A true story of love, loss, and the mother-daughter relationship across generations, this biography describes Rebecca Huntley’s search for her maternal grandmother’s story. Following the death of her Italian Nonna, Huntley discovers that there was much unknown about the kind-hearted, quiet individual she thought she knew. With evocative stories and tender honesty, Huntley explores the young life of the woman who cooked masterfully and embroidered daily and those of the men and women in her family from Northern Queensland during World War II. In the process, old issues with her own mother are awakened and the concept of what it really means to be a mother is contemplated.
|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Rebecca Huntley is the director of Ipsos Mackay research and a feature writer for Australian Vogue. She is the author of Eating Between the Lines: Food and Equality in Australia and The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation.
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The Italian Girl
By Rebecca Huntley
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2012 Rebecca Huntley
All rights reserved.
The Train North
The Canberra train station looks almost deserted when my taxi pulls in to the rank. As I emerge from the back seat, the cold morning air has the effect of the first coffee of the day. Suddenly I am awake and ready for the challenge of getting from Canberra to Innisfail in north Queensland in time to see my grandmother. Inside the passenger waiting room there are a number of travellers already assembled, despite the fact the train to Sydney won't be leaving for another forty-five minutes. A few people are lined up in front of the Country Link office and so I join them in the queue, shifting my weight from foot to foot with nervous impatience.
When it is my turn to sit down at the booking desk I am in a confessional mood. I tell the Country Link lady opposite me that my grandmother – my nonna – is unwell; in fact, we believe she is dying and I need to see her as soon as possible. I want a ticket home to Sydney as well as a return ticket from Sydney to Innisfail. The Country Link lady doesn't comment on my revelation. Perhaps she thinks I am looking for a discounted fare, like the airlines give for emergencies and bereavements. She repeats the name of my destination to confirm she has it right – Innisfail – and then starts tapping away on the keyboard, her face turned intently towards the static and glow of the computer screen.
In the minute or so she spends typing I offer up another confession, namely that while the situation with my nonna is urgent, I'm not one for plane travel. I tell her about my fear of flying, a phobia I developed in my mid twenties despite a childhood and adolescence spent in planes travelling around the country and the world. I am pouring my heart out but she says nothing. She just keeps typing, her only response the sound of the clicks of her varnished nails on the plastic keys. Who can blame her? There is a crazy person sitting in front of her who is desperate to get to her dying grandmother three thousand kilometres away and she is taking a train.
After a minute or two, the Country Link lady turns away from her screen to give me the computer's diagnosis. I can get an overnight train from Sydney to Brisbane this evening. There is a sleeper available but I will have to share with another female.
'That's fine', I tell her. I will have a few hours' wait in Brisbane and then I can catch The Sunlander, which travels from Brisbane to Cairns, stopping off at Innisfail. There are no sleepers but there are lots of first-class seats left. The good news is that on the trip back there is a single sleeper free from Innisfail to Brisbane. After another short stay in Brisbane and a bus ride over the border, I will be able to have a sleeper to myself again and I will arrive in Sydney the next morning. I will be on trains almost as long as I will be in Innisfail.
I pay for my ticket on my only, almost exhausted, credit card. I tense my shoulders and hold my breath during that five-second pause before the machine confirms you have enough money to proceed with the sale. The train ticket costs nearly twice as much as a return flight to Cairns – further evidence of my insanity. Mum has kindly offered to pay for the ticket and I make a mental note to get the cash from her as soon as I return from the north.
I had rung Mum from Canberra the night before to say hello and to report on how my thesis research in the National Archives was going. She told me Nonna had been admitted to hospital and a feeling of panic rose and spread its heat through my chest. The tone of Mum's voice was even. She was almost matter-of-fact, like an experienced nurse talking to a doctor: 'Teresa Ballini, widow, aged ninety, weight thirty-nine kilograms.' Nonna is dying is what she was really saying. I needed to get to Nonna right away.
When my tickets are confirmed, I take the blue-and-white paper envelope from the Country Link lady and sit down on one of the few uncomfortable seats left in the waiting room. Then the panic of the previous night returns. I can't remember the last time I saw my nonna. It has been so long since we were in the same room together – three years, maybe four. If Nonna had kept a diary – or if I had – I might have been able to pinpoint that final, ordinary moment of contact.
While I can't remember the timing of our last moment together, I can confidently imagine what would have happened at the end of that final visit. Nonna would have packed her twenty-year-old navy blue suitcase early in the morning, perhaps even the night before, as her daughter and granddaughters slept and our cats patrolled the kitchen floor. She would have had a breakfast of milky coffee and plain toast topped with butter, the same thing she had served her husband almost every morning during their fifty-plus years of marriage. She would have been sitting, fully made-up and dressed in her travelling clothes, at the table in our kitchen when I woke. She would have wished me a good morning and offered to fix me something to eat, despite knowing I would want a simple bowl of muesli.
She would have been eager to get to the airport as the morning wore on, but reluctant to leave us at the same time. I would not have gone with my mother and sister to the airport to say goodbye, giving the usual weak excuse that I was too busy. Nonna would not have insisted that I come with them or sulked because I wasn't. Instead we would have kissed and hugged on the threshold of our house and waved to each other as she sat in the back seat of our secondhand Saab. And she would have seen me turn away, too quickly, from the departing car.
* * *
The Canberra to Sydney train trip is outrageously slow, and when you are in a hurry it sometimes feels as if more progress could be made if you got out and jogged. I decide not to go over and see my mother and sister Emily at their place; instead I'll spend my few hours in Sydney at home unpacking my Canberra bag full of jumpers and jeans and packing my Innisfail bag full of short-sleeved cotton shirts and lightweight pants. I'll also need to gather together enough reading material to justify to my thesis supervisor that I'm not taking a break from my studies.
The train from Canberra pulls into Central Station late and I splurge on a taxi to get home as quickly as possible. The one-bedroom apartment I share with my partner is close to the seaside suburb of Coogee. I spend the day packing and unpacking, sending emails, making phone calls and doing laundry – all the comforting little tasks that keep you from thinking too much about anything important. Then I look through the photos I have of Nonna, wondering whether to take some with me. There is one particularly important photo I consider for quite some time. It was taken in the mid 1970s with my parents' treasured single-lens Pentax camera and now sits in a wooden frame on my bookshelf near my desk.
The photo is from the time we all lived in Adelaide. Four of us – Mum, Nonna, Emily and me – are on the front lawn of my grandparents' house on the Esplanade at Glenelg. The photo must have been taken in winter, judging by the blue and chocolate brown skivvies we are wearing. It is a square photo, matt and faded, as if covered with a layer of dust that can't be wiped away. It's the kind of photo that wouldn't exist today, that would have been deleted almost as soon as it was taken because you can't see my face and Nonna isn't looking towards the camera. And yet it is perfect.
In the foreground to the left, my sister Emily smiles broadly. She is advancing with toddler steps towards the person behind the camera. My father? My grandfather? No one can remember who it was. She is planning, I expect, to grab the camera out of the hands of the forgotten photographer. Sitting a few metres behind her, in the centre of the frame, is my mother. Over her brown skivvy she is wearing a chambray dress and a wide-brimmed blue hat. Her black hair is long and straight. She looks happy to be in the photo, which is surprising given she hates being photographed. I am sitting next to her in a light blue skivvy that is covering my chubby, four-year-old chest. I am looking towards the ground, my arms outstretched as if I am pretending to be a plane, but I am clearly about to launch myself up and towards my sister, racing her to get to the camera first. Then there is Nonna, kneeling behind me, her face lit up by her smile, not for the camera's sake but for ours. She is looking at Emily, perhaps anticipating the humour of the contest between her granddaughters for centre stage and possession of the camera. This is the truest photo I have of my family, four sides of a square, all members loving each other equally in their own way.
In the end I don't pack this or any other photos. It occurs to me that being forced to think about the past may be upsetting or tiring for Nonna. It may not be the best way for us to spend our last moments together. Instead, I take the time to walk up to the local shops to buy rosewater hand lotion from the pharmacy. I remember seeing some in Nonna's vanity drawer once when I was a child, a tube that was almost full but didn't look new. I guess it was a gift she thought was too fancy to use regularly. Now I want her to have something luxurious that we can share, and we can use the tube up completely in a few days if we want to.
With my chores complete, I ring my partner at his work to tell him about my train trip north. After a moment's pause he suggests I take a plane because Nonna may die before I get there. I tell him he is wrong; the train, however slow, will get me there in time. Also, Nonna knows I am coming and she will hold on until I arrive. He thinks I should reconsider my plans given what's at stake. I end the conversation abruptly, slamming the phone down in anger, overreacting because he may well be right.
* * *
The woman sharing my Sydney to Brisbane sleeper happens to be an Italian woman. She is a few years older than me, attractive, with long dark hair. In Australia on a working holiday, she has been living in Bondi, only a few suburbs away from me. She is on one of her regular mini-trips to discover different parts of the country. She tells me she loves Australia, especially the climate and the beaches. The men, though, are another matter.
'Why do Australian men have such trouble talking to women?' she asks me. 'They can only talk when they are drunk.' I laugh in agreement. She is eager to keep me engaged in an in-depth discussion about the mysteries of the Australian male but I'm not much help. I am still working them out myself, with little success. I eat my takeaway dinner of cold salad and sushi while she chats away. Then we retire early, her to the upper berth and me to the lower one.
I find it hard to sleep. As I lie on my back under stiff white sheets and rough blankets I recall childhood trips on The Overland from Melbourne to Adelaide, in which I relished the rhythm and rock of the train. It was as if the sleeper was one giant mechanised hammock. Tonight, though, I don't sleep well at all. The train lurches and bumps at the precise moment I am nodding off, like a hand jerking me awake to deal with some emergency. Electric lights keep penetrating the cabin through gaps in the blue curtains as we speed past country towns and crossings. I start off the night feeling too cold and then end up feeling too warm, then return to feeling cold again. I don't think much about Nonna. Instead I mourn the death of my romantic view of overnight train travel.
We arrive in Brisbane very early in the morning, that time reserved for joggers and garbos and long-distance commuters. My companion says only a few words to me over breakfast – tart orange juice in a plastic container, a tub of full-fat yoghurt and one soft hot croissant – which is delivered with abrupt cheerfulness half an hour before our arrival. She leaves the cabin before I do, saying a polite but quick goodbye, as if our chat about men the night before hadn't happened. I put it down to the thought that perhaps she isn't a morning person or perhaps she feels she said too much the night before.
I am left alone with a few hours to kill in Brisbane. I check my baggage and reading material into a locker and set off without a map to wander around the CBD. I don't know the city very well as I haven't visited it since I was a teenager. I don't have the cash to shop or the energy to visit an art gallery. So I walk aimlessly through streets that seem similar to but emptier than the ones I know in Sydney. Before long I head back to the station to board The Sunlander bound for Cairns.
The carriage is cleaner and newer than the shabbier ones I am used to travelling in from Sydney to Canberra and Melbourne. I am lucky though, as I have a seat by the window and the conductor tells me as he checks my ticket that the places next to me are unoccupied for the whole trip – I can stretch out and sleep if I want to. Looking around, I see the car is half full of holidaying pensioners and a few families. I am one of only a few single people and the only woman travelling on her own. I let my reading material rest in my backpack while I stare out the window. Almost the entire length of Queensland will pass me by over the next twenty-nine hours.
Without a travelling companion and little energy for Foucault's theory of discourse, I am left with time to think about Nonna. Somewhere on the outskirts of Brisbane it dawns on me that I must have disappointed her. I haven't seen her in years. I missed her ninetieth birthday celebrations the month before, reluctant to fly north and back. My mother and my sister went, joining our extended family at a party at her nursing home. My sister took photos of Nonna blowing out the candles on a hideously expensive birthday cake that I had bought for her, my way of compensating for my absence. More than the shame of missing this milestone, I feel a greater sadness that at twenty-seven I am unmarried and childless. Nonna will die before she sees her eldest granddaughter in a wedding dress or nurses her first great-grandchild.
The train trip is mostly lonely and uneventful. I talk to no one other than the man at the canteen car who keeps me supplied with a steady stream of bad sandwiches, tea and gossip magazines. I glance at my PhD reading material every now and then but drift through entire paragraphs and have to retrace my steps. I find it impossible to concentrate and spend hours at a time staring out the window. It is enough to be absorbed in the landscape steadily changing in front of my eyes. You feel so close to it on a train journey. Four or five hours out of Brisbane I notice the first signs that we are approaching the tropics. David Malouf wrote about a similar train journey he took north when he was younger. He said that one of the advantages of train travel is that you have time to 'get used to travelling':
You could watch the country change, feel the temperature rise, the air dampen, and tell yourself as you counted off the houses that the journey you were making was the equivalent of Paris to Moscow ... There were no borders to cross, no ... uniformed officials, no changes of coinage or tongue ...
At the end of a trip like this, it feels as if you should arrive somewhere truly foreign, rather than merely different. It feels as if you deserve to indulge in some duty-free shopping.
I want to fall asleep long before the sun outside the window dims. I am exhausted from the interrupted night before. I slip off my shoes, pull on sport socks and try to wrap the Queensland Rail blanket around me in a way that will stop it slipping onto the linoleum floor. I lie down, curled up with my head towards the window and my feet slotted under the armrest. My toes protrude slightly into the centre aisle. I know they are courting midnight encounters with travellers heading towards the toilet but I don't care. I face outwards so I won't have to inhale the stale smell of the seat fabric, the ingrained dirt and sweat of countless passengers who have gone before me. I sleep in this foetal position without waking until dawn.
* * *
In the morning I unfurl myself with some difficulty. I sit up and look out the window and instantly recognise the tropical landscape behind the glass. In his book on north Queensland, Alan Frost describes how halfway between Townsville and Ingham, 'grazing paddocks and swamplands give way to scrub and sugar cultivations, the coastal ranges begin to glisten with rainforest'. The flora and fauna is nothing like what you might find in other parts of the country.
In a time prior to the arrival of Europeans, dense foliage covered these floodplains like an almost uninterrupted blanket. The first piece of land Nonna's father, Luigi Ballini, bought when he arrived in Australia had been like the land I could see outside my window. Luigi's property was located in South Johnstone, thirteen kilometres south of Innisfail. When he bought it, it was choked with thick tropical vegetation. Luigi cleared his ninety-six acres with a couple of other Italian men using just saws, axes and shovels. He did this work on a Sunday, after having worked for six days on another man's farm cutting cane. Once the clearing had been done, the roots of the trees they felled were excavated with dynamite. All the green matter was burnt, the first of many fires to be lit on that ground. Cane was planted. And then a bad storm destroyed his crops and damaged the farmhouse, but Luigi rebuilt, working seven days a week. The steaming landscape Luigi battled with was nothing like the tidy little parcels of land on the island of Elba, his birthplace, off the Tuscan coast.
Excerpted from The Italian Girl by Rebecca Huntley. Copyright © 2012 Rebecca Huntley. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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Table of Contents
'Australia' Mariano Coreno ix
Family tree xii
Map of Innisfail xiii
Part 1 5
1 The Train North 7
2 A Migrant Town 21
3 Rite of Passage 39
4 A Different Light 53
Part 2 61
5 Uncovering 63
6 Time Out 81
7 Returning North 93
8 A Family Affair 113
9 Preserving the Truth 127
Part 3 141
10 Dividing Lines 143
11 Recording History 157
12 Camps Divided 171
13 Luigi's Release 183
14 A Bribe for a Groom 193
Part 4 203
15 Dreams and Ghosts 205
16 The Left-hand Curve 227
Further Reading 249