Memoir

Return of the rings

IN THE MID-2000s, my elderly parents died within eighteen months of each other. First Donato in his mid-eighties and then Lidia, who was younger by twelve years.

We siblings were left with their wedding rings.

None of us wanted to claim those rings. So Lidia and Don's thick gold bands sat in a velvet-lined box. Given that Lidia had organised, against all cultural expectations, that she would not be buried next to her husband – nothing personal, I just want my own space – it seemed wrong to keep those rings confined and uncomfortably bumping up against each other into eternity.

Which is how, in May 2007, I ended up in a van in the Apennine mountains of the central Italian region of Abruzzo, negotiating hairpin bends with my brother, my husband and our three children – two teenage girls and a nine-year-old boy – looking for a burial place and a hardware store where we could buy a spade, a short-handle mattock and a trowel, maybe some gloves, a few large stones or a couple of those terracotta plant markers.

'Why are we doing this crazy shit?'

'Are we there yet?'

'I want a pizza.'

No you can't have a pizza right now because we're on the road with Uncle Frank reading a map for Dad who's driving the diesel-fuelled van we hired in Rome that has weak central heating and no snow chains in the middle of Abruzzese mountains on narrow roads fringed with black ice in the Parco Nazionale D'Abruzzo above the snowline in that part of the afternoon when not a single café or shop is open even if we could find one among the abandoned towns whose only form of life is eagles.

No we are not there yet because we don't know exactly where 'there' is going to be and we might not ever reach civilisation again unless Dad stops driving further and further up the mountains and either lets Uncle Frank read the map properly or allows me to ask a local, albeit in my crap Abruzzese dialect, where the hell we are – if there is any such local to be found who isn't sensibly at home eating their long lunch and wine in front of the fire.

As for why we're doing this crazy shit: I guess it's because Nonna and Nonno were born in a time and a place when poor people like them didn't have much say in what happened to them, as in who they married and where they lived and what they did for a living, and although none of us want to keep their wedding rings to wear or to hand on – because it wasn't the sort of marriage model you'd want to hand on to the next generation, although it was a good enough marriage and they were the best parents they could be in their own ways and with their limitations (Nonno being far better at it than Nonna). Unfortunately life is complicated as you will see in years to come and the fact is that life is rather more down to pure luck – in the circumstances of your birth and your environment and genetics – than people want to admit in our culture.

So what we wanted to do with their wedding rings is return them to the place where it all started.

Somewhere here, in these mountains.

 

IN AROUND 1968, as the eldest child, I was the first to realise there was something not entirely normal about our mother.

Lidia was then only in her late thirties, but she had stopped work to take up being a full-time invalid on the daybed in Kew in Melbourne. I'd be worrying about the dishes in the sink and laundry piled around chairs and the mantelpiece clock striking half past four, the beds unmade and the sun sinking in that way the Melbourne southern sun sinks – in a red cold defeat that just makes you want to cry – and with dinner not remotely done nor thought of, and with our father due home in an hour, while Lidia, who, like the Fisher King, was terribly ill to the point of death with her mysterious disease, that never killed nor could ever be diagnosed or healed the rest of her life long – Lidia would be telling us the tale of Riposare o Lavorare: Rest or Work.

Un giorno l'aratro arrugginita

Sotto una pianta di ulivo si fermo…

One day a rusty old plough

Was left under an olive tree

Next to a half broken wheelbarrow.

The wheelbarrow asked the plough:

'What are you doing here?'

and the plough answered:

'I've just ploughed the last furrow,

My owner used to rest here, so I am too.'

The wheelbarrow then asked the olive tree:

'And when do you rest?'

The olive tree replied:

'No rest for me, I must always bear fruit

or I'll be put to the fire.'

Lidia was born in 1930 and rarely spoke directly of her family relationships or what kind of war she had, but it is more than likely she experienced trauma. Certainly by the time she was twenty-five and living in Australia, she had grown into a 'difficult character' prone to dark moods and controlling temper tantrums. Keeping Lidia happy tied my father up in knots all his life and caused friends and relatives to scatter. I always thought we had no relatives in Melbourne until I was in my thirties when I received a letter from a cousin on my father's side, who lived in Glen Waverley, but whom my mother hadn't spoken to since the early 1960s. This is particularly shocking to me since the underlying theme of her life is of profound loneliness and emptiness.

Each childbirth, including one stillbirth, increased Lidia's mood swings until, with the arrival of her last child, she was hospitalised and we children, all under four, were for a short time placed in care with the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church. Lidia told me quite frankly and many, many times, that she was an unwilling conscript to marriage and motherhood. It was her attempt to explain why she was not a loving mother and why I should not hold it against her.

In the later years of her life, spurred by the publication of my book Songs of the Suitcase (HarperCollins, 1998), Lidia set to writing her own book, a collection of poems called Un Angolo Della Mia Penna. Lidia was then in her sixties, her health precarious as usual and she remained uneducated, having attended primary school to only the third grade and having been then placed under the tutelage of provincial convent nuns who gave farming girls an education in textiles, embroidery, religion and narrow-mindedness. Yet Lidia was able to read and recite large tracts of Dante's Inferno and knew her Verdi operas.

Despite a comfortable life with my mild-mannered father (whose steady nature helped us cope) Lidia had a tendency to make the worst of a good situation, so that when bad times actually happened, her reactions could be extreme. An accident, an illness, a fever, a temporary loss of employment, a clumsy word in a letter from a relative, a perceived social slight from a neighbour – it plunged her down and eventually into hospital. 'The melancholy that swirls around me,' she wrote, 'is like an awful disease…Pain makes no sound but it pierces the brain and makes the heart pound. That desperate desire to sleep so as not to face for a moment the terror of suffering, even to the point of giving up life…'

As a young woman Lidia was tall, honey-skinned, with thick black hair mildly wavy, perfect for victory rolls. Very fit through a lifestyle of farm work and the ultimate in organic diet, she had a figure like Megan Gale, that full-bosomed tiny-waisted look with flashing dark eyes that Italians adore. In a wartime photo, she's in the fields, wearing a denim sack and muddy work boots but you can see that she would have been a clear target for sexual attention. I was nothing like her, but resembled my short stocky father, and there, I suspect, lay the seeds of the distaste she felt for me – she was hostile to my father's family for reasons that will always be mysterious and I was the image of these paternal relatives.

Lidia was complex, childish, spiteful and stubborn, but she had brains, as we knew from her inventive tongue-lashings. I was terrified of her. Looking back, it was like being raised by a giant teenager. A fifteen-year-old giantess who needed to be appeased and treated with great care: any offence and the ground would rumble and you'd fall into crevasses of molten rage and the buildings of your little world would crash down upon you. Sometimes it was hard to tell the demonic in her from the storytelling. Harsh step-mothering, cruel punishment, vile curses, possession by evil spirits, impossible tasks given to hapless daughters, and having to appease the endless appetite of rampaging jealousies and resentments – all of these Joseph Campbell archetypal Road of Trials were happening to us for real as a result of growing up in my mother's world of long-term mental illness.

It seems to me not too fanciful to think it might have all been complications of post-traumatic stress disorder meeting a definite tendency in Lidia to display traits of narcissism; certainly she was a woman struggling with all the difficulties of emotional regulation and distress tolerance that such a personality involves.

 

IN THE 1960s my siblings and I were demon readers. Unsupervised after school, we had nothing to do but get up to mischief on the streets, set the house on fire in cooking experiments or go to the Kew Public Library. We all became life-long bookworms: my brother and sister are both in the book industry. We lived in Pakington Street, Kew, in a single-storey Victorian terrace. There was Mrs Davis and her prim adult daughter on one side, and across the road, a tribe of red-haired Irish-Australians whose laughing children tumbled out of a sunlit cottage fronted by a large garden of lawn, sweet peas and hydrangeas. There was even a white ironwork fence, a dog and a pair of cats.

Was I delivered to the wrong address? All the Enid Blyton I read suggested yes: in Pakington Street, Kew I was trapped under hungry Magnatutto's boot.

Beneath it was quite a landscape. The mountainous Abruzzo is beautiful in a wild way starkly different to the Italy of Frances Mayes and Bella Tuscany. Today it's emerging as a tourist destination, its abandoned properties in hillside villages being restored by British superannuants. But for centuries, it was a poor and undeveloped region, part of the long-suffering Mezzogiorno in soul, politics and economics, if not in strict geography, for it is only a few hours east from Rome straight across the calf of Italy.

From an Australian sense of scale and distance, it seems inconceivable that a place so close to so many other centres of civilisation – Rome to the west, Naples to the south, and further east across the Adriatic, it is only a ferry ride to Dubrovnik, Split and the Balkan Peninsula. But in centuries past, before the construction of sleek autostrade into those forbidding mountains, Abruzzo was cut off by the Apennines, as remote as Nepal. If you were an eagle you could perhaps leave at sunrise from the dome of St Peters on the Mediterranean coast and soar up over the Apennines to within sight of the Adriatic coastline where, by nightfall, you would perch on Monte Amaro, the 'bitter peak', at 2,793 metres, of the Maiella in the cold high remote land of my ancestors.

L'Aquila, which means the eagle, is the capital city of the Abruzzo, and the name of one of its four provinces; the others are Chieti, Pescara and Teramo.

As Lidia told us: 'From its high hills, you can see all the small towns below. Their lights twinkle at night, as if the stars were bending down from the sky to kiss the earth. It's lovely to feel the breeze from La Maiella, and your gaze can't help but admire the Adriatic Sea. It really makes you want to sing when you hear the sound of the bells, which, as evening falls, calls everyone to prayer.'

But the mountains were also ominous, enclosing. I remember my father's reaction when I asked, what did you all do in the wintertime? His body stiffened as if a flurry of snow had burst through the door. I knew that wooden door of the stone cottage in his village and I could see it opening in 1928 and the cold from La Maiella blasting in. 'We stayed inside, by the fire,' he said. 'Nothing to be done. Fields under snow. Wolves in the forest. Long nights. We did as little as possible. Nothing but stay by the fire and tell stories.'

The great Abruzzese writer and anti-Fascist, Ignazio Silone, was trained in his narrative craft in those remote villages (in which he hid from the Fascist police by disguising himself as a priest): 'The monotony of that sky, circumscribed by the ampitheatre of mountains that surround the area like a barrier with no way out…the life of men, the beasts of the field, and of the earth itself seemed enclosed in an immovable ring, held in the vice-like grip of the mountains…' he wrote in The Abruzzese Trilogy (Steerforth Press, 2000).

 

STILL, TO HER three wide-eyed children around the briquette heater's fire in the dismal rain of a Melbourne winter in 1968, Lidia was at least a demon storyteller.

Her best tale was about a single night during her teenage years in the 1940s: 'Night of the Long Harvest' was about the time her family of Abruzzese farmers – including the young brothers who had not been taken as soldiers in the Italian Army – had to fight sleep to stay up to shuck a mountain of corn cobs, with the unlikely help of a crippled older brother, Peppino, and a giant called Magnatutto.

It begins in the ominous heat of a summer's night, just before dawn. 'Quell lungo giorno d'agosto, verso le tre del mattino…That long day of August, at around three in the morning…' their gentle mother wakes them, the women pack bread in checked napkins and wine in flasks and, 'all together and happy', they quietly cross the Osente River to one of their far fields.

Now on the wide plain

We started to gather the corn

Which was a good season's harvest.

Working swiftly under the rising sun, by mid-morning they've got the harvest back at the farmhouse in a cart. Their labours are not over and there will be no rest. After tending to the neglected farm work for the rest of the burning afternoon, in the evening the vast pile of corn sits as vulnerable as sacks of golden coins in the moonlight.

Too vulnerable, too beckoning, too valuable.

'It made me think we would need a good month to strip those cobs,' she said. But they didn't have a month – this corn harvest had to be processed that night. The youngest child at the Jewish Passover ritually asks: Why is this night not like any other night? But we children in the dining room in Kew didn't think to ask. To our childish ears, it was simply a given, the last of the impossible tasks of a fairy tale where one must succeed or in the morning face terrible loss and wrath.

Eppure li Vorrei Rivivere, Lidia called the tale, when in her late sixties she decided to write it in the form of a long poem. And Yet I Would Like to Relive Those Years. Strange title. I never asked her why she called it that. Eppure – 'and yet' – but why would you not want to relive such a pastoral childhood, outdoors in Italy, with the gentle mother whispering, the flasks of wine, the bread in the checked napkins, the being 'all together and happy' as you cross the Osente in August on the way to a full harvest of corn?

Context is gained slowly; it can take a lifetime to truly understand a fairy tale told to you by your parents.

 

THOSE DAYS AND nights of my mother's stories unfolded in late spring in Abruzzo, in the little village of Torino di Sangro in the province of Chieti. Of course in the children's version of the tales, the exact year and the historical details were omitted. Such tales were designed to amuse her children and distract her. As teenagers, preoccupied with fitting into another culture, we weren't listening to a middle-aged Italian immigrant lady with poor health and a difficult personality.

It was only as adults that we figured that the Night of The Long Harvest may have occurred in 1943.

On 3 September 1943 the Allies invaded the Italian mainland, the invasion coinciding with an armistice made with the Italians who then re-entered the war on the Allied side. Soon the villages of the Abruzzo became the central battlefield in the fight between the Germans and Allied Forces, with Rommel against Montgomery along the Gustav line. Whole villages and towns were literally razed to the soil by the American bombings in the famous, long battle of the Sangro River. Probably not a good time to be thirteen years old on a farm on one of the colle outside Torino di Sangro.

We knew them simply as i bombardamenti; the dramatic catalysts that began Lidia's stories or as part of the uneasy balance of her settings. And in the tradition of the long-suffering contadini of southern Italy, Lidia turned for solace to archetypal religious imagery, ancient paganistic beliefs and an Abruzzese fatalism almost Zen-like in its practice of the art of acceptance. While villages around them fell, Torino di Sangro, she told us gravely, survived the bombings due to the intervention of La Madonna di Loreto, whose protective mantle lay over the town that spilled gently down the mountain seven kilometres to its own beach, Torino di Sangro Marina, and the mouth of the Sangro River. 'O Regina del ciel, Maria, O sovrana sublime d'amore, Di Torino tu formi l'onore

But long odes to the Madonna di Loreto were not popular with her Australian post-war children and so she learned to get back fast to the Night of the Long Harvest.

E tutti inginocchiati…

So we all kneeled round in a circle

And started stripping the corn cobs

And throwing them into the basket.

But having done twenty or fifty

The pale white moon lulled us,

We all had our heads down, nodding off…

And so to prevent the family sinking into sleep – a dangerous sleep, a sleep of terrible consequences – Peppino, the crippled eldest of the Valerio brothers, tells a ghostly tale.

La favola dell'uomo gigante, Di nome Magnatutto …

The tale of a giant called Magnatutto

Who was happy to live on nothing but bread.

He wanted neither fish nor prosciutto

And had a ring with a large diamond

That he would have given to anyone who'd feed him.

Magnatutto, which means to eat up everything: a giant of endless hunger towering over the realm of mankind, eternal and god-like yet behaving in a touchingly familiar way as one of us. An affable giant, Magnatutto was like the sum of Lidia's Abruzzo, both mountains and people: mighty, stolid and slow but with a relentless drive to have a fair share of a decent life – nothing fancy, solo paneand a place to live, in exchange for an honest, somewhat crude ring con un grosso diamante, a ring of loyalty and blessing as well as power.

He first tries a commercial ring-for-bread exchange with the baker, who finds Magnatutto's never-ending appetite too large and so kicks him out: e a callci fuori lo ho mandato.

Next he tries the monastery, whose subtle religious class try to cheat the Giant out of his ring.

They ordered him to go to the house of the demons

And bring the head demon back to the monastery.

Magnatutto grabbed a large pair of pliers

And obediently set off.

He succeeds at the impossible task by finding the il capo and per il naso l'arferro, e al convento lo riporto: grabbing the demon by the nose, dragging him back to the monastery. But it's a rigged deal – the monks have not only fortified the monastery against Magnatutto, they have also condemned him to death.

The revenge of Magnatutto is subtle. He waits a while – a patient while, a morning's wait and an afternoon's dally – until the monks, confident, relieved, venture forth to ring the bell for evening prayers. And then a looming shadow – a giant's shadow, a stand-over shadow, un ombra come un deminione– engulfs both monastery and monks, who tremble as they behold the daemonic in their midst.

Appeals to the saints cannot save them: Magnatutto is in charge. 'Light the fire,' he says, 'I'm bringing you back what you wanted.' The feckless monks obey but scatter to the far winds, leaving Magnatutto alone to dispatch Il Capo Demonio into the fire and take his just reward: possession of the monastery and its lands.

Lidia's brother Peppino was also a demon storyteller: 'In the silence of the night, his voice grew softer and softer and when he got to the bit about Il Demonio being thrown into the fire, he yelled and we all jumped out of our skins.' Fully awake, the family renews its efforts 'talking, joking and laughing' and through the night the pile of corn disappears, ending up 'on the other side, clean and shiny like smiling teeth.'

And when we opened our eyes the next morning

The work was all done, thanks to Peppino's cunning.

Decades later, when I first began to travel to the Abruzzo, I was able to reflect on the haste in gathering that essential harvest of late August before the tanks of war rolled in September 1943. Under their farmhouse in campagnaand in their townhouse in the village, Lidia's family must have staked their lives on that corn being safely stored; as did others in underground shelters where women, food, animals, prisoners of war, refugees from across the Gustav line and others on the run hid, trying to survive the Battle of the Sangro.

 

IN 2007 OUR plan, hatched in Australia, was that we would bury the rings somewhere between my parents' villages of Torino di Sangro and Pollutri. I envisaged a dusty road, a hillside, stone markers, trees and the sun setting as the rings sunk back into the soil. It would be like the end of Wuthering Heights, with the rings as two archetypal forces, anima and animus, buried 'under that benign sky'.

It turned out to be less about moths fluttering and more about the sort of practical grunt needed to haul a ring over the gates of Mordor. Burying something privately in a tiny village is not easy. We were watched by the locals as if on reality television; first, mistakenly, as The British Tourists Staying at the Casa Margherita, then as The Australians Related to the Old Folks on the Hill, then more intimately as Angelo's cousin's family from Sydney.

Finding a spot that won't be disturbed or remarked upon (or for which you have to get a permit) is not as simple as it looks on Midsomer Murders. So we procrastinate by driving to Lanciano to buy the last ski coats of the season and to the markets at Vasto where we stay on until nightfall, walking along the promenade overlooking the soft dark Adriatic Sea. 'The sea in September,' Lidia wrote, 'is calm and attractive. The children write in the sand: My name is Mirella and My name is Clementabut a cruel wind erases them all, saying This sea is all mine. I'm September and soon I'll sell it all away.'

We spend our time driving to L'Aquila, visiting paternal relatives in Pollutri, going to Chieti Scalo to my cousin-in-law's uncle's large music emporium where my son tries out the classical guitars and plays Isaac Albeniz's Asturias for the delighted old man. The days flow between the Casa Margherita and the farmhouse, down to the Marina and shoreline, up into the snow-capped towns and ski fields of the Maiella and back to Torino di Sangro. Soon we have little more than a day left. I try to explore every alleyway, path and street in Torino di Sangro for a possible site but I succeed only in absorbing the afternoon light of the olive groves, the sound of Graziella chatting to her customers in her delicatessen, the streetscapes of old stone buildings, faded awnings and pale pink and blue shutters along the Corso Lauretano, the Juliet balconies and nineteenth century lamps of the Via S. Angelo, the children going to dance and choir classes in the church hall.

The Supermercato has a marvelous range of chocolate, pane, washing powders and Felce Azzura and Nesti Dante soaps but there is not a trowel to be found.

With only basic Italian, we are unable to find the complex vocabulary we think we need to explain to my relatives what we'd like to do with the rings.

They don't even know about the rings, which sit in my brother's room in the Casa Margherita, emitting an energy of obligation that only seems to intensify with each passing hour.

 

IL CASTELLO DI Roccascalegna is truly a castle in the air.

It seems I've never been up so high. From the valley, the eleventh-century Lombard castle in the old town of Roccascalegna looks like a witch's hat. Perhaps thrown down by Magnatutto in exasperation, leaving it – and the town behind it like a cloak – perched impossibly on one of the two limestone formations that rear up from the valley floor.

Spring is late in the Maiella and it's still so bitterly cold; too early for 'the scented paths of elderflower with honeyed orange locust tree blossoms and giant bright yellow cow parsley' described by the guidebooks.

Looking down and across the valley's snow-capped ridges, it feels more like Nepal than Italy. Magnatutto might well have sat here to think, alone with the eagles and his impossible task.

Beneath the Castello, the medieval Chiesa di San Pietro hovers in the still air.

The great iron bells of the church are silent. Yet something is ringing inside my head. My brother is beside me taking photos. He stops as well.

You know, I say to him, I think we've been a bit obsessed with the land. Earth, digging, underground, soil, dirt.

Yes, he says. It's all so heavy, so weighed down.

We look down on the ridges of the Apennines flowing like white waves into the horizon.

We look at each other: we're agreed. We'll have to Skype our sister in Australia to discuss it but we're pretty sure she'll think it best as well.

We now know exactly what to do with the rings.

That evening, the last of the 2007 trip, we order pizza from the town to eat at the farmhouse because everyone's too tired to cook. My daughters are on Facebook to my various cousins' children, twentysomethings living and working all over Italy, global young people who are so proficient in English as to put us single-language educated Australians to shame. My son says they are first cousins once removed. I'm careful to hide my joy at these new relationships – growth on what I thought was an all but dead European family tree (keep a poker-face at all times with the girls, I tell myself, or you'll kill it with the flick of a teenagers's eye-roll).

My brother and I walk over to sit with my uncle. It's time to explain to Zio what we've been doing and what we've decided.

'We have to ask you something,' says my brother. 'We need your help.'

The day before I'd walked again with my uncle through the hills to the cimiterio inglese, the Sangro River War Cemetery. It is a quiet temple of thousands of meticulously tended white gravestones circling around lawns through paths of magnolias and hawthorn hedges. As I look down on those 2,616 Commonwealth burials of the Battle of the Sangro, he weeps and holds my hand and I think back to his war, away on another front while his sisters fought theirs, the Nazis coming down from the north through villages and fields, the Allied forces pushing through from the south – of tanks, shelling, machine-gun fire, bombardamenti, the earth dust, the bodies piled in gullies and trenches, the Bailey bridges over the Sangro, the refugees fleeing with their animals from road to village and above the Allied aircraft. My uncle has his own Night of The Long Harvest. It's in the DVD of a fiery anti-war speech, which he appears to have given to the crowds outside the Commune di Torino in the Piazza Donato Iezzi or Vicolo II Umberto, on Italian Liberation Day (which like Anzac Day is on April 25). But that's another story.

In a poem called Con un Filo di Coraggio, Lidia said: 'When I was a farmer under the beating sun, my thoughts flew elsewhere, of changing country, changing jobs. It was then I signed up to be a migrant, to cross the ocean: a journey of hope, of another world. I didn't know what I would find but I thought there couldn't be times harder than those I left behind.'

Sadly for some souls what is left behind for mind and memory to process is just as hard and possibly harder, but in the end the uneducated peasant girl of the Night of the Long Harvest was able to complete her impossible task: she wrote a book in which lie the words that we inscribed on her grave: 'Friend don't ask if you feel at ease in this land. None of that matters. What matters is courage.'

Should a traveller arrive in Torino di Sangro one fine spring Sunday at the end of May, they will find themselves in the middle of the Festa di La Madonna di Loreto. From the thirteenth-century chiesa, a procession of men as strong as giants will carry on their shoulders Our Lady whose heavy mantle is covered in offerings and blessings of gold and money from the faithful.

And as Maria Santissima di Loreto weaves down the Corso Lauretano, Her cloak will sparkle with two newly-pinned golden wedding rings from a land far, far away.

Amended 25 September 2013.

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