Mamma – The Centre of Our Family Life
I remember my Mamma with much love and affection, as she was at the very centre of our family life. She dedicated her life to nurturing her family, and often went without for the sake of us her children, and her brothers and sisters. From a young girl, when she had taken over the role of caring for her motherless siblings, she had learned to be thrifty, she always seemed to manage to stretch her meagre housekeeping allowance as far as she possibly could, she even tried to save a little for “a rainy day”. Getting things “on tick”, or being in debt was out of the question.
Although our home was very plain and simple Mamma, like many Italian women, would take great pride in the cleanliness of their houses. Women in the Italian community would often have to work, in order to supplement the family’s meagre income, by labouring as domestic servants, taking in laundry, providing board and lodgings. All of this, was of course, in addition to looking after their own family’s needs. Life was hard for many of us Italian families with so many mouths to feel. For our parents life was a struggle requiring never ending hard work, determination and perseverance.
In order to help out with the finances Mamma decided to take in some lodgers, and let one room out to a Mr. and Mrs. Paradiso, and their sons Berto and Nano, and another room to an English couple called Mr. & Mrs. Little who used to spend most of their time down the pub, and to Mamma’s great displeasure would pilfer our coal from under the stairs.
I can remember that some of the elderly women folk who were illiterate would come to Mamma and ask her to write letters for them, and instead of repaying her in return with a few coppers they would just bring a few odd pieces of fruit or vegetables. I recall in particular, one toothless, hairy chinned old lady, all dressed in black, would call in from time to time. She would compliment my mother saying how beautiful I was, “Che Bella!” she said while she sharply pinching my cheek with her gnarled fingers, inflicting me with an excruciating jaw ache. Every time I saw her, I would make myself scarce, in case she felt the urge to nip me again!
In the home my family always spoke in Italian, well not proper Italian, mainly in the Atinese dialect. However, my brother, sister and I and many other Italian children attended the school just up the top of Little Saffron Hill, where we easily learned English. Mamma was always asking me to run errands for her and even when I was quite small I was given the job of translator, as Mamma could not speak English. The only phrase that my Mamma managed to master in broken English was: “Mee-noh-speeka-da-Inglisha. Pleeza-cuma-bac-a-sevan-aclocca”. There was really no need for many immigrants to learn English as all the local shop keepers spoke Italian.
Indeed, many of the older Italian women would rarely venture outside of the Italian quarter, however sometimes they would make a visit to the cemetery in Kensal Green to pay their respects to their loved ones who had passed away. On one occasion, a dear friend of Mamma’s, Mariuccia, managed to get on the wrong bus, and found herself totally lost. The bus conductor couldn’t understand what this strange madly gesticulating Italian lady was saying: “Pleeza, I-wanna-go-a-chichaman-grossa”. With a great deal of patience and some assistance from a friendly passing policeman they eventually managed to fathom out that she wanted to go to Kings Cross!
Mamma would also spend quite a considerable amount of time darning, mending our clothes and generally making do. Indeed, she was very skilled with a needle and had great patience. She especially enjoyed doing delicate fine work, and back in Atina she had done some particularly intricate embroidery work, such as decorating altar clothes and veils.
She was also skilled at tatting, a type of crochet creating the finest of handmade lace. She would endeavour to teach me some of these skills, some I eventually mastered, as I went on to become a seamstress, however I could never match her beautiful lace work.