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Broken English

(by Marcella Cantatore)

The day my mum died began like any other. It was a Saturday. She made me breakfast:

a soft egg with toast fingers. Then I found a dress my sister had outgrown. I wanted to

wear it that day, but it was too big for me. Mum said she would adjust it during the week

so that it fit me. But before lunch that day, my darling mum had a massive heart attack.

She died later that night in hospital. I was nine years old.

My Calabrian-born mother, Anna, came to Australia at 30 to join my father after their

marriage in Italy. I knew they had met as teenagers during or shortly after World War II;

my father's family hosted Mum and her sister, but no details were ever spoken of. I later

discovered that my mother was one of 70,000 southern Italian children who were sent

post-war to families in northern-central Italy. A group of women from a Communist

political party began the initiative to save the children in Southern Italy from incredible

poverty, malnourishment, unsanitary conditions, and disease. The families in the north

definitely weren't wealthy; in fact, my father's mother was raising her children single-

handedly after she and my grandfather had parted ways. During this period, Mum and

Dad formed a great friendship.

In time, Mum returned to Calabria, but when her planned marriage to a local boy fell

through, her sisters knew whom to contact. The young man from northern Italy would

make her smile again. He was now in Australia, hoping to make good in the land of

opportunity. Letters between the two rekindled the friendship, and soon my father was

on his way back to Italy to marry Anna.

With my father having gone ahead to Australia, my mother traveled on her own,

speaking no English and heavily pregnant with a daughter who would later die within

days of being born. As a child, I knew all about this family history, but never appreciated

the strength, courage, and grit my mum needed—that is, not until I had my own


Far from her family, she determined to forge a new life in this strange and foreign land.

She told me how much she cried, waiting for letters from home, which were slow to

arrive. But she loved her husband, and he loved her. Soon they welcomed another

daughter, and a few years later I came along, making their family complete.

Mum and Dad worked side by side on their farm, growing most of our food. Even if Mum

was driving a tractor during the day, she had a delicious meal on the table for dinner,

and she always had something timed to come out of the oven or the frying pan just as

my sister and I stepped off the school bus. After years of poverty in Italy, where

potatoes were often the only ingredient her family could afford, she was grateful to have

anything she wanted to cook.

We spoke Italian at home and ate only Italian dishes. Many nights were spent around

the kitchen table shelling mountains of beans or peas, which would be frozen for later

use. Every year we would spend a day bottling homegrown tomatoes. The eggs were

from our chickens, one of which would be roasted for our Sunday night dinner. I

remember sitting on the kitchen bench while Mum pickled vegetables, and I turned the

handle on the hand-cranked machine for her pasta. Cooking became a big part of my

life, as it was for her.

Living in a traditional Italian family, I wanted to be more like my Australian friends as I

grew older. I wanted an Australian name that everyone could recognize and pronounce.

I wanted their modern life with takeaway food and a mother who brought a plate of egg

sandwiches decorated with shredded lettuce instead of pizza to school functions. One

day I did ask her to make those egg sandwiches like the other mums, and she did, but

everyone was looking for "Anna's pizza." I was embarrassed.

There were so many differences between the way we lived at home and our community,

from the language we spoke, to the food we ate, to the music my parents played. I

wanted aunts, uncles, and cousins to visit. And, strangely, I wanted a set bedtime like

my friends had, so I set myself one. Promptly at 8.30 pm, I would announce, "It's my bedtime," and go off to my room.

Mum made friends easily, never worried about her imperfect English, and loved to share

her recipes. A friend of hers told me that Mum turned up on her doorstep one morning

with a basket of homegrown veggies, a big smile, and in broken English said, "You

teach me how to make tarts, and I will teach you crostoli." And after my sister became

friends with the bank manager's daughter, my mother was soon teaching the bank

manager's wife how to make gnocchi.

(With Mum and Nonno in Calabria)

When I was six, my mother took me to Italy to visit her elderly father, whom she feared

would pass away without ever seeing him again. (In fact, she died before he did—maybe she had an intuition?) For financial reasons, our whole family could not go, and it was decided that my sister, being older, was better able to stay home with Dad. One of my vivid memories is the friendships my mother made on the journey. On one plane trip, she noticed another mother traveling solo with a daughter of a similar age to me. The little girl was airsick, and the mother was exasperated because the airline staff was not helpful. We ended up sitting beside them, helping the woman care for her little girl. This memory of my mother's generosity and kindness has stayed with me forever. I don't know if she ever stayed in touch with this woman, but I still have her address book that she took on the journey. It was filled with names and addresses scrawled hurriedly at different times during the trip. Perhaps one of the names belonged to that woman.

In Italy, I met my paternal and maternal grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Both

my grandmothers had passed away. I remember the day we received the phone call to

say my maternal grandmother had died. Dad took the call. It was in the days when long-

distance telephone calls had long delays and lots of crackling noises down the line. It

was difficult to understand what was being said. He knew it was a call from Italy, and he

understood that "Mamma" had died. He thought it was his mother and immediately broke down, so my mother took the receiver, only to understand that it was her mother who had passed away. Both my parents were distraught, so far away from family at a sad time.

After my mother died, and with all our relatives in Italy, I lacked the full benefit of other

caring, compassionate women to mother me through my childhood and teen years. My

dad remarried, but my stepmother was not the mothering type. My mother's death had

left a hole that could never be filled. I missed her as I became a woman, as boys came

into my life, as I pursued a career, when I married the love of my life, and most of all when I had my beautiful children, who know her as their nonna Anna. I miss her now even though more than 48 years have passed.

In the kitchen, I feel the closest to my mum. As I cook and bake her recipes, I know she

is by my side. Her pan di Spagna (sponge cake) was prized most among her friends.

She always made one, high and fluffy, for gifting when visiting friends. It was the best

cake in the world. I don't think I make it anywhere near as good as she did, but I know

she would approve. I know that her spirit is guiding me in the kitchen, in life, and as a

wife and mother each day. I love you, Mum.


Marcella Cantatore is the creator of Marcellina in Cucina, a blog about Italian cooking. She lives in North Queensland, Australia, and can be found on Facebook and Instagram.

Pan di Spagna

5 large eggs, at room temperature

3/4 c. granulated white sugar

1 1/4 c. cake flour, sifted

1 t. vanilla extract

1 t. finely grated lemon zest (or 1/2 t. lemon extract), optional

confectioners’ sugar

whipped cream or mascarpone for serving

Preheat oven to 340 F.

Butter a 9-in. springform cake pan and line the base and sides with parchment.

In an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat eggs with sugar at maximum speed for about 15 minutes until frothy and thick.

In the last minute or two, add vanilla extract and optional lemon zest.

Add flour a little at a time using a large metal spoon or rubber spatula.

Take care to incorporate it slowly from the bottom up.

Pour into pan and bake for 25 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes clean.

Do not open the oven door during the first 20 minutes of baking.

Leave pan in the oven with the door open for about 5 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack.

If well wrapped in plastic, it will last 3 - 4 days in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen.

Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar and whipped cream or mascarpone.


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