I remember reading Aesop’s Fables when I was a teenager. I was fascinated back then that a person so long ago had written such simple stories replete with such powerful profundities about the flaws and celebrations of the human character. One analogy that stuck in my mind was the ant and the grasshopper story. When I first read this story, I was fascinated with the analogy, yet I was also horrified that the ant could be so cruel as to tell the grasshopper to essentially go and get stuffed (in Australian patois) and starve because the grasshopper had the fundamental stupidity to sing the summer away whilst the ant had worked hard to put food by for the coming winter. What I could not understand is that the grasshopper essentially entertained the ant whilst the ant worked, yet the ant failed to acknowledge this kindness. I think the original grasshopper was a cicada. I can’t find the book since we moved as I still have to catalogue our extensive library so I cannot vouch for the insect species. I could never close my eyes to another person’s need and my parents could not either. Any person in need of help was given help in our socially democratic view of the world.
We grew up very poor in Australia, thanks to my parents migrating from post war Europe to find a better way of life in this wonderful country.
Mum holding our cousin, third from the left. Mum was expecting my older brother by this stage. My father is the taller chap in the center background. The photograph was taken in Geelong, Victoria, circa 1955.
Poverty was the order of the day for my family, to the point of being left homeless on the street one late summer’s afternoon, thanks to a mean uncle (ant person) who rescinded on his offer to give our family a home until we found our own place to live. I was seven years old at the time. Zio (uncle) came out of his house and stopped my family on the property verge. I will never, ever as long as I live, forget the look on my mother’s face as she started to cry, standing in the gutter, outside our uncle’s house; being refused entry or assistance, even though it was our uncle who kept on badgering both my parents constantly to leave our home in Geelong and come up to Melbourne where there were “loads of jobs” to be supposedly had and that my father could also have a job where my “ant” uncle worked. Our uncle also repeatedly told my parents our family could live in their house until dad found a house of his own and that accommodating us would not be any problem at all. The land of milk and honey was promised to my parents by this deceiver so my parents finally caved in to the promises, packed up and moved.
Our uncle just stood there with defiantly crossed arms and that stubborn look he had and told my mother we were not going to share his house at all and that we would have to find our own place to live and that was the end of the story. No doubt the brutal directive came from higher up the food chain as Zia “ant” (auntie) hid in the kitchen of the house with the venetian blinds nearly closed up. The window was open though so she would have sat on a kitchen chair and listened to the lot. A real shock. Dad had left his job at the Ford factory in North Shore and met us up at the house in Melbourne’s south east at the end of a working day. Dad had given up his secure job at the Ford factory for the move and had also given up the rights to rent a housing commission house in Norlane. Mum, my brother and I and our pet budgie Gigi all travelled in the back of the open furniture van; a highly illegal concept in this day and age.
The entire conversation between “ant” uncle and my parents occurred in Triestin, the patios of my parents’ home in the far north of Italy. Mum had a flash of an idea and said to dad that we could return back to the little house in Geelong but dad quashed that idea, saying we had no more right to live there and some other family was now entitled to it. This deflated my mother in a very big way as the reality of the end of a day in the gutter was now facing us. I do recall the furniture removalist captain asking my brother what the problem was and my brother told him that we had nowhere to live. The removalist man’s jaw hit the gutter when he digested this shocking betrayal. The men waited inside their van full of our meagre possessions with no where to go. The brawny men kept a respectful distance, knowing full well the betrayal that had just occurred was incomprehensible. I will never forget the shocked looks on their faces either as they watched my mother’s reaction in horror. How could a family member do that to my mother? I was livid with this monumental and incomprehensible betrayal because I had a lovely and caring mother and I could not cope with seeing mum’s face redden so much with tears pouring out.
I will also never, ever forget as long as I live, the incredible kindness of the German neighbours across the road from our stingy “ant” uncle, who came into the street and asked my mother what was wrong. Mum explained, quickly holding back the tears because she realised through my barely suppressed hostile body language, menacing face and direct evil eye stare at my uncle that I was planning to give my uncle a good, solid kick on the shins and most probably not stop at one good kick either. I started to move towards my “ant” uncle to load up the first kick. I wanted to kick my uncle to the ground and then continue kicking him in the face and stomach; to obliterate his face after what he did to my mum. How dare this bastard upset my mother so much! I did not know any swear words at the age of seven but if I did, I am sure my frank demeanour would have resulted in a lot of verbal filth preceding the planned kick being delivered to uncle “ant”‘s person.
I have never been the forgiving type when it comes to betrayal and I never will. The underdog has always had my sympathy my entire life and continues to this day and will do so until the day I die. Even in such terrible circumstances, my mother showed compassion as she dragged me away from my intended familial quarry just as I approached Zio to line up the first of the kicks and told me that you don’t treat family like that; just after she had been kicked in the guts by her older brother. I was surprised that my mother knew what I was planning as her firm grip pulled me away from compounding the situation. Uncle “ant” heard what mum said to me but the stubborn look remained on his hard face as he avoided my equally hard stare. My brother and I were brought up with the constant education by mum that you always look after your family first, no matter what. That education crossed my mind but I struggled to match up mum’s teachings with what my uncle had done to my parents. Pity my uncle missed out on this valuable piece of decent upbringing.
Elizabeth said to my mother, “well you have somewhere to live now” and took my mother by the elbow and steered her across the road, leaving my uncle to go back inside and report to the camp commandant; Zia strega (auntie witch). We walked inside their house and sat down to allow the shock of what had just occurred with our “ant” uncle to settle down. Elizabeth and Otto prepared some hot drinks for my parents and some lemonade for us kiddies. Mum had a bit of a cry which was once again distressing for me and no doubt for my stalwart brother. The parents chatted to each other whilst my brother and I got to know their daughter, Silvia. To this day, I do not know how a family member could treat anyone like that. To deceive to such an extent and then walk away; essentially abandoning a kind sister and her family in the gutter. The old saying of the kindness of strangers has stayed with both my brother and myself for life. It must have been terribly difficult for my parents to accept the kind charity of strangers but they were left with no option.
We lived in the lovely family’s tiny house for two years, one year with both our families sharing the cramped space and a further year whilst Elizabeth, Otto and their daughter Silvia moved up to Sydney as Otto had found another job up that way. My parents paid them rent for a year until mum and dad worked hard enough to save for a deposit on a house in Noble Park; the house was to be their one and only home here in Australia. The incredible sacrifices my parents made during that time ensured they paid the house off in seven years. Both my parents worked in a dirty, stinky and hot factory in Dandenong South during the day. Both parents worked six days a week at a time when women were paid half the wage of men, simply because they were women. Mum would walk the long walk home at the end of the day because dad would often stay behind for some overtime work. Our family unit somehow managed after my father became a self employed concreter. Clothes were hand me downs and what mum could sew. Food came from the garden with supplementary shopping. Mum always had that harassed look on her face as she struggled to juggle long factory hours with running a household. No holidays, no frills in life, no entertainments, basic furniture; nothing extra at all. Basic living that paid off through incredible sacrifice on my parents’ behalf. Even during this hardship time, mum still sent some money home to our grandmother we had never met. There was always kindness and concern for the family that did not migrate. After mum had cut her working week down to five and a half days, we would walk a mile up to Noble Park shops late on a Saturday morning to pick mum up from the train station. We would traipse off to the post office and mum would send the money off. Then we would do some grocery shopping and lug it all home on Shank’s Pony (walking).
(Left: My father Luciano worked around 1962 at the Portland docks as a concreter. Dad also worked around the western wheat belt district of Victoria, helping construct silos at both Hopetoun and Jeparit. Right: our house in Noble Park.)
My “ant” parents must have been from a different species of ant family because they worked hard, sacrificed a lot but never lost compassion along life’s journey; unlike Aesop’s uncompromising ant. Pity my uncle did. I would like to thank my late uncle though, for reinforcing in me at the very early age of seven years an important life lesson that has stayed with me for my entire life.
Be kind to the people and animals in your life and respect others WHO RESPECT YOU IN RETURN. I can’t reiterate this enough. Respect must go both ways but it often does not and we end up copping abuse from “family” members who should know better how to behave. If you get shafted by any family, walk away from them because the title “family” should not confer upon anyone on this earth with special permission to treat you like dirt under their shoe. For this very reason, my brother and I have walked away from a former self righteous, extremely religious relative who caused a lot of grief to our dying mother through their profoundly callous selfishness and good old fashioned, bitter jealousy. I have a handful of friends in my life who have treated me a whole lot better than the former relative who specialised in biting the hand that fed them. I now no longer care for this former relative at all as they have become insignificant. My brother feels the same. Both of us focus on the positive instead.
As the years passed by, I learned to tolerate my uncle and auntie. The trust was never there though as for me personally, if there is no trust, there is no proper relationship. The two go hand in hand. I learned to bite my tongue whilst my dear parents were alive but I never really forgave such a treacherous act. I don’t think my brother has either.
As for being told by a well meaning family member who never went without that I must learn to turn the other cheek and forgive, the only cheek I would consider turning would be the cheeks of my backside in reality. The many dogs we have owned in our married life have treated us with more love and respect than certain family members and my “ant” uncle and my vicious, slap happy aunt (who had a fondness for meting out beltings and not asking questions at all). Instead, as an adult I have practiced a pass it forward routine for many years now and when I do a good turn for someone, I always ask them to do an act of kindness for someone else and ask that person to pass it on as well in the hope that my good act will trickle throughout society. I can only hope that my act of kindness won’t be stopped along the way by any “ant” person. I have also learned to walk away when the situation is hopeless and focus on the positive instead.
Make the best of what comes along in your life and appreciate what you do have and don’t forget to pass goodness on to someone who needs it. My parents did, despite the big setbacks of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War Two, German occupation and migration to a foreign country with nothing in their pockets except hope.