The Second Father

The Second Father


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702238529
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 08/01/2011
Pages: 228
Product dimensions: 5.08(w) x 7.76(h) x 0.67(d)

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The Second Father

By Domenico Cacciola, Camello Cacciola, Ben Robertson

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2009 Domenico Cacciola, Carmelo Cacciola and Ben Robertson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-3852-9


I was born in the back room of a stone cottage in the Sicilian town of Calatabiano. My mamma says there was no doctor – just a midwife, some local women, a bowl of hot water and a shawl to wrap me up. The northern spring of 1945, Papa thought, was a good time to be born. The carnage of World War II was over in Europe. Italians were learning to smile again.

There is a special place in the Sicilian family for the first-born son, who is called the 'secondo padre', the second father. My earliest memory is Papa telling me to protect my siblings, my mamma and the Cacciola name. 'There is nothing more important in this life, Domenico.' Until Papa died he consulted me on all family matters; he treated me like a man.

Growing up I could see the volcano Mount Etna from our backyard. One side of Etna was peaceful, covered in snow; the other moody, forever simmering, spewing steam, threatening to erupt. A blind made from hessian sack hid the entrance to an outside dunny that we entered by walking under a trellis supporting grape vines. I remember the sight of rolling hills covered with vineyards and orchards; and the smell of the olives, prickly pears, oranges and lemons that the villagers picked under the Mediterranean sun.

Pedlars in donkey carts rode the narrow streets of Calatabiano, accompanied by the occasional stray goat or sheep, which we kids chased away with sticks. Once a week, at Mamma's request, I'd take my canistra down to a wrinkled old farmer to get ricotta, scooped out of a pail by the handful, the syrup dripping through his calloused leathery fingers. Other days I'd get fresh bruschetta and fish, mostly sardines sprinkled with herbs like oregano and swimming in olive oil. When it rained we would go out with tin buckets and pick up the snails that appeared as if by magic out of the rich volcanic soil. We'd put them in a pot, boil them over the fireplace and eat them for dinner.

Giuseppe, my papa, was born north of Calatabiano in the seaside village of Taormina, popular for its white beaches on the Ionian Sea. His father, Domenico, died of wounds received in World War I when Italy had fought with the Allies against the Germans. The doctors had wanted to cut off his arm but he had refused and the gangrene killed him. Papa's mother, Vicenza, died not long afterwards, allegedly from a heart attack; a broken heart more likely, some in the family have suggested. Over breakfast she told Papa she wasn't feeling well and when he came home from school she was lying cold and lifeless on the kitchen floor. At the onset of the Great Depression, aged nine, Papa was an orphan.

Sometimes Papa would mutter that he was born unlucky, although he was fortunate enough to be taken in by his widowed godmother, Nella Pappino, who loved him like her own. One of her sons had died at birth and the other, also called Giuseppe like Papa, later became a mathematics professor and the mayor of Calatabiano. Nella's husband had also been killed in World War I and Papa helped her run the family business – a convenience store selling dry goods and tobacco. Papa's schooling days were over.

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Italy, ruled by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, invaded Albania. Italy started commandeering merchant ships in preparation for its entry into World War II, and Papa, caught up in the excitement, joined the Italian Navy aged eighteen. This time Italy would be fighting against the Allies after signing a pact with the Germans. In 1941 Papa was wounded in the leg by shrapnel during a fierce battle in the Mediterranean and dropped off at the Sicilian port city of Messina to recuperate in a naval hospital. That afternoon an Allied bomber sank his ship and all aboard were drowned.

Things changed quickly when the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943. Italy's surrender and subsequent declaration of war on Germany meant the war was over for Papa. To survive he sold flour on the black market, pushing heavy bags from the train into Calatabiano and later, under the cloak of darkness, collecting them on his donkey cart to sell to the locals. That was how he met my mamma, Antonina Lo Giudice, a petite and pretty sixteen-year-old with jet-black eyes and hair. They came upon each other as he drove along the winding back tracks away from the main road. 'Ah, bella faccia,' he used to say when talking about her – 'a beautiful face'.

Mamma's father, Sebastiano, along with her brother Carmelo, had already migrated to Australia before hostilities with the Allies broke out; the men of the Lo Giudice family were later interned at the infamous prison camp at Cowra in New South Wales. Nonna Maria and Mamma, bags packed for the voyage Down Under, were stranded in Calatabiano when war was declared. Nonna Maria wasn't too happy about this blossoming romance between her daughter and the dashing young sailor Giuseppe Cacciola, but with her husband away what could she do? Just to be sure, Mamma and Papa eloped. They were married nearly sixty years and had four sons.

Papa was smart enough to know that Australia offered his family greater opportunities than post-World War II Sicily, which had experienced some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Hundreds of thousands of troops from both sides had died in the mountains of the northern provinces. Nonna Maria and Mamma's sister Francesca migrated to Australia in 1949 and two years later Papa made the trip to Brisbane on a converted battleship with his second son, my brother Sebastiano, aged three. Like most Italian migrants who made the thirty-day voyage, they arrived with little more than the clothes on their back. My other brother Carmelo and I stayed behind with Mamma. As the secondo padre, I was expected to make sure no harm came to them. Mamma never complained, although it must have broken her heart to be left behind a second time.

Papa was drawn to Innisfail, south of Cairns in North Queensland, where Mamma's parents had settled after reuniting. Her siblings now ran successful cane farms. Zio (uncle) 'Charlie', as Carmelo was now known, had married a Sicilian migrant called Nora Carbone, while Zia (aunty) Francesca had fallen in love with a Sicilian Australian called Frank Cardillo. A short and slender man, Papa did the hard slog as a cane cutter until he had saved enough money for our passage to Australia.

I will never forget April 1954 at Messina. Carmelo, with a broken arm just mended after a fall from an orange tree, was excited about sailing on the handsome passenger liner the Surriento, whose blue and black twin funnels, each adorned with a single white star, towered above us into the cloudless sky. I had started Grade Five and didn't want to leave my school friends to live in a strange faraway land that had once been our enemy. Why couldn't we all live together in Calatabiano? I remember my altar boy-style school uniform and being fed lumpy porridge for breakfast by the Catholic nuns. If you were lucky and made up a good story about why you were still hungry they would serve you 'bully beef' for seconds.

As we boarded the Surriento, the glare off her luxurious white hull made me squint. My teary-eyed Bis Nonna (great-grandmother) Nina, in a plain long frock and a shawl, stood by my Bis Nonno (great-grandfather) Giorgio on the wharf, waving goodbye. He wore a three-piece suit with a fob watch hanging from his vest. We had always loved sharing a plate of pasta with Bis Nonno Giorgio. He'd wash the spaghetti down with red wine, wipe his grey handlebar moustache and pat his belly saying in Italian, 'Eat with gusto but drink with moderation.' We never saw them again.

On the Surriento we were listed as passengers 5, 6 and 7 and there were 640 settlers ready to call Australia home. Most were Maltese travelling on British passports, the rest Poles, Italians from Naples and a few Sicilians. My seasickness during the month-long voyage was so horrible I wanted to throw myself over the rails to end the misery. When we passed through the Suez Canal a Moroccan stuck his head through the porthole of our cabin and scared me half to death. I thought he was going to eat me! He was a very persistent salesman, though, and Mamma bought a bag of figs from him to make him go away.

Carmelo ran about the decks, pointing and laughing. When Mamma wasn't keeping a close eye on him, she held me tightly, sang lullabies and ran her fingers through my hair. When our ship stopped at the Western Australian port of Fremantle, south of Perth, Mamma bought us a fresh bunch of green grapes, and to this day I've never tasted anything as sweet and wonderful. 'Do we have to keep going?' I said to her while standing on that glorious dry ground that didn't sway and rock and make me sick. 'I like it just fine here.'

I thought God had answered my prayers when Carmelo was quarantined for suspected measles. Mamma told the serious-looking Australian doctor that Carmelo was as healthy as an ox. 'His cheeks, always rosy red,' she tried to explain in Italian. Unfortunately Mamma was right. Carmelo was given a clean bill of health and I was miserable again from the seasickness.

As the Surriento crossed the Great Australian Bight south of the Nullarbor Plain, a school of dolphins played among the bow waves, jumping high, spinning about. The towering cliff faces along the wild coastline provided a stunning backdrop to their frivolity. All the passengers were clapping and laughing, shouting out encouragement in a multitude of languages. For a moment I forgot my seasickness, peered into the Southern Ocean and joined in the excitement. Those dolphins reminded everyone on board that life wasn't all about war and hardship; it was still there to be lived.

The Surriento berthed at Newstead Wharf, Brisbane, on 27 May 1954. My first memory of the port is a rusty chain-link fence that separated us at customs from the hundreds of people waving handkerchiefs and throwing streamers and kisses on the other side. 'Benvenuto a Brisbane!' some were shouting to welcome us. The huge wooden sleepers of the wharf had gaps wide enough to see the mud flats and the brown river flowing underneath. I wondered why the water was so dirty.

Papa and little brother Sebastiano were waiting for us. I could hardly remember Papa and didn't quite know what to do when he embraced me. I felt a mixture of fear and joy, but my strongest emotion was confusion. The heat was extreme and of a different kind to what I was used to – moist and draining – and Papa, dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt, was sweating and wiping his brow. Sebastiano, who now wanted to be called 'Ben', was hanging on tightly to Papa's trouser leg, suspicious of these two siblings whom he regarded more as strangers. He'd had Papa to himself for three years and didn't want to let him go. We felt the same way about Mamma and clutched at her dress, staring back at these 'strangers'.

Papa and Mamma had no problems displaying their affections. They hugged and cried for ages; try as we might, we couldn't prise them apart.

* * *

In Brisbane we shared a house with the Messara family, Sicilian friends who lived on Gregory Terrace in the inner-city suburb of Fortitude Valley, near the entrance to the Exhibition Showgrounds. There wasn't much of a backyard, so Carmelo (who now wanted to be called 'Charlie' like his uncle) and I would scale the high fence surrounding the Queensland Museum and play for hours in the grounds, climbing all over the German tank Mephisto, which Australian diggers had souvenired from the killing fields of France during World War I. Sometimes we became frightened as the sun went down, our imaginations running wild as the shadows from the imposing museum danced around the tank in the twilight while the trams rattled past outside. We'd never seen anything like a tram before and these metal monsters scared us, as did the fruit bats that munched on the mangoes in the trees and the possums that thumped across the tin roofs at night.

Charlie, aged five, went home one afternoon, packed his backpack with bananas and walked all the way back to Newstead Wharf, a distance of many kilometres. When our distressed Papa found him – 'He will be at the water,' Mamma had said – Charlie was waiting patiently by the river. He told Papa he was unhappy in this place called Brisbane with its noisy trams and scary creatures. 'When does the white ship go back, Papa?' he said, his top lip quivering. 'I want to go home.'

'This is your home now,' whispered Papa, holding him tightly.

A few months later Papa bought a weatherboard-and-stucco home at Annie Street in New Farm. We were one of the first Italian families to move into the suburb, which is now famously Italian. Our next-door neighbours were the Flanagans. Papa said that God had been good to us in our new country as we had the kindest, loveliest neighbours in the world. Mrs Flanagan, a widow, lived with her two daughters, Rita and Peggy, while her married son, Terry, was a policeman who lived a few suburbs away in Herston. His kids taught us how to play backyard cricket and kick a footy.

Papa, called 'Joe' by his Aussie mates, wasted no time in showing us who was boss. From the first night we had to kiss him on the cheek before bed, saying 'Sabbenedica' – an old Sicilian expression of respect meaning 'God bless'. At the end of every month Papa would wake us up and make us drink a glass of Epsom salts. We'd be kicking and screaming and gagging but he made sure it went down. He thought this Sicilian remedy – best administered very early in the morning – was invigorating and good for our health. In the Brisbane humidity it was just the opposite and we had the runs all day.

Papa was not a violent man, although sometimes he threatened us with a fearsome strap taken from a conveyor belt in the cane fields up north. Mostly this strap was for show, but occasionally you'd get a whack across the legs for being naughty. I hid papa's strap in some wet cement between our house and the Flanagans' when the local builder was constructing a new wall. On completion, the wall was painted lime green. Papa never did work out what happened to that strap.

In 1955 Ben and I transferred from Fortitude Valley State School to New Farm State School and Charlie joined us. Neither Charlie nor I could speak a word of English although Ben, who had been to school in North Queensland, was fluent in the new language. Papa was proud of our Sicilian heritage and was determined that we would never forget our origins, so he insisted that we spoke our native dialect at home in order to be fluent in two languages. It was hard to keep remembering which life you were living: the Australian one at school, with all these slang words and strange expressions, or the traditional Sicilian one at home. My brain got all muddled up. Was I speaking Sicilian or English? The occasional clip across the ear from Papa reminded me. 'Domenico, no English, you must set a good example to your brothers!'

Mamma and Papa worked at the Golden Circle fruit cannery at Northgate. Also working there were other Italian migrants who would become well known in Brisbane – the famous restaurateur Gino Merlo, in particular. Gino, who found success with the restaurant Milano, had been a cane-cutter up north in Mackay. When my parents both worked the same shift, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning, it was my responsibility to look after my brothers. I didn't mind having all that responsibility. My brothers pushed the boundaries with Papa, just like I did, but I relished the challenge of keeping them in line.

In 1956 the Cacciola family attended a naturalisation ceremony at Brisbane City Hall and we all became Australian citizens. I thought City Hall was very grand, with its high clock tower and sandstone walls. It was like walking into a palace. Papa wore his best suit and even bought a pretty dress for Mamma, as she didn't like drawing attention to herself and wouldn't go out shopping for new clothes.

Papa was always happiest when music was playing and people were dancing; he loved weddings and parties. That night, as we celebrated with family and friends, he was perhaps the happiest and proudest I'd ever seen him. We were all dinky-di Aussies. Ridgy-didge. How ya goin', mate! Mamma stayed in the background, cooking and fussing. Was she happy too? She was content in her quiet way, I suppose.


Excerpted from The Second Father by Domenico Cacciola, Camello Cacciola, Ben Robertson. Copyright © 2009 Domenico Cacciola, Carmelo Cacciola and Ben Robertson. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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