Aerogram Letters

By Gandolfo, Enza | Hecate, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Aerogram Letters


Gandolfo, Enza, Hecate


In our house photographs were stored in an old shoebox my father kept on the top shelf of his wardrobe. Like my mother's button jar, this box had its own magnetism, my brother and I loved to spill its contents out on the table and order and reorder the photographs as if we were building a jigsaw puzzle. Here among the family snapshots taken on our front lawn, in the shallows at Altona beach, on day-long picnics with all our cousins at Hepburn Springs, there were photographs of Sicilian relatives we'd never met. We asked our parents endless questions: Is she my grandmother? My aunt? My uncle? Was she your friend? Did you go to school with him? Was that your horse? Your cart? Your house?

There were several photographs of Nonna Margherita, my mother's mother, in these she wore long dark dresses and hand crocheted shawls. Her hair, silver grey, was twisted into a loose, low bun. She was a thin old lady, with hollow cheeks, with my mother's small brown eyes, and slender lips. Washed out in sepia brown, this Nonna seemed too small and insubstantial to be the resilient woman in my mother's stories. The woman who survived two husbands: Pietro, her childhood sweetheart, killed in the First World War. And the second my grandfather, Vincenzo, fourteen years older, a widower with six children already. They had four more children before he died of an unnamed liver disease when my mother, the youngest, was twelve. The woman whose oldest son was shot by the Germans as he escaped from a prison of war camp. The woman who raced alone, across the country, two whole days and two whole nights, to be by his bedside, arriving just hours too late. The woman who kept chickens in their tiny courtyard so she could sell the eggs, who sewed and knitted and crocheted for the richer, less talented village women, who finally, reluctantly, let her sons, not yet men, go out to work, carting and transporting people and produce, sometimes having to travel overnight on the dangerous roads between the neighbouring villages. She prayed for them all day long, until she heard the sound of the cart coming to a stop at her front door, and her sons' voices coming up the stairs. She kept a tight rein as well as a tight budget, but even when she was in mourning, she let my mother fill the house with her girlfriends, she let her children go to the movies, to take the evening yassagiata along the main street.

"She was distraught when Matthew died. But never let her grief take over our lives. She wanted us to have a happy life. Everyone loved your Nonna, everyone, era na santa." My mother said this with pride and with regret for she had married into a family that had almost no capacity for laughter. My paternal grandmother had also lost a son, her youngest, to leukemia, but she demanded that everyone share in her suffering.

I knew Nonna loved me because in her letters there were kisses just for me, and when visitors came from Italy to Australia, she sent me gifts: a life size doll called Sara with blonde ringlets and a silky blue dress, a gold chain bracelet and a miniature ring with a green stone, a wooden music box, and embroidered tablecloths and sheets for my glory box. Hidden in the folds, in the wrapping, of all these gifts, holy cards-the Madre di Gesù, Santa Lucia, Santa Agatha, La Santuzza.

Nonna's aerogram letters, per via aerea, with their red and blue borders and her shaking cursive script on the front, arrived battered, creased, sometimes damp, occasionally torn; this was evidence, I believed, of just how far away Nonna's village was from Melbourne and of the long and hazardous journey that stopped her visiting us. I traced her aerogram letters collected from the village post office, thrown into a big sack, and carried up and down steep mountain paths by donkeys (even though my father assured me there were cars and trucks in Sicily too), then loaded onto trains, then aeroplanes, and more trains, until a postman on a bicycle slipped them into our letterbox in Melbourne. …

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