Atina in the Val di Comino

Memories Of My Italian Father Benedetto

I have mixed memories of my father Benedetto. There were two opposite sides to his character.

One day Papà returned home with a large spotted Dalmatian dog, he was a lovely creature but very strong and boisterous and not trained in the slightest.  In an effort to control him Papà chained him to one of the legs of the heavy kitchen table, however this did not stop him and he would proceed to pull the table around behind him causing much mayhem.  Mamma said that he had to go.

After this Papà promised me that he would buy me a dog, and as a man of honour he kept to his word.  One day he arrived home with something wriggling and trying to escape from the breast pocket of his jacket.  I was overjoyed when out it leapt, a tiny black and white puppy.  I named her Patsy and she became a loyal family member for the next 15 years.

Some years later, one day when Mamma nerves were somewhat frayed, not assisted by Patsy’s incessant barking, in a sudden fit of rage she hit the dog on the head with the frying pan.  I can distinctly remember the resonant noise that came forth Boiiiiing!!! Thank goodness Patsy did not suffer any severe damage, however after that day she would scarpa whenever she saw the frying pan coming out of the cupboard. 

Patsy

Indeed, Patsy knew her place in the family pecking order, as did we children.  As soon as she heard Papà’s key in the front door, Patsy would jump up and sit very quietly on the rocking chair, keeping well out of his way.    In our family, as in many Italian families, Papà took on the dominant role.  He was a strict disciplinarian, and “what he said went”.  We weren’t allowed to chat whilst eating at the table, and he couldn’t bear to see food wasted. 

While Mamma was cooking the evening meal Papà would saunter off to join his friends at one of the local pubs, there were plenty of drinking places to choose from: the Clerkenwell Tavern on the corner of Exmouth Street and Farringdon Road, The Gunmakers Arms run by the Dondi’s in Eyre Street Hill, The Ben Johnson, The Red Lion, The Apple Tree, The Cheshire Cheese and The Pillar Box.  

Also there were several Men’s Clubs such as the Roma Club, the Fratellanza Club, the Vincenzo Palloti Club, Lombardi Club and of course the Mazzini Club in Laystall Street.  Here in these establishments the men could play Italian card games such as Scopa”, Briscola, Tre-Sette and Set e Mez, or other games such as Morra. There were also lanes where they could play “bocce”, a type of bowls.  Sometimes there were dice schools and gambling, but someone always had to keep a sharp eye out for the local “coppers”.  One of Papà’s favourite haunts, however, was the Coach and Horses in Ray Street.

Beer

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When we wanted to find Papà to remind him that dinner was ready, Mamma would send Patsy out to look for him.  She would trot around all the pubs until she found him.   Indeed  Patsy was known to many of the publicans and was said to partake in a drop of beer herself.

Sometimes Papà would return home feeling a little merry and would be in a good cheerful mood.  However other times if he had drunk a few too many, a darker side of his character would emerge.  The alcohol brought out a sinister demonic streak and he would become argumentative, angry, aggressive and abusive.

Mamma worked so hard and scrimped and scraped, often depriving herself in order to be able to buy a special treat for the family. She had a secret little tin where she kept any pennies she had managed to squirrel away.  One day, however, Papà found the tin and unbeknown to Mamma, he stole the contents and went for a prolonged session down the pub.  When he returned he rolled in drunk in a foul raging mood.  He yelled at her and accused her of hiding things from him. Mamma was so upset that all her savings had been poured down the drain. 

One Sunday lunchtime we were sitting around the table waiting for Papà to come home from the pub, on this occasion he was particularly late.  We children were getting tired of waiting and started complaining how hungry we were, and how empty our tummies felt.  Mamma decided enough was enough, and decided to take her life into her own hands, in opting to start the meal without him.  She made a point of dishing up Papà’s ample portion first, and kept his meal warm, while we all ravenously tucked into our meal.  However, when Papà did eventually meander home rather worse for wear, he was in another of his terrible moods.  Furiously he accused Mamma of having the audacity of giving him the leftovers!  He took hold of his plate of pasta and threw it, in a vicious fit of rage, against the wall.  I can still picture us cowering in silence as the plate smashed into pieces, and the pasta and tomato sauce slithered its way down the wall.

When Papà had been drinking we lived in fear of him and learned it was best to run upstairs and keep well out of his way. We all suffered, but I, being the youngest, always managed to get away with more things that the rest of my family. He would sometimes give Berto a beating, but it was poor Mamma that seemed to take the brunt of his abuse, both verbal and physical and she would sometimes run to take refuge in the church.  

Looking back, I think that once upon a time Papà had been a different man.  In his youth he had been courageous,  “happy-go-lucky” and full of creative energy.  When he had chosen to try his luck overseas he had been brimming with hope and optimism for the future, so sure that he could find a better life for his family.  Yet in reality, the picture had not been so rosy.  Mamma and Papà had suffered great sadness, when their little Giuseppina had suddenly died and so very young.  His dream of starting his own little business had never materialised as he had never been able to raise enough to fund it.

Then came the slump caused by the Great Depression of the 30’s.  Work became harder to find due to the fact that parquet flooring was beginning to go out of fashion as cheaper floor coverings became available.  He was a proud man, and when he found he was unable to provide properly for his family this tore his soul apart. Papà had been met by many obstacles, setbacks and disappointments that gradually, over the years had caused his spirit to fade. 

        Papà in his later years

He had began to turn too frequently to drink in an attempt to temporarily numb his troubled head. Yet conversely the alcohol had the opposite effect, spurring a violent explosion of his pent up feelings of anger and frustration and fuelling his negative emotions. There were moments, when he was sober, when we witnessed a different kinder side to him, yet somehow he always found it hard to show us his true feelings of affection.  Despite all of this I always loved my father, as did Mamma who stuck with him through thick and thin.  In his later years he did repent and deeply regretted his abusive demeanour, and begged us all for his forgiveness.

Italian Heart

Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner.  Images marked * are in the Public Domain. 

Photos marked with  are believed to be in the Public Domain due of their age.

All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself –  © Louise Shapcott