Learning About My Father
Valentina Maniacco (Griffith University, Australia)
The last memory I have of my father is holding his hand by his hospital bed. His dehydrated, wrinkled brown skin with gnarly veins and short stumpy fingers contrasted with my slender young hand. That moment, over thirty years ago, is forever etched in my mind. I miss his reserved manner and patient listening skills. When I think of my father, I am reminded of words spoken by Isabel Allende to her dying daughter: “[t]here is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them”.
Few people remember my father, Gian Maria. His is a distant shadow in my story and much of what I have learned about him, comes courtesy of his brother’s writing. His brother, Tito, left behind an immense amount of published work, while my father’s footprint is evanescent. In researching my uncle’s work, I had hoped to discover more about my father, and I did. Even though he was absent for much of his younger brother’s life – five years away during World War II and then emigrating to Australia in 1960 – he must have been special because it was to him that Tito dedicated his memoir about growing up in Udine, Italy, through Fascism and World War II:
A mio fratello Gian Maria per più di venti anni il mio Raffaele, il mio compagno di viaggio lungo il Tigri della vita, il suo ricordo come un onnipresente fruscio.
[To my brother Gian Maria, for more than twenty years my Raphael, my travelling companion along the Tigris of life, his memory like an ever-present whisper.]
(Figlio del secolo, 2008 [Son of the century])
My father was not with me much longer than he was with his brother.
When I met Tito’s widow, she had a packet of photographs to give me. Many of these I had never seen before. My father had sent them to his mother from Australia and I featured in most. On the back of each one is the date and a brief comment, in my father’s hand. Often the comments are written as if by me, signing off with “Tin Tin”, my father’s pet-name for me; a pet name that I have since discovered I shared with his grandfather, Valentino. I had always thought I was named after the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, because my father had an obsession for all things flight related. I even had a plush toy, a dog named Laika, after the real one the Russians sent into orbit around the earth in 1957. I now believe I was named after my great-grandfather, and having learned of the close relationship between him and Tito, I imagine that my father must have had the same. On the back of one of the photos, of me as a toddler sitting on my father’s shoulders, the comment reads, “just like me with nonno Tin”.
Among those photographs was my father’s official World War II service record from the Italian Army, handwritten as things were in those days. He was a rifleman and spent time in Egypt then the Greek island of Samos. After Italy’s surrender, he remained on the island, interned as a prisoner of war. Also included in the packet of photos was a handwritten certificate from the Theatrical Group of Enclosure 6. A drawing of a barbed wire fence with a tent in the foreground and the words “POW Camp 505” in the top left corner. A standard theatre mask and a drawing of a painting canvas adorn the top right. In an elaborate calligraphy, with swirls hanging off each letter, it says: “This certificate is presented to Gian Maria Maniacco, an actor of this theater, for his passionate involvement in numerous performances. His contribution has helped raise the spirits of those in this and other enclosures in a sad time of imprisonment.” It is signed by the director of the theatre and the commander of the enclosure. On the back, there are more kind words and the signatures of 36 other prisoners who must have belonged to the same theatre group. I never knew he had an interest in theatre.
My father had joined Mussolini’s fascist army to get away from a father he detested; it was the ultimate snub, leaving a household that did not support fascism. Gian Maria had wanted to become a pilot, but his father would not allow it. Instead, he insisted his son help him in his photography studio, making ornate frames for the portraits for which he was famous. My father rebelled. He left for Australia to start a new life, as far away from his father as he could go. I suspect that decision would have broken his mother’s heart. Many Italians who left Italy following World War II did so with the belief that they would return home after they had made their fortunes elsewhere; not my father. For him the journey was one-way. I wonder whether he ever considered the disconnect his daughter would feel as she grew up without her extended family, not knowing her roots. I used to believe we never went back to Italy because we could not afford the trip. I have since learned that during the period directly after the devastating earthquakes that hit my parents’ region of Italy in 1976, the government offered free flights home for any expatriates who wanted to help with the reconstruction. I am told that my grandmother had hoped her son would take the opportunity to return home. I finally understand why he never did.
Maniacco, T. (2008). Figlio del secolo. Udine, Italy: Kappa Vu.
Valentina Maniacco was recently awarded a PhD by Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. One part of her PhD comprised a translation, from Italian into English, of one of her uncle’s memoirs, Mestri di mont (published in 2020). The other was her own memoir of the experience and how she transitioned from translator to writer in the process. She has also translated a short story by Wu Ming called American Parmigiano, which the authors published on their website. She is currently teaching Italian and cannot wait to return to Italy again.