My mother is an amazing storyteller. She’s given us the gift of details about her sisters, parents, aunts, and cousins, as well as the cast of characters that lived nearby in their beautiful yet rugged mountain village of Pisticci, Matera, Italy.
She’s told us about our genetics – like our aunts who were 5 by 5 (as in 5 feet tall by 5 foot wide). About her malservisi – naughty behaviours and tricks she and her sisters and friends would play on the adults of the village, like wrapping up garbage to look like a gift and then laughing their heads off when two men fought over who would get to take it home. Crepava della risa: they would die laughing.
She told us about the more shocking characters in the family, like the distant cousin in the 1800s who killed the priest who got her pregnant. Or the aunt who enjoyed the company of quite a few men.
My father, on the other hand, wasn’t a storyteller. His childhood was brutal and short. While he always spoke with guarded respect about his parents, there was a clear recognition that he was not permitted let alone encouraged to live the life he really wanted.
Dad always egged my mother on to tell her stories. In his later years, during our weekly visits, he would remind my mother of the stories he wanted her to tell. Despite the fact that my mother’s childhood was filled with illness and poverty, and was sadly overshadowed by the untimely and early death of her own mother, mom’s stories always included a lot of laughter.
Immediately after my father died, I realized there were so many questions I forgot to ask him. This morning, that realization came back again. I was reading an article about an Italian immigrant who landed in Halifax in November 1952 on board a ship called SS Argentina. My father arrived at Pier 21 aboard that same ship only a few months earlier in March 1952.
Pier 21 invites immigrants and their families to submit their stories and other artefacts from their arrivals. I would love to submit an article, but I’m not sure that I can.
In clearing out my parents’ house, we found that dad had kept the daily announcements from the ship. There’s also a picture of him enjoying a celebratory dinner with his fellow travellers. But I have no idea what his first experiences were like in Canada. I don’t have a picture in my mind of that long train ride from Halifax through Montreal to Union Station in Toronto, where my mother would have met him. My mother can fill in some of the blanks, but I wish I had asked him about those days.
I don’t think I told my father I was writing a book. Probably because I had my doubts I would ever get it done. I have told my mother, and now I have a huge sense of urgency to get it written. The book is not a biography of my mother or any family member, but I am finding ways to weave her funny and poignant stories throughout. I get a thrill each time I’m able to perfectly place one of her anecdotes. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to share her gift with others. I just wish I could do the same for my father.