forced to leave their history behind and make a new one in Australia. I appreciate now how difficult but necessary the move was for them. The war robbed Italians of their jobs, homes, money food and freedom. They came to Australia for ‘una vita migliore’ – a better life.

Both nonno and nonna were born in Sulmona, a small city wedged in a mountainous region called Abruzzo. It’s western border lies less than 50 miles east of Rome. I was fortunate enough to visit family there one mild autumn when I was about 8. I remember how beautiful the orange leaves looked against the green mountainside and the clear blue sky.

Nonno was the youngest in his family. He had a brother called Nino and four sisters called Iride, Mima, Franca and Giselda. In 1945 when my nonno was 9, Germany was under the rule of Hitler and Italy was ruled by Mussolini. Mussolini decided to withdraw Italy from its alliance with Germany because they didn’t agree with the treatment of Jews in Germany. Germany then bombed parts of Italy, including Sulmona where my grandparents were living.

Nonno told my dad that the Germans bombed the railway bridge of Sulmona because it contained food and weaponry. This resulted in a food shortage and the German occupation of various parts of Italy. My nonno narrowly escaped being bombed when he was little. My nonno and his family were living in fear and poverty. As much as they had once loved Sulmona, it was now a war zone and there was one particular event which triggered their gradual flee to Australia. Most of nonno’s immediate family began to move to Australia in the 1950s.

The German soldiers, who were controlling the city and many others at the time, told Italians that for every German soldier killed or wounded in Sulmona they would shoot 12 civilians. My nonno, his grandfather, his two brothers and mother who was pregnant at the time were among the 12 civilians chosen. My nonno and his family were lined up against a wall, ready to be shot by the firing squad of Nazi soldiers.

Thank God nonno’s father Antonio, my great grandfather, walked over the hill the moment he did, or else my dad and l wouldn’t have been here. As soon as he recognised his family standing before a line of rifles, he ran up to them and screamed “DON’T SHOOT! THAT’S MY FAMILY!” When the Nazis saw he was a Municipal Guard they let his family go, unharmed. Most of the others managed to get away however some weren’t so lucky.

When I think about the fear that my grandparents must have endured during these years I admire them for how far they came. My nonno built a life for himself and his family by working in factories and doing odd concreting jobs for his brother in law’s business. Although he didn’t have an awful lot of money, my nonna and nonno managed to raise four happy and healthy children, most who now have children of their own.

Nonna died of cancer when I was four, so I can’t remember very much about her which makes me sad. Everyone tells me she was modest, loving and softly spoken. Sometimes I see those qualities in my father and some of his siblings. They tell me I look a lot like her.
When nonna was gone, it was nonno’s time to shine in the kitchen! He loved cooking nonna’s famous pasta sauce with tender meat. Whenever we went to visit you could smell the mouth-watering food from the front door. Although he lived alone now, nonno would always cook enough for a family of six and lucky he did because nonno would ALWAYS have visitors.

After decades of smoking, nonno’s lungs became riddled with emphysema and his health deteriorated rapidly. It was sad to see the man who was never sick and always fighting fit be limited to his favourite leather chair in front of the television, day in and day out. I remember not being able to look at him without shedding a tear. His face aged a lot in the 6 months before he died. I remember seeing his tired leathery face and thinking how much it looked like the brown crinkled leather couch he was confined to.

He died of a heart attack aged 71 on Christmas Day in 2007 when I was 12. It was a huge shock to us that it was his heart that took him in the end. After the shock, anger, denial and grief softened it wasn’t until the funeral the family finally felt at peace. We realised he was a strong man who lived for a long 68 years and clearly his time was up.

Dad and I visited the house right after he died and I remember examining every aspect of his home. I felt rather uneasy looking at his reading glasses sitting on top of a book I knew he was reading at the time. I felt his energy in the house strongest straight after he died. I sometimes used to sit in the groove of the chair he used to sit in to feel closer to him but the groove soon disappeared, the objects were moved and the house was sold. Life went on and it was time to start again.

That’s the funny thing about death, it’s like someone up there decides that’s it and you’re time is up. You vanish while the rest of the world stays in motion. It can be cruel. My nonno will never get to finish that last half of his book but it comforts me to know that I have the power to make sure his journey will not be forgotten. After all, his journey is my journey.