The Nonno Diaries – Chapter 2

28 Feb

A young Elio

Recap: Elio is my grandfather, my Nonno. For someone who is known around his hometown as the man with a perpetual smile on his face, I can only hope to be as content as he is one day. These are simply the stories that he has recounted to me with a twinkle in his eye and that I hope to keep alive by writing them down.


To read ‘Chapter One – The Journey Over’ click here.



I can close my eyes and recall my first day of school like it was yesterday. Mum roughly kissed me on the cheeks and waved us goodbye as Dad rode the horse with my brother and I straddled in the two-wheeled buggy behind him. Our mother had no idea how to dress us for our new Australian school, so she made me wear my formal sailor suit with long socks and shoes, just like the photo we had taken when we were in Italy. My brother was adorned just as lovingly. Passers-by would have undoubtedly assumed we were attending the Sunday church service.

Dad dropped us off at the gate and lumbered over to the teacher for a quick chat. After a stint in America and having worked in Australia a number of years, his English was reasonably good and he talked with accented confidence. I cannot remember if I cried or not when he at last said goodbye and whisked off atop the horse. What does come to mind is being laughed and mocked at for our outfits from the other students. At the end of the day, my brother and I ran sobbing into our mother’s arms. From that day on we wore a standard uniform sported by all the other Australian kids: shorts, a short shirt and no shoes. This was rural Queensland, after all.

When I started, we were the only Italian children attending Oakenden Primary School, but eventually there were three other Maltese girls who joined the group. That gradual merging of two cultures probably helped the other students become accustomed to the fact that there were now people eating sandwiches with some strange meat called salami in them for lunch every day. It didn’t take long though for us to soon ask mum for Aussie sandwiches  – with bread and jam – to fit in.

Oakenden Primary School was very small with a total of 30 children and one teacher who would rotate across the large classroom teaching 4-5 different classes in one day. At this stage, children only went to school until they were about 14 years old, after which they would either uncommonly continue on to high school, or the more frequented path of finding work. My class had one long desk with eight of us sitting across it. There was a lid to put your books underneath, an inkwell on top with a pen and an assortment of pencils. I must have been cheeky from quite a young age, because I recall being only five years old in my first year and the teacher wagging her finger at the girl I was sitting next to and myself. Who knows what on earth we were doing, but it was obviously something offensive or naughty as we were split up and put on either end of the table.

At the end of the day there was no school bus, nor was our father able to leave the farm to pick us up. Our five km walk home from school was at times a treacherous one. There was a group of about 7 or 8 of us who would make our way down an old dirt track and across two little creeks that occasionally wound their way through our path. The creeks were known to be dry for most of the year, but towards December and January they would fill up and run, serpent-like, after being thirsty for so long. A couple of times the older kids in our group used to pick on us by demanding we walk across the creeks up to our knees in water with two stones held high above our heads. Each and every time we would go home and cry to our mum, but she would soothe our worries by letting us know the big boys would soon be gone from school. She was right. Once they had left school we had no more problems.

Even so, this was not the only time that we were picked on. The primary school was positioned on high blocks and at lunchtime we would venture into the shade provided by the elevated infrastructure. The elder boys, unsatisfied with a lack of entertainment in the air, would make my brother and I play fight. Even at home we never really fought, so to find us all of a sudden wrestling and hitting one another was strange. We never got hurt so I don’t think they were bullying us, but I would still go home and complain to my mother about what these big boys were making us do.

Elio and the family

The 1930’s were the time of the Great Depression; an era felt economically worldwide. It was also the beginning of an expanding family, with my youngest brother born in 1930 and my sister in 1931 not long after. My father was working six days a week and saving as much as he could. My mother could not be the breadwinner as she had a hard enough job as it was looking after all of us, not forgetting the season when the cane cutters would come down for 4-5 months of the year from July-November and my mother would have to feed them all. In these days we were never able to take a family holiday together as my father’s time was spent incongruously occupied with the responsibilities of farm life.

One method of saving money during this time was by being semi self-sufficient. Our property had an extensive vegetable garden, various tropical fruit trees, free-range chooks, roosters, a bull and even seven cows that we used to make our own butter, cream and ricotta cheese. The calves were taken from the mother after a week so I could fatten them up with milk and bran for 12 months before we would call in the butcher. We also did that with our pigs, which we would traditionally kill every year and use their meat to make salami and sausages. The only goods we needed to purchase in town were the bread, salt, boxes of soap, bags of sugar, others cuts of meat that the butcher would deliver, and a big bag of flour to make our own bread, cakes and pasta with. Mum of course had her own pasta machine she used to weave spaghetti, that ubiquitous meal that came in very handy when the hungry cane cutters were working.

Whenever we needed groceries, we would take the buggy down to the local store and grab the essentials. Oakenden had a very small community with only one church, a hall, a butcher and a grocery store as the main facilities. Fortunately for us, Italians had a very good reputation for credit. Dad would receive payment only four times a year from the bank for the sugar that was sent to the mill. Hence, in order to be able to buy goods during the rest of the year, we would have an account. Australians owned the store, but they knew to trust that my dad would pay the bill as soon as the money came in. They were right. They always had faith in the Italians in those days.

After two quiet years at the little primary school in rural Queensland, the teachers thought it was time to crank up the excitement. They brought in a new program whereby they would teach us how to sing. The whole class came out once a week and sung in a unified choir. We only did this 5 or 6 times before the whole idea failed. I did not think I was very good at singing but persisted with the task at hand. That is, until my teacher came up to me and whispered, “Elio, grab this bucket, and go pick up the papers in the schoolyard because your voice is throwing off all the other children in the choir.”

I took the hint but I was still stupefied because I thought Italians were supposed to be naturally good singers! Perhaps my voice was starting to break.

I was never the clever kid at school. My brother was fine, never seeming to have any problems and was consistently at the top of the class. I was always at the bottom. Everybody is different, of course. I think I was about 7 years old when we began to learn the longer words that were at least 6-10 letters long. They used to give us homework, which would help us to try and remember them, but no matter how hard I tried, I would forget all of them when called upon at school. My punishment for failing to get the correct words was the cane. The front of my hand was perpetually red sore. I was relieved when the next year, that teacher left the school and got married.

As time went by we had another lady and some male teachers come in to instruct us. In my last year of primary school at 14 years of age, Mr Donald arrived. He knew I had a problem and asked me to stay back each day for half an hour where he would proceed to teach me how to spell. It was the best way I could learn and I am so thankful to him. After years of fearing the cane, I could finally spell.

A lack of spelling skill was not the only sort of behaviour that could earn you the detestable cane. There was that particular instance when I was 11 years old and playing outside in the schoolyard underneath the large tree. One of the girls was gradually climbing up it and when she reached the highest branch, I cheekily looked up and yelled up at her, “You’re wearing your mother’s bloomers!” I kept running around the tree teasing her until she came down, tears streaming down her face, bolting to the teacher. I got the cane for that. Again. It didn’t hurt as much though, because I knew I had brought it upon myself.

People felt sorry for us after walking to school for so many years and would donate their old bikes, which I would patch up. I adored the freedom that a bicycle could offer, but I continued to look forward to the moment when my dad would one day let us ride the horses. He at last deemed us old enough when we were 12-14 years of age. At this stage, our parents trusted us with the animals and we could ride them to school and leave them tied up during the day. My horse was the eldest and subsequently the slowest. His name was Toby and I always treated him with the utmost respect.

Our neighbour spotted us trotting in the distance one day on our way home. As there was a horserace approaching in Mackay for children, he popped over to see our father and suggested that we put our names down to attend. We left early the morning of the races and stopped halfway to see our friends, then continued on to Mackay thirty-two kilometres away. By the time we arrived at the racetrack our horses were already exhausted. My brother’s horse however, being young and fit, still had some energy and came halfway down the list. I, with the frail Toby who had not had any feed or water for the day, came last. He had a mind of his own and I was unable to make him trot. Then came the long journey home again. Poor Toby.

The last stretch of years towards the end of the 1930’s brought with it new advancements for our family. In 1937, we purchased our first refrigerator that was run on kerosene. Before that our items were kept in the pantry, or bought fresh, or killed straight off the farm. It is something that is taken for granted nowadays but it made our lives so much easier back then.

Before 1938, Dad had always used the horses to work the farm, but that year he finally invested in his first tractor. With his new toy, we would plough the earth with the tractor and then use the horses to scuffle the ground. Dad was immensely grateful to be able to afford one after so long. I used to love watching him service it and could often be found helping him out. When the mechanics were required to come down, I would wander over and hang around them, observing their every move. I remember, being so into mechanics, my Dad pulled them aside and said, “My son loves machines and mechanics, but is not very good at school.” To which the mechanic replied, “Don’t worry. If he loves mechanics he will succeed. I was not very good at school either, but I am good at this work. I found my calling.” That comment altered my outlook on my prospects after school. Just because I did not have strengths more common to most people, I had others that could get me through.

Finally in 1939, Dad went into town and handed over the money to buy his first car (second-hand). It was an old Ford V8 1935 model. Everyone could see that he was so happy to have a means to get around with. This at least meant that we could now go to the pictures, go to the beach on the weekends and have more quality family time. The other financial hurdle that was overcome that year happened when my father was able to pay off the farm. Things were at last becoming easier for us. We too, were coming out of the Depression era.

Ford V8 1935 Model Four Door Sedan


9 Responses to “The Nonno Diaries – Chapter 2”

  1. Jennifer Zulian February 28, 2012 at 11:12 PM #

    Love it ! Looking forward to the next installment xx

  2. Lucas Menegazzo February 28, 2012 at 11:41 PM #

    Just read this chapter. You are a bloody legend. You put such life into the stories. Deep…I know.

  3. Lisa Menegazzo February 29, 2012 at 11:05 AM #

    Krys this is brilliant! Once you finish all the chapters I am going to print out a copy, grab the photos from you and get a book made. Can you also do one for nonna too…this is history right here for us to pass on…. Love it! What a brilliant story teller nonno is and a brilliant writer you are x

  4. Mia Valente February 29, 2012 at 11:10 AM #

    Krystina this is fantastic, you are a legend xx

  5. Zio Rob February 29, 2012 at 8:53 PM #

    Krystina ,
    Just read your second instalment on Dad. I am learning so much more about Dad from these emotinal experience….your interview techniques are very effective! Great work.
    Love Zio Rob

  6. Robyn ballan May 25, 2014 at 10:11 AM #

    Loved reading the nonno diaries,Going to get Tino to read them .Robyn


  1. The Nonno Diaries – Chapter 3 « La Donna del Vino - April 3, 2012

    […] To read ‘Chapter Two – School & The Depression Era‘ click here. […]

  2. The Nonno Diaries – Chapter 4 « La Donna del Vino - May 29, 2012

    […] To read ‘Chapter Two – School & The Depression Era‘ click here. […]

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: