Bittersweet memories of a life in Australia that wasn’t meant to be
Domenico De Mase has two sons with very English names. Alan, the eldest, was born in Australia just before the earthquake that devastated much of the Basilicata region in 1980. He was barely five months old when the family decided to return to Italy, where second son William was born.
“Eravamo andati in Australia perche volevo fare conoscere i miei famigliari a mia moglie,” Signor De Mase tells me. He adds how proud he felt to give his sons strong English names he had come across during his first stint in Australia as a much younger man in the very early 1960’s. His wife, he assures me, had never wanted to migrate to Australia or elsewhere. Their trip to Australia had been purely an attempt to introduce her to her husband’s brothers, sisters and father, whom he had in turn sponsored out in the same way he had been sponsored out by an older sister back in 1960. Ironically, his wife had four brothers of her own in Australia at the time, her attachment to her native land was such that this family connection was not enough to compel her to want to remain in Australia.
“Ho messo un nome inglese al nostro primo figlio anche perché avevo una certa speranza che questo avrebbe convinto mia moglie di cambiare idea e rimanere in Australia,” Signor De Mase grins, then with a slight shrug he adds, “Ma, no, non è stato possibile.”
There is both resignation and an underlining sense of sadness in Signor De Mase’s voice as he tells me how much he enjoyed the Australian way of life, the fact that work was readily available, and with effort he believed even the language could be conquered.
“Dopo la guerra non c’era niente da queste parti in Italia,” he reminisces. “Mia sorella era partita nel 1957 dopo alcuni miei cugini. Quando sono partito io per l’Australia nel 1960, a vent’anni, c’era soltanto la miseria in Italia. Guarda, ognuno dice la sua, ma c’era la miseria. Non c’era lavoro e quindi neanche futuro. Non avevo che i miei genitori qui a Viggiano a quel tempo. Non avevo nulla da perdere. Sono partito con nessun dubbio che non sarei più tornato in Italia.”
Il Signor De Mase pauses and leans slightly forward, as though about to take me into his confidence, then adds, “Caro, si sa dove si nasce, ma purtroppo non dove si muore.”
This statement is perhaps meant to help explain the foibles of life, the moments of decision and indecision, the unexpected turn of events that lead one to places and ways of thinking that are often unforeseen, or at least unexpected.
And so it was with Signor De Mase.
Well spoken, open and amiable, the once carefree young man sits before me as a much more self-aware, deep-thinking patriarch of a family itself now dispersed around Italy as work, love and life have dictated.
“Anche i miei figli fanno la loro vita di emigranti … in Italia stessa,” he says thoughtfully. “Pensa che per Alan l’Italia non è il paese della sua nascita, come l’Australia non lo è per William. È una cosa da pensarci su, questa decisione che abbiamo preso noi genitori.”
I ask him if this inconsistency in the birthright of his sons has ever caused them or him, any angst, if it has impacted on how his sons identify their birthright. Signor De Mase is thoughtful for many long moments, sighs lightly then whispers that he has never really raised the issue with them. As far as he can tell, these are questions others might ask of them rather than they of themselves.
Il Signor De Mase is effusive about the benefits of his time in Australia as a young man in his twenties. He speaks fondly of having worked at General Motors Holden in Fishermens Bend, then as a carpenter, and later still as a technician with elevators.
“Ho abitato a Carlton, proprio nel centro della città lì a Melbourne. L’Australia era e resta una terra ricca con un ottimo tenore di vita. A parte la difficoltà della lingua, si stava bene. Gli australiani non mi hanno mai fatto sentire a disagio, mai. Io ero fortunato in un certo senso perché avevo famiglia lì, ero in contatto con tanti viggianesi già avviati nella vita nuova, persone che avevano già fatto strada. Avevano iniziato a mettere radici in una terra nuova. Ricevevo consigli da persone che avevano esperienza di vita in Australia più di me.”
With most of his family in Australia, il Signor De Mase decided to return to Italy to visit a sister in Udine. While there he got word that one of his brothers, Vincenzo, had died suddenly in Australia. That was back in 1968, and the following year he decided he would return yet again to Italy, this time to find a wife, which he eventually did. At this point his long-term prospects of returning to Australia for good were challenged.
“Mia moglie mi disse dal principio che lei non lasciava l’Italia, anche se aveva fratelli in Australia,” he says with a wry grin. “Se fosse per me ci ritornerei volentieri. In Italia purtroppo l’ambiente è sempre quello. Se vuoi trovare qualcosa devi trovare qualcuno. Non si ottiene per merito. Non è cambiato nulla. La mentalità Italiana è sempre quella, anche oggi. In verità sento tanto la mancanza dell’Australia, anche dopo tutti questi anni. Peccato che la salute non mi ha datto la possibilità di tornarci.” Il Signor De Mase pauses a moment before adding, “Ma soppratutto, ci sono i figli da considerare.”
In closing, I ask Signor De Mase about any difficulties he thinks his sons faced in having such obviously English names in Italy at a time when it was not perhaps accepted as it is today.
He laughs and extends his hand, “Dovresti chiedere a loro,” he says. I get the sense it’s a mute point, for they were names given in homage to a country and way of life still very much held in esteem and admiration.