EARLY EVENING onTuesday, 3rd May, 1960, the telephone rang in the hall at 16, ManleyRoad. It was the operator, with a personal long-distance call toManchester for my mother from her father in Monza. Very simply hesaid to her, 'La mamma è morta.' 'Mother's died.' She turnedto her sister, my aunt Silvana, and shared the message with her.Silvana had come to the telephone as well, believing the call was forher, as it was almost her birthday. My paternal grandfather wasstaying with us, and their expression of emotion he found difficultand he was unable to comprehend what had happened. He went outside totell my father, and the news reached us.
I was ten years old,and my mother's loss was my first experience of the intense grief ofa sudden bereavement of a close relation. I had first met mygrandmother when I went to Milan as a toddler in 1951. I saw heragain when we travelled there in 1956 to spend the summer with them.We travelled by train from Manchester, steam-driven of course, atedious, endless journey for a child. The Channel crossing I do notremember, but I do recall the crowded train across France, the bedimprovised for my sister from suitcases piled between the facingseats in the eight-seater compartment, the packed corridors, andfalling asleep, waking to find I had slept with my head on the lap ofthe kind, adjacent stranger. It was crowded in my grandparentsapartment, with five of us staying with them, and it was strange, andwe could not speak Italian. My grandmother gave us love through food.My sister Rina, her namesake, joined her in bravely nibblingchickens' feet boiled in broth. I timidly attempted squid tentacles,the curly, contracted limbs looking repulsive and inedible. Mygrandmother was a quiet, gentle woman who never smiled and had alwaysa sense of sadness. My grandfather was powerful personality: theworld seemed to revolve around him, as it did the other male membersof the family. He was a keen radio amateur - call number I1AXD - andwhile we were there television camera came to record him in anattempt to contact someone in South America. I think it failed, butthat was because that very night, September 19th 1956, there had beena coup d'état in Argentina and Peron had been overthrown. Healso recorded our holiday on ciné film, in black and white andthen in colour, dressed smartly belying our post-war poverty, butshowing us gauche next to our self-confident kindred.
I met my grandmotheronce more. My grandparents came to England when I was about eight, tosee us, and to go to Scotland where they could fly-fish, somethingshe adored. There was still that barrier of language - I did notspeak Italian then - but she communicated through sharing indifferent ways. She taught me to plant broad beans. I still associatethem with her, and cannot eat them without thinking of her and seeingher in my mind's eye. They weren't her favourite vegetable - shepreferred French beans - but I had the seeds, bought in the localWoolworths in Alexandra Road, Moss Side. That following Christmas wasprobably the last time we received one of her wonderful parcels,filled with gifts, treats and luxuries that we could never possiblyafford. Sadly, they were always plundered by customs and the post. Ihave had a lifelong resentment of them for the pain they caused us,both with those treasured parcels, and with the insensitive treatmentthey gave to us as travellers. But I still remember those gifts: thewonderful puppet theatre, my first book, which they had managed tofind in English, for example. Panettone, impossible to buy in Englandthen, was always included. There was always the ritual of themidnight telephone call, excited greetings shouted acrossEurope.
On that last visitthey had brought my mother's sister Silvana to stay with us. Silvanais retarded, the result, we were told by my mother, of my grandmotherbreastfeeding her in a state of shock after rescuing my mother fromdrowning when she fell into a small pool in the garden at Salòbelonging to her paternal grandfather. Was it true? Probably not, butthere must have been some element of self-blame. It seems Silvana washitherto a happy, healthy baby. Afterwards she lost weight, lost herliveliness, and began to suffer from petit mal, a mild form ofepilepsy. Silvana helped my mother, but there could be terrible rowsand scenes, and we, as children, could not understand herirrationality. We loved her and liked her though, for her simpleaffection and warmth to us children. I knew she had had a daughter,following an unhappy relationship, who was adopted at birth. We werethe objects of her affection then, especially Rina, who was the sameage as her own lost daughter.
With mygrandmother's death, at the age of fifty five, Silvana's departurewas sudden. My father managed to find a flight for my mother andSilvana that night, and she left with my mother for the funeral,which took place on Silvana's birthday. She did return to stay withus once more, until she left England for ever in July, 1966 when Itravelled with her to Italy.