Monday, June 23, 2008

For nearly 75 years a photograph of me aged 6½ months was kept in a house in Italy. Just think, all through the Mussolini years, the Second World War, and all the years since, there it was and I never knew. My mother evidently sent it with a message on the back which read “To dearest great uncle.” From this it must be gathered my maternal grandfather was Italian who emigrated to South Africa, settling and bringing up a family in Port Elizabeth. My mother, Rosa Angela, was the second youngest of six children and one, James, obviously named after my grandmother’s father, died in infancy. I always thought my grandmother, who I never met, was Italian as well until I saw her death certificate a few years back which states her maiden name was Brockman, daughter of James Brockman of Deal, Kent. She died on the eve of my first holiday visit to Port Elizabeth. I didn’t understand what was going on. She was evidently laid out in the front room, blinds down, into which my weeping mother together with all the other weeping members of the family was ushered whilst I was hustled into the kitchen and kept out of the way. I can remember those few minutes but nothing more. The reason for the Port Elizabeth holidays was because my mother, even before her marriage, had moved from the Cape to Natal. This was because an Anglican clergyman from there, by the name of Ebden Padday a friend of the family, took a great shine to her - She was as a girl very beautiful, in the photograph she is the one standing with my aunt Marie (Marianna) on the left and auntie Grace Grazia) on the right – and told my grandparents that if they allowed him to sort of adopt her he would make sure she received a good education. The condition was that she would become an Anglican. I guess as good Catholics they believed they had brought enough new souls into the church and they agreed which was why my sister and I were born and brought up in Durban as Anglicans and why I never learnt to speak Italian.

Our father’s parents were Welsh through and through, both Joneses, originally from Denby. This grandfather was a builder and built most of the houses in Prestatyn, late Victorian/early Edwardian I suppose, maybe even up to the First World War.

But how did I come to find out about my photograph, kept in Italy all these years? Well, during holidays in Port Elizabeth I was very close to aunt Marie who I thought the most handsome and imposing woman who ever existed and she always talked of Italy having spent some of her youth there and she used to say, one day you will visit the family home and recited the address in the via Torreone, Reggio Calabria, and I never forgot it. Some thirty years ago returning from a holiday in Sicily, the train was disembarked from the ferry at Reggio and I seriously thought of leaving it, looking for that address I knew so well and meeting family but, I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t believe they would know who I was, and I chickened out.

Had I been aware of that photo’s existence I think I would have made it. Alas, by the time I did, all but two had died.

To be continued….

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