Antonio and Francesca were my parents-in-law. They are the charactors Renato and Checchina in my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons. http://www.amazon.com/roman daze. They lived in Taranto, a small city right at the bottom of Italy on a beautiful bay.
This blog is to honor them both, but today the story is mostly about Antonio, and Francesca’s stories will come next month.
This story begins around 1937.
Pa was 17 when he first set eyes on the 13 year old Francesca. She was already working as a seamstress, along with her sister and mother, taking in sewing in any form to earn money in a family that had a choice between food or rent every month, unless there was enough sewing.
He saw her entering and leaving an apartment block every week on a Tuesday afternoon with her sister Nina who was 15. He had a friend living in that apartment block and so took to visiting him every Tuesday hoping to get a chance meeting with her which he eventually did. Not being with a parent emboldened Antonio to approach Francesca and a clandestine and innocent friendship struck up, aided and abetted by Nina who was already “spoken for” by a handsome young Carabinieri (a special squad of police that form part of the national miliatary) called Rocco. Nina wanted her sister to have the joy of a boyfriend too.
It seems that every romance in the south of Italy begins with the parents of the female automatically hating her suitors until the very point of the wedding ceremony and Antonio was no exception. He was aided in his meetings by Rocco who, being a Carabinieri was seen as vastly more acceptable than a worker from the local munitions factory (where Francesca’s father also worked).
But Antonio was approaching 18, the age at which all Italian males were obliged to do their military service. This was a two year stint where Italy’s young men were trained as soldiers and could be called up to serve their country if war broke out any time in the proceeding 15 years. Antonio didn’t have to wait that long. It was 1939. War broke out during his national service and he was swept up in it as a young and fairly untrained soldier.
Often when I used to look at Antonio smiling benignly over a plate of cream cakes (he had an enormous sweet tooth) or giggling over the Italian version of Benny Hill, or blowing raspberries into his wife’s stomach (at 91 years of age) or crying as he hugged his son goodbye after a weekend visit; and when I understood his character to be one of gentleness, trust, and contentment with his small lot in life, I found it hard to imagine him with a gun in his hand shooting at others his age. And then I realised that probably his character, his ability to be utterly content with the simplest of lives and to have no fear of the things in life that I fear, was a result of what he had lived through rather than a pre-existing condition.
Pa was on the front line when Italy changed sides. He was lying on the ground on his stomach alongside other Germans and Italians shooting at the enemies advancing through the top of Italy, somewhere around Trieste, the most Northern part of Italy. There was a strange unrest and tension in the air that day. None of the Italian officers had shown up to the war that morning. It gradually became known down through the line of soldiers that Italy had changed its allies and was therefore an enemy of Germany. The very men who were holding guns, side by side with Antonio. He and another mate from the same home town, Taranto, dropped their guns and ran. No formal discharge, no orders, no waiting for authority figures to tell them what to do and no fear of reprisals. Their guts told them to get the hell out of there and so they did.
Trieste is at one end of Italy and Taranto is at the other. It is a distance of tens of thousands of kilometres. They walked home. It took Antonio a month to get home and leaving the front line did not guarantee that their lives were now safe. They were in uniform and therefore in danger of being picked up by the German military who ruled Italy. Therefore they couldn’t use the roads or travel during the day. Because of those same uniforms they were in danger of also being killed by the Italian partisans, the resistance, those who had opposed the war or deserted early. This meant they were in danger at night, when the resistance travelled along the roads and paths of Italy.
So they followed the aqueducts. The ancient system of water tunnels the Romans had built from one end of Italy to the other, at night, and only every second night. They were tired, hungry, afraid, and needed to rest a lot. They knocked on deserted farmhouses in the evenings and begged for food. At that time in Italy thousands of men were making their ways home from this war, and resistors were making their ways out to fight it clandestinely. The housewives of Italy fed them all. A knock on the door around evening time and all through the night was common. They all needed food and it was always supplied. The women didn’t care if they had uniforms on or not, whether they carried arms or not. Most of them were hoping the next knock would be from their men and were relying on other women far away to be keeping them alive as they themselves were doing for the men of other women.
A month after Antonio fled the front line he arrived in Taranto. No one there knew if he was alive or dead. He walked up to his apartment building and greeted his incredulous mother who was on the balcony. He washed and ate and then went to see Francesca. She was coming along the street, arms laden down with two bags of food shopping and walking next to her mother, when she saw him coming towards her. She dropped the bags of food (a serious crime in those days) and ran towards him. There was never any question after that of whether he was good enough for Francesca. He was a returned soldier who had fought for his country, been caught up in the terrible political machinations of the powerful and wealthy and had survived to come home. That was good enough.
Antonio went on to father two boys, Hercole (yes that is a name) and Alfredo, and be the surrogate father of two more; the sons of his best friend, Alfredo, who lost his life early to cancer. He and Francesca lived with other couples in rented houses and eeked out a living, often hungry, for nearly two decades after the war had finished. Their financial highpoint was being able to afford a one bedroom apartment of their own, five stories up with no lift, in the centre of Taranto, with a view of the sea. Hercole slept in a small walk-in cupboard at the end of the corridor. When he went to military service at the age of 16, they had a second son, Alfredo, my husband.
Pa went back to work at the munitions factory after the war and worked there every day for forty years. His life was unadventurous from my point of view. He never travelled. He spent his holidays with Rocco and Nina at their small plot of land about forty minutes away from where he lived and picked almonds for them each summer. He never read anything except newspapers.
“What’s the point in buying a book?” he once said to me as I came home laden yet again with a half dozen of them. “Once you’ve read it what do you do with it?” He then chuckled at me like I was a little soft in the head. I am known as a person who is addicted to buying books and never letting them go. He spent his leisure time talking with his mates in the piazza below, watching TV, playing cards with his son and daughter-in-law, and talking with Francesca.
His first question to me when he saw me on the weekends we travelled down from Rome, was always “Have you eaten?”. He enthusiastically embraced the introduction of Anglo-Saxon traditions such as Christmas crackers and the wearing of the hats that came out of them, insisting his whole family did too. This was a vastly unfamiliar tradition to them but one that made my Christmases a whole lot better amidst all the pasta, ice-cream desserts and lack of alcohol that made up their typical southern Italian Christmas dinner.
One day shortly before Pa passed away, Hercole came into the apartment to find Pa lying on the floor, the bottom half of his torso wedged under his double bed. Francesca had gone out to do the shopping. Pa was lying there calmly waiting for someone to come and find him and help him up. Are you alright Pa, Hercole asked half concerned, half finding it funny (I told you they were quirky). “I’ve been better”, was the reply.
So for his bravery, his contentment, his peacefulness and his fathering which produced an amazing husband (biased point of view) I say Vale Antonio, Vale xxxx
It’s been two years since both Francesca and Antonio De Luca passed away. Married for 67 years they weren’t able to exist, one without the other.
Franchy had a stroke when she was 89. She was rushed to hospital from the 5th floor apartment they had both lived in for over fourty years. She was away six weeks, floating between life and death and then rehabilitating and learning to walk again. Pa couldn’t comprehend it. He was almost blind, had difficulty walking and was in the advanced stages of dementia. He could also not be consoled.
The person who had been the only constant in his grey and continually dimming world was no longer there. He was living more and more in a world of fantasy where if he passed a mirror he often spent half an hour talking into it, thinking he was having a conversation with someone else. He could also spend hours having a conversation with the television. All he knew was that the person who prepared his coffee first thing in the morning, the person who helped wash and dress him, the person who helped him go to the toilet, who fed him, bought his food and went walking with him was gone. The woman who, when he woke regularly in the middle of the night and started to get dressed, told him that it wasn’t time yet, the woman who laughed and joked with him at his eccentricities and still took him, and his needs seriously, the woman who even at 89 years old could still make him smile, grab her in a big hug and kiss her repeatedly on the mouth. All he knew was that she was no longer with him, the concept of time, that she was somewhere else and could eventually come back, eluded him.
In her place were well meaning sons, grand children, neighbours, doctors and professional carers. He struggled on for several weeks at home then in professional care. Like Romeo at Juliet’s tomb, believing her dead, he just wanted to go with her. One day he just stopped eating and died three days later. Francesca survived her stroke and came home to an empty house. Francesca couldn’t walk very well and as their apartment was on the fifth floor with no lift, she was confined to it. Her sister Nina and her best friend Maria visited every day, sometimes twice a day, along with neighbours, children and grandchildren. She lasted almost two months without Antonio and then one day another stroke killed her.
They were the kind of parents and parents-in-law that you really miss. Funny, quirky, courageous, honest, tenacious, tender, unconditionally and endlessly loving to the full extent of their capacity and beyond. They were two of the most selfless and endearing people I have ever met. I wish the world had known them more.