When the Going Was Good
Rosetta Vaccaro’s talk on October 20th could have been entitled the Garden of Eden, Myrtleford, Victoria, Australia. She told an epic tale of a couple born in the 1920s in the deep folds of Calabria. They didn’t escape its storied, anachronic, humanly rich way of life. Rather they embodied it. Their courting was like an episode of a folktale. Mother was routed into a traditional wedding with all the trappings—a bridal dress elaborate as a pastry cook’s dream, mounting pressure of envy and admiration in the community, and the circling in of the larger family on the fatal church date. But Rosetta’s father got in the way. He had been plucked from life in the mountains by the army and been a prisoner of war. On his long walk back home from Belorussia, he brought with him a cosmopolitan experience though not of the Five-Star sort. Mother changed her mind about her promised bridegroom to whom fate in its irony had given the name Fortunato. He was left alone with his new suit and Rosetta’s mother eloped with her father, the footsore soldier with charisma clinging to his muddy boots.
By the 1950s, the couple had three children. It was a period of grace for immigrants—they were actually wanted. The family decided to make the six-week voyage to Australia in two stages. Father, who wasn’t afraid of foreign parts, went first, mother and children followed.
It’s hard to believe today that there was a time when foreigners were acceptable, when the U.S.A. wasn’t building border walls and the UK solicited Black Caribbean subjects to come to get the economy moving. Refugees were not threatened with being marooned in Rwanda or locked up in floating prisons like convicts. They were considered precious assets in a world depleted by WWII.
Anglo-Saxon cities like Toronto in Canada were becoming cultural melting pots and all the better for it and everybody’s happiness. Australia knew that it had to grow if it wanted to measure up as a power in its region. A welcoming wind swept the Vaccaro family along. They made a crucial decision and chose rural rather than big city life. They settled 300 km northeast of Melbourne in a town of several thousand.
At this point, Rosetta’s account became one of joyful expansion. Not only in the matter of brothers and sisters added but of her parents' entrepreneurial instincts finding expression. Her strong-minded mother had a strong body too. As a girl, she carried 50 kilos on her head above a straight back. Her father was a knowing hand with a spade and appreciated good black earth. In the new setting, they became something like founders of a community. Their talents found space and freedom to blossom. When we learn that Myrtleford is situated in Alpine country with rich soil producing berries, nuts, olives and wine, we appreciate Father Vaccaro’s flare. He shaped—and populated—another Calabrian Delcollatura as it might have been. The couple showed one trait that wasn’t Calabrian. In later life they let their many children get on with their lives and went off on their own as genuine world travellers.
Rosetta herself, full of a traveller’s curiosity, came to Italy at twenty-six. It took time to adjust her dialect-based speech to Third Millennium RAI Italian. Her talk to us had a special flavour. At times she seemed like an informed tourist, a foreign lover of Italy. Folkways fascinated her as they do someone who has never had them imposed upon her. At other times, looking deeper into the old world and its ways—feeling them in her bones—she appeared to know the weight of lifestyles that were not so easy to bear.
But how good it was in these grey times to hear of people who made a painless, successful move between continents and to be told of it with a smile by a born optimist.