She would never have been seen dead in McDonalds, but she was known to be out in fur coats. Real ones. She was posh. I don't mean the house-in-the-country, afternoon-tea, Ascot attending, Joanna Lumley saying 'darling' kind of posh. I mean the fur coats, and pearls and tales of going ballroom dancing in Chelsea in the 1960s kind of posh. And on the many occasions she called me darling it often came out as 'Dahleen'.
My earliest memory of her is her voice telling a toddler the story of a nine-year-old on a doorstep in Costa di Rovigo, waiting for her brother to come back from the war. Herself. She was the nine-year-old. And she was never sure her brother was coming home. But she waited. "Era un disastro," it was a mess, Nonna had told me. When the town heard that Piero Turri had been captured and taken to a camp for prisoners of war, my great grandparents had set off for south Yugoslavia. Nonna often speaks of their determination. When they arrived, they were told that he had been, let's say, disposed of. But this is a story of luck. My great uncle had been captured along with a childhood friend of his; the two looked eerily similar. It had been her brother's friend who had tragically met the wrong end of a gun while her brother had escaped the camp. His parents arrived at the camp a matter of days after he'd left. He walked home. It took him two weeks and he traded what little scraps of clothing he had for a ride part of the way home. He must have passed his parents on the way because he arrived home two weeks before they did, covered in fleas and the scrappy remains of a military uniform. Nonna was on the step again that day, waiting. Only this day her hours of remarkable patience and unwavering belief in his return weren't in vain. She told me of how when she first saw him practically crawling down the sandy old road she hadn't believed it was him. Imagination was what she chalked the sight to. Either that or poor eye sight. But it was him, and she ran into him. Full speed propelled by the pent-up worry and sudden burst of relief. He was safe. He was there.
Eight years later, in November 1951 they fled from the flood. It was the worst natural disaster to strike the Veneto region. Nonna would use this to justify her aversion to the sea. The sound of rushing water hurling in her direction haunted her. As the story goes, she had a great aunt who lived next door to them and each sibling took it in turns to stay with her overnight. Naturally, it was my grandmother's turn to stay when disaster struck. She recalls her father banging on the door to wake them up, which I find amusing because my grandmother was such a light sleeper she'd say my breathing would wake her. The frantic rush. There was no time to gather up a change of clothes, or even change out of pyjamas. No time for fear, just for running. Fear could wait until later, after seven children, two elderly men, the great aunt, and my great grandparents had reached the town centre on the hill. She'd lost her doll. This is where this story always ended.
But she gained a lot too, although she didn't know it at the time. Who would when you've just lost your house, everything you've ever owned, all the photographs of lost relatives, along with practically everyone you've ever known? But Nonna could always find a silver lining. In this case, it was the people in the city. Nonna met Nonno Amedeo. He lived alone, across the hall from my great uncle. His mother had died when he was three and his father had sent him to boarding school from when he was five. Then he went into the army. In the meantime, Nonno Amedeo's father had met another woman, married, and had another five children. To say he was estranged from his family would be an understatement. He had visited them during his time at school, but this new family unit was blooming, and he was made to feel as though he no longer had a part in it. Nonna never told me the next part of their story together, they just suddenly reemerge on July 31st, 1960 - wearing rings on their left hands.
Nonna might not have told me their story, but she did tell me others. She recalled before she met my grandfather, being a young woman around nineteen or twenty years old, and going dancing in the halls of Turin. Some people battle and triumph through life, others breeze, Nonna danced. There is one dance tale that I feel is important. This story, unlike the others, I was only told once down the telephone line. As though it were some form of confession. As I think of it now it feels as though it was the beginning of her teaching. And this is a lesson I should learn. Be in the moment but be aware of the moment. See it for what it is, not what you think it is. I forgot about this until recently and now I realise that I am guilty of repeating some of the steps. Nonna had plans to go to a dance hall one particular Friday evening. She always went with her brother and sister, younger and older respectively, but for some reason on this evening they weren't going together. A friend of one of her brothers had offered to take her instead. And so they went. And so they danced. And so they went again the next week. And the next. Then he invited Nonna to his house for a drink, and she went because she thought they were just friends. Her brother interrupted before anything could happen.
This man remained nameless. Perhaps in the end we only remember the names worth remembering. The ones who we care about or changed our lives.
Nonno Amedeo did.
He had been a butler throughout his working life. I have heard second hand stories of Contessas in Venice with gondolas and expensive jewels. Nonno Amedeo had worked at the house of a wealthy Italian family when he'd married Nonna at the end of July 1960. It wasn't even a month later when he had heard of an opening for a butler and a maid in a family's estate. It sounded perfect for them. It was work they could do. Their first meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Winkworth was on an unusually rainy morning in late August. Mr. Winkworth was a tall man, built but not fat, with white hair and a tendency to wear a form of sailor's hat despite never having been in the Navy. And I suppose for this era it is not unusual that Mrs. Winkworth seemed to shrink into the shadows of her husband thus leaving barely any mention of her in any of Nonna's stories. I guess in a way this says a lot about what kind of woman Mrs. Winkworth was. But the couple were lovely and offered my grandparents the job there and then. It was some point towards the end of the meeting when the subject of life in England was brought up. Nonno Amedeo obliviously asked what that had to do with anything. The Winkworths looked at each other, mild confusion apparently evident of their faces. "But we live in London."
After surprisingly minimal discussion between my grandparents and Nonna's mother, they agreed to go. And that's how they ended up in London in December 1960.
To remain in Britain, back then, they had to stay in the same line of employment for four years. Employers could change, they often did. Nonna insists the Winkworths were wonderful employers but for some unexplained reason my grandparents left employment. Afterwards they worked for a succession of rich upper class socialites who left the servants to take care of their children - bathe them, feed them, play with them- all while they attended glamorous parties. Nonna insists the majority of these people lived in a state of permanent intoxication, either socialising amongst others of wealth, or, at home, neglecting their children. And if they weren't absent from their houses for days on end, they were hovering over the shoulders of their employees. On one occasion Nonna had been told to polish the door knobs. She had. But her idea of clean, which believe me is impeccably clean and rid of all dirt, was not up to the standards of the master of the house on that particular day. To which Nonna replied that she "had had enough of their nonsense", and left, Nonno Amedeo in tow. That was the last family they worked for. Their four years were over and they began working to their talents. They quickly found work: Nonno Amedeo as a tailor and Nonna a seamstress. This was in 1964, around the same time they began renting a flat in Earl's Court. She doesn't speak of the two years between 1964 and December 1966 when my mother was born. She lost two children in those years. I think this was when she learnt her biggest life lesson. 'Dahleen, you always get through it.'
The flat in Nevern Mansions is filled with stories. I've only ever been told the happy ones. The jar of 2 shilling pieces that was kept in the bathroom by the electricity metre, where Nonno Amedeo would lift my toddler mother up to slot the pennies in. The fireplace that brought a draft in from the street that grew busier as the years went by. The small balcony that could only be entered via the kitchen window because the sofa, that apparently could not be placed anywhere else, blocked the actual doors. They moved away from Nevern Mansions in 1978. The one bedroom flat became too small for the family of three. They moved to Fernshaw Road, one of the streets that links the Fulham Road and the Kings Road.
She'd grown tired of work at the shop that made fur coats in South Molten Street, enduring five years of little pay and strange hours all because it was a job. She also liked the fact that the shop was directly across the road from the dry cleaners where Nonno Amedeo worked, a fact that pleased my mother to no end, especially during half term when she would spend the days constantly crossing the road from one shop to the other and occasionally detouring to get an ice-cream from a little further down the street.
Nonna was the type of person who liked routines, but if she was in one too long it drove her crazy. She quit her job on South Molten Street on a Friday afternoon in mid-1979 with no replacement job waiting for her. But finding work never seemed to be a problem for her. She had been training as a tailoress since she was twelve so by this point, at the age of forty-five, it's safe to say she was fairly good at sewing. She left the shop on South Molten street for the last time, got on the 14 bus to Knightsbridge, walked into Harrods and asked for a job. She got one, and started on the Monday.
Very soon Nonno Amedeo left his job on South Molten Street too and began working at a dry cleaners on Tottenham Court Road.
Nine years later he collapsed in the second floor bathrooms of Peter Jones, right by the lighting department. He was unconscious in St Stephens hospital for ten days before the doctors said there was no chance of getting him back. Nonna refused to listen to them for a further two weeks. She sat by his bedside every evening after work. She wasn't allowed to take time off because the bosses didn't believe anything was actually wrong. They thought she was just trying to get some extra time off. When the life support was switched off, Nonna had to take his death certificate into work to prove to her supervisor that he had actually died and she did in fact have to go to Italy to plan and attend his funeral. It rained and she cried. But she never completely fell apart, because you always get through it, dahleen.
It was Nonna who introduced my parents. She'd began meeting up with her friend Lina after work in a pizzeria on the Kings Road in 1996 and had struck up a sort of friendship with the young waiter, who also worked as a chef on some nights, and had just moved to London from Italy. A change she knew too well. On one particular evening, my mum had finished work early and had gone out for an early dinner with Nonna and Lina at La Bersagliera. The Italian man had been there and when he finished working at six, Nonna called him over to eat with them. She then proceeded to talk only to Lina for the next couple of hours and completely ignored her daughter and the young waiter, forcing them to chat politely. And that's how my parents met. Because Nonna interfered without actually interfering.
When she turned eighty she got funny, but she began to lose the person she had been.
Pearls. She was always wearing pearls. In some way, shape, or form – they were on. In every old photograph faded at the edges she was wearing pearls. Beside her bed in the small neat collection of jewellery she used to take off when she slept, there were pearls. She once told me the story of when she went into hospital suddenly and only discovered she was wearing her pearl necklace when she was changing into the hospital gown. She kept it on for two weeks after that, refusing to remove it fearing that a cat burglar would only steal it, believing it was the only thing worth taking from all 5 floors and endless wards.
Her jewels were a thing of wonder. She'd always tell me the tales of her jewellery. 14 carat gold, and pink sapphires and amethysts from Atlantis. Her words felt like secrets yet I felt she was teaching me skills worth having in case I ever came across an uncut, unpolished diamond when I was in need of its worth. I assumed she knew every stone variation in existence, now I realise she may as well have made half of them up and I'd have been none the wiser.
Our phone conversations were hilarious. Mainly because I talk too fast and she was practically deaf and I apparently have a Scottish accent and she couldn't translate Scottish to English. She said that. When she didn't understand what I had just said I'd repeat it slower, lower, and more 'Englishy'. More often than not she still had no idea. So my next option was to speak her native language. I say speak, I mean butcher Italian phrases. Recently my mum stayed with her for a couple of days and I was on the phone telling Nonna to tell mum I had bought the photos from the Christmas dance. "Tell mum I bought the Christmas dance photos." It was a simple phrase.
"The Christmas sun photos?"
She responded with silence.
"Il ballo di natale" The Christmas dance
"Il albero di natale?" The Christmas tree?
"Oh Jesus Christ"
On a summer day when I was staying with her and nothing was on T.V we watched the video from my mums 21st birthday. Simply getting the video to play was a palaver. But we managed. The beginning was taped over with some drama about a middle aged American man. He's in the middle of open heart surgery when my mum's face appears on screen with a microphone in front of her mouth giving a speech in Italian about how she doesn't like giving speeches and then announcing the buffet is open. That was about all I heard because for 30 minutes all I heard was my grandmother naming everybody in the shot and giving their potted life stories. The same man with almost no hair and thick rimmed 80s glasses kept appearing on screen. In one of his cameos my grandmother states, with pride in her voice because she can still name all these people after nearly 30 years, "Oh look. It's Bill. He was a good friend of your mother's you know. They worked together for many years. His wife is a lovely woman." I looked at her questioningly. Was she serious? That wasn't Bill. Bill was somewhere else entirely. Probably by the bar. Or by the DJ. "Nonna, that's Nonno Amedeo."
It struck me then, exactly how long it had been since she'd seen him. Twenty-five years. Photographs don't count. She is the strongest person I know, in emotional terms, but even she isn't strong enough to fight the effects of time. So my brother and I laughed it off, playfully mocked her for mistake, never mentioning the subtle pain that had settled in us while we laughed.
She has survived losing everything in a natural disaster and starting again in a new place - twice. She won when it came to the madness of the upper class, and a string of seamstress jobs. She had enough courage to leave a job and walk into one of the most well-known shops in the world and ask for a post. She survived heartache and still believed in love. But she lost the fight between time and emphysema.
Possibly one of the most important lessons she taught me was that doing the right thing wasn't always the right thing, a lesson I learnt too late. After many phone calls where she would say "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden," it's strangely fitting that the last thing I said to her was a promise. A promise to phone her again in a couple of minutes to give her time to pop to the bathroom. It was a promise I didn't keep. Instead I started doing some piece of homework that now seems so unimportant. When I finished, it was too late in the evening to call anybody. Then it was just too late. And I had to go back through everything I'd written here and change it into past tense.
But let's focus on the wine. Heaven forbid we forget the wine. My grandmother was known to open several bottles of wine in one meal and push them all aside declaring them to be 'wrong'. She wore pearls every day and real fur coats from Harrods. She left those to me. She taught me how to waltz in front of the television while those dancing programs were on. I still can. But nobody will ever call me darling the way she did again.