Growing up with a foreign family name was an issue as a child, and even as a teen. Having to spell my name, help people pronounce it, answer questions on its origin, and of course, the occasional racial slur, helped stoke the shame I felt towards the name that was a part of me. The number of times I wished my surname was Smith. Steve Smith – such a simple name, no questions asked and no comments made.
As I progress through life, I am developing a sense of pride in my name and especially in the story of its origin. I wish I knew of this story at a younger age – a story of sacrifice and risk, where my Nonno made the two-month journey here by boat, on his own, leaving behind a young family in 1950s southern Italy, to see if a better life was possible on the other side of the world. I often think to myself what I would do if I was faced by the same choice. My circumstances could not be more different to those of my Nonno. I don’t have family commitments and I am very fortunate to be in comfortable surroundings – none of which I would have without his sacrifice. To get on a boat and go to a foreign country so far away, not knowing what awaits you, and also not knowing when you’ll next see your wife and two young children, just so they can have a chance at a better life, has to be one of the most selfless and courageous acts one person can do, and I’m not sure I have that in me.
I learned of this story soon after my Nonno had passed away. He was a humble man, and he wanted no praise or fanfare. He had been very active in local politics, to the point where a local park was to be posthumously named in his honour. He helped those that followed after him when they arrived in this distant foreign land to find their feet – whether it was assistance with language barriers (he managed to learn basic English from the family that sponsored his trip here), help with accessing the limited local services that were available, or just being there when new arrivals needed someone familiar to talk to. He built his family home by himself, using money saved from the jobs he was able to pick up along the way. He must have been so patient, so driven to achieve what he came here to do, but it’s likely you would be when you’re desperate enough to get on a boat and try to make a new life on the other side of the world.
To only learn of this after his passing was sad. I didn’t have a chance to thank him for everything I now have. He probably had enough satisfaction from seeing his six children grow up to start new families and provide him with plenty of grandchildren, but it’s not fair that he didn’t see how much this meant to me before he passed on. To compound my sadness, he became a shadow of himself in his final years. Diabetes led to a stroke, before dementia took the final toll. I don’t think he remembered me the last time I visited him and that was profoundly sad for me. Even sadder was seeing him strapped down to the bed in the nursing home, as the dementia was making him violent, posing a risk to the staff and to himself. He didn’t know that though, and it’s possibly why he continued to be violent those last few years. I stopped going after that. I didn’t want that to be my final memory of him – a once great man, reduced to rubble.
The sense of shame as a young boy is now replaced by pride. By a sense of belonging to a culture that values family and sacrifice above most other trivial material things. While it’s fair to say that this didn’t shape my formative years, it now plays a significant role. I want to know more about why they had to leave Italy – I don’t want to assume it was due to the aftermath of WWII. I know he came to Melbourne as he had a sponsor in a small Victorian country town, but he could have gone elsewhere. The entire story could be different in many ways. So much of life is chance; it might not make sense at the time, but when we grow to learn of the how and why, things begin to fit. My place in all of this begins to feel right. I am developing a sense of identity. I am no longer an Australian with a distant Italian heritage. I am an Italian Australian. I am feeling drawn to travel Italy and see where all this history and culture comes from, and I aim to understand why so many Italians felt the need to leave all those years ago. I want to rekindle the traditions we had when I was young – the boisterous weekly family dinners, the making of sauce, wine, pasta and pizza, or the sitting on the couch watching cartoons while my Nonno swore at the TV because the cartoons didn’t make sense (that last one isn’t necessarily a tradition, but it’s a very fond memory). We prioritise other things now, and these traditions are sadly less prevalent. We’re too busy doing all those little things that might not matter, but at the time, we think they are really important. The important thing to me is ensuring these traditions are maintained – my Nonno gave up far too much for me to do anything less than this.
It’s now impossible for me to feel anything other than immense pride in my name, and the story behind it. Sadly, it took a death to truly understand the significance of this story.