A few months ago I wrote about my father in law, Antonio, in a blog entitled Antonio and Francesca – A love story, which mostly focussed on Antonio (Pa). I promised to write the other half of story. For those of you who can’t be bothered looking at that blog, a quick synopsis. Franchy (Francesca) met Pa (Antonio) when she was 13 and he was 17. They both lived in Taranto, a small town at the very bottom of Italy. In the 1930’s both families struggled to meet both food and rent expenses on a monthly basis, and sometimes sacrificed one for the other. Shortly after Franchy and Pa met and started ‘seeing each other’ clandestinely, war broke out and Pa, who was doing his national service, was sent off to fight. He returned to Franchy several years later by walking home from Trieste to Taranto, a distance of tens of thousands of kilometres, and literally from one end of Italy to the other. It took him a month, and happened as aresult of the Italian army surrendering to the Allies. Pa was 19 when he returned to Taranto.
Francy and Pa were married for 67 years. They died within two months of each other. Franchy had a stroke and was taken to hospital. Pa thought she was never returning and died before she returned home. His severe dementia meant he couldn’t understand where she was or the concept of time. He just thought she was gone and wanted to go to. Francy returned to an empty house and lived on for another two months before a second stroke killed her. They brought up two children, one of whom is my husband, surrogate parented another two when their best friend lost his life early, and were grandparents to three others (besides their own) who lived across the hall from them.
Today I wanted to remember Francy. In acknowledgement of Mother’s Day I thought i would remember her from that perspective.
My first glimpse of what kind of mother Franchy was, and therefore how she had mothered my husband, came one Saturday morning when we had driven to Taranto for the weekend as we did regularly. We were sleeping in the lounge room (family room) on a sofa bed. The lounge room had a large balcony from which a basket on a rope would be lowered to the street to pull up groceries or deliveries. Their apartment was on the fifth floor and there was no lift. It was a ten flight set of stairs to walk up. Francy and Pa were in their 70’s when I met them and did the stairs twice a day every day. I could barely make it up once on a Friday night when I arrived and I often avoided doing it again until Sunday afternoon when we left. The height of humiliation was that Franchy would often come and meet me half way and carry my suitcase for me up the rest of the flights as i struggled huffing and puffing behind her.
Most of Franchy and Pa’s friends and relatives were in their age bracket if not older, so in order to avoid the stairs, if they were dropping something off, they usually just used the basket on a rope lowered over the balcony. It was Saturday morning early and as usual the doorbell and telephone had been going since around 7.00am. It always seemed to me that the elderly population of Taranto had nothing bettter to do than get up early and start visiting and calling each other. The telephone extension was in our room, the doorbell very loud, and both parents a little deaf, so I had been woken up time and time again with “yes they are here and sleeping right now’, if only.
A timid knock on the double glass doors leading into our room and a stage whispered “Alfredo”. “Si, Ma”, my husbands response. There followed a whispered conversation in dialect, in apologetic tones from Franchy. Her uncle, in his nineties was at the entrance of the apartment block below. He had made her some tomato pasta sauce and was dropping it off. Would we mind if she came into our room and out onto the balcony and lowered the basket down so he could put in this precious sauce that he had lovingly hand made for her? Alfredo said he would go out onto the balcony and lower the basket down and bring up the bottle of pasta sauce. Franchy stayed timidly at the bedroom door. I was still half heartedly pretending to be resting.
The basket was lowered, the bottle brought up inch by inch in the basket, over the balcony and the basket placed on the floor. Alfredo picked up the bottle from the basket. As he did so, his huge hands did not grip the bottle as closely as it required. He fumbled, he stumbled, he reached out and up in a desperate attempt to keep the glass in his hands and like a juggler pretending to drop something, it slow motioned out of his hands and crashed onto the marble tiled floor, spreading tomatoe sauce and glass like an egg blown out of its shell.
I was horrified. He had ruined the gift so lovingly made and presented, by his clumsiness. I was caught short by the sound of Franchy’s strangled laughter. I looked over to see her bent double trying to contain herself. And across at Alfredo with tomatoe sauce all over his hands and a distraught look in his eye. At that moment I understood Franchy’s mothering and how Alfredo had turned out so marvellously as a human being and a husband. Instead of punishment there was love, instead of retribution there was laughter, instead of anger there was lightness and mirth. At that moment I understood that Franchy’s playfulness, her ability to look on the bright side of life, her patience, her fortitude, her choice to live life through her heart and not her head was not a recent thing but were her hallmarks and how she had raised Alfredo. And why he in turn was patient, playful, never took things too seriously, had an inate belief in himself, and lived life with through his heart as well as his head.
I was so jealous that my husband had had a mother like that and I glimpsed what made them a happy, healthy, and functional family. And I wanted my share. From that moment on I made sure I had as much of Franchy as she would give. And she met my need head on and never once wavered. After my miscarriages I put myself on a train all day to reach Taranto and spent a week with her without my husband present. Silently sitting with her in the kitchen, watching TV, eating and resting for a week. It helped heal my soul.
Once when I tried to take a plate to the sink after lunch she almost arm wrestled me to the ground to get me to let go of it. She told me that her name wasn’t ‘thank you’ so I should stop saying it every time she did something for me. One day I let rip about how much i loved her vegetable soup, brodo, she made it for me every single time I visited even though my husband hated it. He occasionally joked that his parents asked after me more than they asked after him. It didn’t seem right to share that I had partly married him so I could get them as well.
Franchy didn’t ever read books, she barely spoke Italian preferring to stay in her dialect. She had not attended high school and thought that going to the Post Office was the height of complicated, post industrial living. She had never been into a bank. Her sister came every week to set her still black hair. When she was hot in the middle of searing Taranto summers she would strip down to a black negligee which she always wore underneath her dresses and apologise to everyone for her appearance but she was too hot to wear anything else.
She spent most of her days at the local market buying the food for the two meals of the day and then cooking it. She always asked us what we would like to eat on the weekends we were coming down and she would spend days preparing it. The food was always very simple pasta and meat dishes but were unlike anything i have every tasted anywhere else. So flavoursome and I always ate double what i normally would. At first I would try and explain that i really could only eat one or maybe two courses and to please not cook anything more. To which she would solemnly agree. Then after the first two courses she would shyly explain that she had just made a really small something else and would i mind eating it? She would usually do this at least twice per meal until I just gave up directing her and accepted my fate to eat lovingly home cooked food until i could eat no more.
I realised that this was the real way i could say thank you to Franchy. She had almost no way of relating to me in the world i lived in of university degrees and world travel, of global organisations and several languages, of independant living and international friends but she could make sure that i was extremely well fed and that i didn’t have to spend any of my time on providing for myself in that way. And she did a marvellous job.
And because of her example of and sharing with me of her patience, her fortitude, her playfulness, her living through her heart and not her head I often feel stronger, patient, positive, playful and have the courage to listen to my heart more than I would have had without her. It is hard to live without her at times but it would have been harder if I had never had the opportunity. Vale Francesca, Vale. xxxx