I chose this pieces as a keepsake, a memory of Nonna, my Italian grandmother, after her death in 1981. I was shocked when she died. I felt robbed, then and ever since, of the opportunity to really know her and connect with her, after I had grown to adulthood. She was 77. I was 28.
These items and some other brightly coloured finer crochets were amongst pieces left for us grandchildren by Nonna’s only daughter, my aunt Josephine. When I hold them in my hands, I sense Nonna’s intention, resilience, effort and skill.
‘She did miles of crochet and knitting,’ Josephine tells me. “It kept the mind sane and she was always excited to find a new pattern. She believed in busy hands.’
The pretty blonde doll wears a knitted hood tied under her chin and the vertically ruffled skirt flows from a short-knitted bodice giving an effect like Red Riding Hood’s cloak, except this skirt is in sky blue with contrasting pink, lemon, orange and brown stripes. She’s like an old-fashioned Barbie Doll, blonde hair tied in two young-girl pigtails with pink bows, yet I can feel pert breasts through the knitted bodice. I lift the skirt to discover it is lined with another knitted piece and the doll’s torso has been cut, just below her belly button. She has no legs. Who cut them off?
For the longest time, I thought this doll was meant to be placed over a toilet roll. You know the kind that used to sit on the floor of the toilet in your grandmother’s house in the 1960’s. Sometimes the doll held a little message that read:
‘If you run out, please don’t shout. Just lift me up, I’ll help you out’.
But today as I am writing this and examining the doll carefully, I see there are two concealed slits on either side of the skirt for a teapot handle and spout. You could grasp the cosy by its bodice to put it on the teapot and pull it off. As a teapot cosy, it suddenly has more value. I have to keep it.
Nonna and Grandpop often sat on the front porch of their tiny retirement house that was located on the main road south of Mackay. To the north, the road led to what we called the City Gates. Maybe there were gates there in the old days. Now it just marks a confluence of roads and a railway crossing. As they watched the passing traffic, I wonder if Nonna ever thought about her youngest son, killed off his bicycle, when he was clipped by a truck, the driver not seeing the lone night rider on a bicycle without lights? Did she think about her other children? Did she dwell on the decades of her marriage to my often taciturn and patriarchal grandfather?
I’ll never know. But I do have this evidence of some of the time she sat there, fingers wrapped around coloured thread, a ball of wool in her lap, knitting needles clicking and flicking as the doll’s bodice and cloak emerged like woven magic. Nona’s hands were never idle. She told Mum that in Faedis, the village where she grew up in NE Italy in the early part of the 20th century, new wool was precious. As their children grew, the women unravelled the pullovers and jackets knitted in previous years and knitted the garments again, adding in more wool to enlarge them for growing bodies. Knitting was a necessary survival skill.
In this photo of the Carniche Portatrici, the women and girls who carried ammunition and food to the Italian soldiers fighting trench warfare in the rocky, heights of the Italian Carnic Alps from 1915 to 1917, you can see the heavy gerle (baskets) still on their backs. The women appear to have stopped for a moment on their way to replenish the soldiers’ stocks of food and ammunition. Each woman is holding handwork with knitting needles and thread visible for some of them, probably stored in her apron pocket ready to retrieve at a moment’s notice. The needles, the wool and her intentions to make a warm winter garment go everywhere with her, even on that arduous, steep and difficult trek up the mountain. Several accounts remark on the women knitting and sewing on the route, and when they took a break. When they were not walking their hands were busy. I think Nona was like that. When she was not cooking, making the bed, or sweeping out their simple house, she knitted, she crocheted, she sewed.
There is also this crocheted round cushion cover. Beautifully even stitches in scalloped edge circles radiating out from a central motif. There’s satin cloth loosely attached to the back, as if that was meant to hold the crochet work in place. Potentially a cushion cover. Never completed. But so colourful and neatly done. I can’t part with this either.
I want Nona’s life to have meaning. She came out to Australia, no doubt full of courage; sheer grit and endurance required for the six awful weeks of seasickness on the passenger boat. She married the man her brother brought her here to work for; birthed him two sons, then after a break another son and a daughter.
For us grandkids, it was all strange. Grandpop’s and Nona’s accents were strange. Conversation was difficult. Dad did not teach us any Italian. Was she sad about that? She talked in Italian to her daughter and shared all she knew about sewing, knitting, crochet, and homemaking with her. Did she yearn to see the hills around Faedis again? Did she remember the soft mists rising in the hills above the vineyards after rain.
If she thought such things, she did not show them. She always smiled, her bright blue eyes and smooth face framed by straight white hair swept back in a bun. She was always happy to see us. She’d shuffle inside to the simple kitchen, pour lemonade or cherry cheer into small glasses with coloured patterns printed on the outside. She’d put out a plate of Arnotts Cream biscuits – Iced Vo Vo, Orange Slice and Monte Carlo.
‘Eat. Eat,’ she would say, pushing the plate towards us.