I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to take many trips to Italy. My first trip was the summer I turned 7. It was then that I was first introduced to my extended Italian family. My mother was born in Italy but emigrated in the 50s to Canada with her parents. It is her influence that has made mine and my sisters’ connection to our roots possible. Even when money was very tight, she made sure that each of us had a chance to experience Italy as children and encouraged us to return as young adults. This fostered in all of us a better understanding of the world, to be less afraid of things that are foreign and to appreciate our heritage and the richness it adds.
My Mom’s “Millennium Project” was to fix up her childhood home. The house was standing, mostly because the houses on either side were holding it up and my Zio Maggiorino made sure that the roof was kept repaired. In Sept 2000, my whole family visited Italy and four generations gathered in the tiny house for big noisy meals. So now we have a home base. A place to go when you need a dose of Italy, to remember the brave relatives who set out to the new world to better their lives and a place to bring the next generation “home”.
I’ve tried to spend as much time there as I can. Not just the week or so of vacation each year, but I’ve extended business trips in Europe whenever possible and hopped on a train or flight (or both) just to spend an extra weekend here and there. When I’m there I feel like I belong even though my Italian is choppy and juvenile. I’m surrounded by family and I feel part of a community that has been there longer than I can even imagine.
The friends I’ve introduced to the village and valley have been enamored. Most importantly I brought my husband there before we were married and he immediately understood why I kept returning. He fell in love with the tranquil valley and the little villages rich with family history. I’m delighted that it became a shared dream of spending months in Italy when we retire.
You might be thinking that this blog is about my mother’s house, but it’s actually about another house. A second house that has come into the family, inherited by my mother from her cousin Nardo. I spent a great deal of time in the house last week when I was in Italy. It was sad in that it was the first time I’d been there since Nardo passed away and I miss him very much. He and I were very close. He never married and lived in the same house that he grew up in. His mother (Zia Vittoria) was my Nonna’s sister. His father (my Zio Maggiorino) was a carpenter and also had a large chicken operation selling the eggs as their primary farm income.
My first visit to Italy in the summer of 1973 I stayed at their house. It was the most modern one in the village and had just been renovated the year before. My earliest memories of Italy are my sister Mimi and I playing on the street outside their house, hunting giant snails that appeared like magic after a rain. I remember my Zia Vittoria’s garden, filled with exotic plants and beautiful flowers.
Last year when Nardo was very ill and in palliative care, Mom stayed in Italy and spent much of her time with him at the hospital. His prolonged illness, and years of a bachelor living alone has taken a toll on the house. After Nardo passed away last year, Mom and Dad made a herculean effort to get the house clean, taking out mounds of trash and sanitizing the floors and bathrooms. But the walls are stained with years of smoke (from both wood stove and cigarettes). The walls are not just a little stained, they are literally blackened. Mom and Dad started with the kitchen and after 3 coats of “Netto” a paint specifically designed for covering smoke and grease they finally got the kitchen clean. I had every intention of starting to paint the rest of the house but we discovered that the walls were covered in wallpaper; quite unusual for houses in the area. I decided to tackle the removal as my holiday project. I took down everything hanging on the walls and it was pretty obvious that things had hung in the same place for a very long time! Most likely nothing has been moved or changed since Zia Vittoria died in the early 80s. As I started to remove the wallpaper I found brand new plaster walls under it, so the wallpaper was likely installed when the house was renovated in 1972.
It took 3 full days, several buckets of wallpaper stripper and lots of scraping but with help from my sister Christine and Mom I managed to strip the wallpaper from the entry, hall and living room. The ceiling will need to be painted with “Netto” to cover the smoke stains but the walls are actually pretty nice just the way they are.
As I worked away, mostly alone, I imagined that my Zia Vittoria was happy that I was showing the house she was so proud of some love. I admired the pieces of furniture that my Zio Maggiorino lovingly made for his family as I moved them and covered them up to protect them from the falling wallpaper. I remembered the many times I’d just sat and visited with Nardo and I know in my heart he is happy that I’m “home”.