It is lovely to meet an old person whose face is deeply lined, a face that has been deeply inhabited, to look in the eyes and find light there.”
― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Crossing the threshold of Ottavia & Marios home I always feel like Alice, stepping through the looking-glass into a world where time stands still.
Very little about the house has changed since they moved in over 50 years ago. It’s the typical home of Italian immigrants, show cases stuffed full of bric-à-brac, 1964 wedding gifts (saved for a “rainy day”) lie unopened and stacked on high shelves. A mish-mash of framed photographs jostle for space on the sideboard and on the wall you will find at least one picture of the pope and/or the sacred heart of Jesus with a candle burning below.
There is always a pot of something hearty bubbling merrily away on the stove and the food cupboards strain at the seams with enough food to last at least three months. A small indoor wash-line stretches across the pantry for “smalls and delicates” and stepping outside you will find a vegetable garden bursting with basil, radicchio, spinach, parsley, carrots, pepperoncini and cabbage. Of course, no Italian garden would be complete without a grapevine and a small shed dedicated to making home-made grappa.
I love these people and I love this house. It feels like “coming home”. It feels safe.
I first met Ottavia over a decade ago when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, she became one of my very first reflexology case studies, thankfully she has been in remission for many years now. As payment for her fortnightly reflexology sessions, we agreed to work on a barter system, I gave her treatments and in return she made all kinds of Italian baked goods for me at regular intervals. As soon as I got the phone call that she was baking, I would pop over to her house to collect my “torta” or “biscotti” and stay long enough “per un caffè” and a little chat.
I quickly got to know the other inhabitants of the household, Stella and Zorro (the canine children), a yellow canary (Ottavia’s mad about birds), her husband Mario, and father Nonno (Grandpa) Michele, Nonna (Granny) having long since passed into the afterlife. Ottavia’s daughters no longer live at home but 8-year-old Alessia (the apple of Mario’s eye) would visit her grandparents every day after school.
I am terribly fond of Mario and Ottavia and they are always so thrilled to see me that whenever the opportunity arises I make a point of visiting them, if only for a few hours. On my recent trip to Johannesburg, I had just such an opportunity and determined to not only visit with them but to come away with some photographic memories of these lovely people and the warm, friendly kitchen I have spent so many happy hours in.
Technically I know I probably should have removed some of the background clutter from the images to improve the composition but the late afternoon light coming though the kitchen window was fading fast and besides which, I wanted to capture them and the kitchen exactly as it was.
Mario is a retired member of the Alpini and part of the uniform is a special “Cappello Alpino”, a beautiful hat with a Ravens feather tucked into the headband.
Established in 1872, the Alpini are the oldest active mountain infantry in the world. Their original mission was to protect Italy’s northern mountain border with France and Austria. They emerged during World War I as they fought a three-year campaign on the Alps against Austro-Hungarian Kaiserjäger and the German Alpenkorps in what has since become known as the “War in snow and ice”. During World War II, the Alpini fought alongside the Axis forces, mainly across the Eastern Front and in the Balkans Campaigns.” – Wikipedia
Many things have changed over the last ten years, the vegetable garden is a little overgrown, the grapevine no longer bears grapes, Alessia and her parents emigrated to Australia and Nonno Michele joined Nonna in the afterlife almost two years ago now. On a side table, Ottavia keeps a little shrine composed of some photographs, a “stations of the cross crucifix” and a rosary in their memory.
Mario’s health in the meantime has deteriorated rapidly, his eyesight so bad that ordinary reading glasses are of no use to him and he has to peer through a magnifying glass to read the newspaper or look at photographs. Being a diabetic he has ongoing trouble with deep vein thrombosis and has to wear compression stockings all the time now but despite all that aggravation, he remains a kind and gentle man.
This is my favorite image of Mario, it is exactly as I will always remember him.
The hours sped by all too quickly and soon it was time to say goodbye, always so difficult, never knowing if this time could be the last. Ottavia is stoic and practical sending me away with a hug and a packet of biscotti but Mario is much more sensitive and emotional. His English is poor to say the least and my Italian is worse but gestures are a universal language and we hugged each other tightly, eyes bright with tears and then hugged again neither of us wanting to let go.
As I turned to leave, I stopped and touched his cheek with my open palm just for a moment and he with a breaking voice, put his hand on his heart and murmured “Cara, cara, cara”.
All my love