Lying in bed the other night waiting to drop off to sleep I got to wondering about my own boyhood. Like Ron Harris could I write 32 short stories about it? Maybe it was Ron’s book that started me off on this train of thought; maybe it was three days and nights of heavy incessant rain keeping me awake a little longer as I could hear it thundering on my bathroom roof. Whatever the cause, in particular I was thinking of school holidays in Port Elizabeth with Italian uncles, aunts, and cousins, and wondering if I made the most of them. Much much too late now of course to be thinking of the lost opportunities of youth and the saying that youth is wasted on the young is only too true. If only we knew then what we know now but that would create its own difficulties of course. It was my grandfather who was Italian and who emigrated to South Africa so, apart from my Aunt Rosina, you could say the others were really South Africans; Italian South Africans I suppose if one was to go along with the modern ridiculous American trend in ethnicity. Grandfather Bartolo was born in Rizzo but Reggio Calabria was the family home and there are cousins who still live there. Aunt Rosina was Italian, orphaned in a horrific earthquake in Reggio the family took her in and Uncle Frank went back to Italy to marry her. My cousins then were Josephina, Bartolo, Umberto, Jillorma and Vincenzo and I had another cousin, Tony, who was the son of Uncle Vincent and Aunt Sally. Aunt Sally was a da Costa before marriage, a Portuguese name. She was a diabetic and I always used to think she was so brave giving herself that injection every day. Two more cousins, Marie Rose and Joan and were the daughters of Auntie Grace but they were older than I and I really didn’t have much to do with them. The family, with the exception of Uncle Nin and cousin Vincent immigrated to Australia as, being of southern Italian stock, they did tend to be somewhat dark of complexion and were evidently sometimes being taken for “coloured” (or so I have been told) which in apartheid South Africa could prove at times somewhat uncomfortable to say the least. Uncle Nin didn’t go to Australia with the rest of them as, strange though it may seem, he couldn’t take hot weather and ended up in Bournemouth. He and my Auntie Marie were the only members of the family not to be married, which brings me to the youngest - my mother. Aunt Marie was one of the handsomest of women but my mother was the most beautiful and I am not saying that simply because she was my mother. Looking at a photograph of her aged sixteen she was most aptly named Rosa Angela.
My grandmother, who definitely looked Italian, in fact there could even have been a touch of the tar brush in her features, was in fact English. I discovered this fairly recently on a trip to Italy. I had always wanted to see the family home, the “Casa Mutilati” in Reggio ever since as a child Aunt Marie told me about it. Would it be anything like I imagined down through the years? No! It was not a house as I had always thought but an apartment block and the Paino’s home is a flat therein. One cousin, Giuseppe was still there when Douglas and I visited. I don’t know if he is still there now. We haven’t been in touch for a while and he is into his eighties with one sister even older but she has a flat of her own elsewhere. My grandmother’s name was Maria Charlotte, nee Brockman and her family came from Deal in Kent, her father being a James Brockman. She died in 1939 shortly before my eighth birthday and left a very respectable sum of £1553.15.5 to be divided equally between the kids. All six inherited £91.13.4 each from the first part of the estate and my mother got £113.2.0 from the residue. The others all got £113.2.1 but 5 doesn’t stretch to 6 so mom missed out on that last penny. Was it because she was the youngest? Who knows?
I remember arriving at 38 Bullen Street, South End for our holiday in Uncle Vincent’s ancient Chevy, lots of weeping and wailing, gnashing of teeth, renting of clothes, sackcloth and ashes (wild exaggeration of course, couldn’t help it. No disrespect meant.) and my being ushered into Aunt Rosina’s kitchen while my weeping mother went to say her farewells to granny in the seldom used best front room. This was my first experience of death and so I never got to meet my maternal grandmother which was a great shame. From the tales I’ve heard tell, she was a feisty lady. Grandpa Bartolo died in 1927, four years before I was born.