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The Italian Lady

Updated: Feb 9, 2019

Josie with my littlest brother John, 1977

'Seven children! How do you cope? gushed the lady. Maybe this memory is an encounter after church.

'Well, I don't cope really' was my mother's deft reply, putting the ball in the lady's court.

'Um....' poor lady. She didn't know what to say.


The lady in the picture is a different lady.

At first our family would wave to her family, as she walked her 3 children to school. Her smile was wide and innocent and completely joyful. Said 'Hallo' like a little girl, like the sun coming out. Soon we joined her, and enjoyed walking together. We went over the creek bridge, with its waterfall and wild fennel, past Chadstone shopping centre, and to St Anthony's primary school. She didn't speak much English, but was loveable, and didn't need words. I remember asking her daughter

'Whats your mummy's name?'

'I don't know.' she said. 'Hey mamma, whats your name?'

She was Josie.

I wonder how her first conversation with my mother went. Somehow, Josie started popping in to our place on her way home, to help my mother with her mountain of housework, a few days a week. One magical day I was home sick, and remember the good feeling of the morning sun in the quiet house, Josie bustling around, blessing the house with her work and love. Another day I heard how when she'd opened our frige, Boris the cat jumped out. Josie didn't do this for money. We didn't have any anyway. It was her gift, because she could, and she wanted to.

Sometimes we visited her house, the first Italian family's home I'd ever seen. It was cleaned so thoroughly, the chair legs looked lonely. It was like the HandyAndy detergent advertisement from the telly, with sheer curtains floating in the breeze. The first time I smelt the distinctive fragrance of 5 point crown apples, Italian apples, was at Josie's. I ate my first sugared almond, from a beribboned bag of tulle, and marveled at the opulent furniture of Italians. The first time I smelt the sweet fragrance of stocks was in her front garden. I called them Josie flowers after that. Flowers that New Australians grow filled her front garden, and she was not one bit embarrassed to have tomato plants alongside them.

Josie got busy with a job at a factory.

As years went by, she became a boss there. Her English was still terrible, but her 'hallo!' was like a warm hug always.

More years went by. Her big smile got less and less, and the brightness went out of her voice. She would tell us with some amazment and slight bewilderment, how her husband and sons didn't work or help her, just sat around the house. They took everything, knowing she would keep on giving.

This is one of the sad stories from my childhood.

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