It's been almost a year since my dad died. His name was Paul. Paolo.
In that time, I've thought a lot about his life, and the indirect path of his life that brought him from Italy to Australia. I've thought about how that life made him the man he was. I've realised how long it took me to really understand the impact that his blood, his heritage, had on him, despite living in the country of his birth for so short a time. I think about how his nature and his nurture have impacted on mine.
I remember the day I became aware that Dad had an accent. I guess I was about ten. No-one had ever mentioned it before, but a friend who came over to play said he sounded funny when he talked. To me, it was just how he spoke. It hadn't dawned on me that he sounded different to anyone else, but of course, he did. Despite leaving Italy as a boy and going to school in London, he never lost that thick Italian accent. The 'th' sound was always tricky, despite ample practice with children named Matthew and Catherine. Plural names, such as Woolworths, remained resolutely singular. We coached and we teased, all to no avail.
We were lucky that Dad's mother and brother (with his family) lived close and we saw them all the time. Dad loved his "brudda" fiercely, and was ever attentive to his somewhat demanding Mama. Not surprising, really, when you consider the difficulty that they faced upon the death of my grandfather when the boys were so young. These three stuck together, from a tiny village in Italy to London to Australia. Every Sunday, without fail, we went to see Zio and Zia and our cousins, taking Nonna along for morning tea after mass. The conversation seemed more like a shouting match, the affection as strong as the coffee.
When I was a young adult, we went back to Italy with Dad. Despite growing up playing Italian cards, eating salami and watching soccer at all hours of the day and night, it wasn't until we spent time with Dad in the country of his blood that I really began to understand him. He was truly Italian. That habit he had of dipping bread in olive oil? People in Italy were doing this all over the place. Speaking with your hands? You can't talk in Italy without the gestures. We went back to Larino, the town of his birth, meeting cousins and family, so many called Paolo...or some variation thereof. Dad was in his element, so comfortable, so at home in this land that was foreign to us.
A few years later, I lived in Italy and finally learned to speak Italian. All of a sudden those aspects of my father's english made sense. There is no 'th' sound in Italian, and to make a plural is never a case of adding an 's'. Beyond pronunciation, words and expressions brought such understanding about Dad. There's a word in Italian for a mama's boy - il mammone! I've not met an Italian boy who wasn't one. In itself, this is no problem, though it tends to become one when a girl falls in love with a mama's boy. Dad was no exception, but he somehow managed to appease his mother while siding with his wife when there was a need, and my mother says this was the key to successfully having Nonna live with us for so many years. Family meant everything to Dad, and he took care of his own. More than that, he passed on the kindness and compassion that had been shown to him in his early years to people in the community, in whatever form that might be. It wasn't mafia-style love for family at the expense of others, but rather alongside a respect and compassion for everyone.
I admire Dad for being the father he was without any role model of his own. I admire him for taking care of his mother, wife, and all six children. I delight in talking to my children about their Nonno, and remembering him before he had lost the ability to remember us. In his later years, in these years that my children remember him, dementia had left Dad dented and beaten, a shadow of the man he once was. But he still loved his family, and whenever we went to see him his face would light up as he pushed himself to his feet to embrace us. He could still beat me at Italian cards, though he couldn't remember my name. When conversation got too much, a soccer ball at his feet would bring the signature 1-2 move, much to our collective delight. To the end, he was Paolo.
To mark this first year since his death, we will face the morning frost and meet for early morning mass - a ritual of my Dad's for so many years. Then back to the home of my childhood for a strong coffee and toast to celebrate the Paolo that lives on in all of us.