San Ferdinando, Reggio Calabria, Italy
Rome, Italy in February 1949
Sydney in February 1949
Brother’s home in Leeton, Riverina, NSW
Working on brother’s farm and home duties
I was 14 years old when I came to Australia in February 1949. I flew with my brother Bruno Tavella who was four years older than me. My hometown was San Ferdinando, Reggio, Calabria, Italy. We were the very first people to come to Leeton by plane from overseas after the war.
During the [Second World] war we were scared. I remember one time Mum was not well and bedridden and when the planes starting bombing us, she told us to run and save ourselves in the ocean, but we hid under the beds because we did not want to leave her. But the rest of the town would run down to the ocean and hide in the sand. People used to bury their belongings so that if the soldiers would come they could not steal everything.
My father came to Australia in the late 1920s. He was called out by his Uncle Antonio Puntoriero. Although he did not need the money, he wanted to see why his uncle and brother-in-law were here [but] had to return to Italy because he still had his own property, wife and children there.
He left behind my brother Peter and my two sisters. When he came back to Italy he had another son, Bruno, who was born in 1930. Then he wanted to go back to Australia and my mother begged him not to go, but he did. She didn’t know why he wanted to keep coming back to Australia because he didn’t need to. She just said it was his destiny.
On this visit he was hurt in a truck accident on the Griffith Road outside Leeton when Mr Carbone and my cousin Bruno from America had put people on the back of their trucks and started to race each other. When my cousin Bruno tried to overtake Mr Carbone, they had an accident. Two people were killed: a 12 year girl called Terasina and my cousin Tony who was about 16 years old. My father suffered a head injury and returned again to Italy because he was not well. I was born after he came back and when I was eight months old he died. My mother was left with five children to bring up her own.
Mum had a lot of people working for her on our farmland. They would steal from us a lot and Mum would get angry. We never were hungry. We had corn, wheat, olive trees to give us olives and oil and all the other things we would grow.
My mother died from bronchitis at the age of 39 years. I was eight years old. My second oldest sister brought me up from then on. In Italy I didn’t have to work. My sister looked after me like a little princess and took care of me very well.
I came to Australia because my eldest brother Peter came here in 1938 and he told us we would have a better life in Australia, so Bruno and I came to stay with him. I came by plane because my sisters thought I was too young to come by boat, so my family sold a part of our property to pay for the tickets.
One of the belongings I have is a café latte cup. I remember I would have coffee and milk every morning and Mum would use these café latte cups all the time. Mum had a lot of beautiful things because my father’s family were well off, so Mum would use these beautiful things every day.
The teapot with the sugar bowl was also my mother’s. I don’t know how many years she had them but we used them often and I asked my sister for them. I love it and it reminds me of family breakfasts with my brother and sisters and because I was the youngest, Mum would always be there to spoil me.
These belongings reminded me of my mother and are very special to me and I’m very glad I had them with me.
Before leaving Italy, I would cry. I didn’t want to go to a strange place, it was so hard. I did not want to come to Australia, but my brother Bruno would say, “If you don’t come I will not go either”. In Naples we stayed with a lady from our town, Marianna Puntoriero, who was on her way to Australia by ship. She comforted me and told me not to worry. It was hard for me. I was young and didn’t want to leave the life I knew.
So Monday we were in Rome and Thursday we arrived in Sydney. We would stop every night: Calcutta, Singapore and I can’t remember the third stop. We stayed in motels overnight and started off again the next morning. It was very scary getting on the plane but we were very comfortable. Also, on the flight were two nuns. One of them could speak Italian so she would interpret for me otherwise I would have been lost without her. She taught me how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘good morning’ which was very good to know.
When we arrived in Sydney, it was early in the morning and my brother Peter and his wife Sina were there to meet us. I was only three or four years old when Peter left for Australia and I didn’t know him at all. Peter recognised Bruno but I would not have known who he was if Bruno had not been with me.
From the airport we went by taxi to Sina’s brother’s house for the rest of the day and then got on the night train to come to Leeton. I remember that at daybreak a man was yelling on a platform, “Paper, paper, The Sun and The Mirror“. I asked my brother what he was yelling and Peter told me he was selling newspapers, The Sun and The Mirror. So for the next couple of days I would go around saying “Paper, paper, The Sun and The Mirror“. I think he thought I was a bit funny but that’s when I started learning [English].
When we arrived at Leeton railway station it was 11am and there were no cars. Everyone was riding horses or bikes or were walking. We all got onto a lorry and I remember beside the road was swamp land.
We arrived at Toorak Road, which was about two kilometres from Leeton. My brother’s fruit farm had a little weatherboard house on it. It felt very strange to be there. I was used to being in a town and at the farm there were only trees around you. It was very different. If anyone had the money to go back [to Italy] they would. Not only me, but a lot of other people too – when everyone first arrived it was difficult and they didn’t think they would get used to it.
But the people in Leeton were so good – they were the good old days. They were very honest. You could trust anyone in those days. I remember Mr Harrison would deliver the bread by horse and spring cart. We would also get milk delivered and leave the money at the front gate in a box and no-one would steal it. After a couple of years [we] all wanted to stay, so it was probably a good thing [we] couldn’t go back straight away and were forced to make a go of it.
I was so anxious to learn English and everything around me. My brother Peter had learnt to speak English and my sister-in-law was only little when she came to Australia and went to school here, so her English was very good, but they would speak Italian to me. At first I couldn’t understand a lot, but I it didn’t take me long to learn English.
I did not go to school here. If I had gone to school, for even six months, it would have made my transition a lot easier. I would have learnt to read and write English a little to start with. We had an Australian neighbour called Miss Grant. She would feel sorry for me and wanted me to learn [English]. She would teach me how to say things. She would get me by the hand and walk around the house and teach me how to say things, “This is a spoon, and this is a plate”. She would keep me company when my brother and his wife would go out and I was looking after my niece and nephew. She would sit and talk to me so I would learn. The English I know now I learnt then from Miss Grant and by listening.
In Leeton I had to work on the farm. I had to milk the cows and look after the animals, do housework and learn to help with everything – things were a bit hard and difficult for my brother and sister-in-law.
There were a lot of Italian migrants who would come and work on the farm. Most of them were from San Ferdinando and knew me. It was good to see them and we all found it hard to begin with. I would have to help feed all the workers for lunch when they would come to do work. We would eat chickpeas or beans with pasta. Oil was hard to get at first and we would use lard or peanut oil and then they started to import olive oil and we used that. We would do a lot of preserving of fruit like peaches and pears and vegetables. There was always something to do.
Once in a blue moon my sister-in-law would take her children to the pictures but I would stay home to do housework. I didn’t have a chance to make a lot of friends because there were no cars to go anywhere and there weren’t a lot of kids my age and I didn’t go anywhere much.
I married Giuseppe Iannelli in 1955. Giuseppe was from Palmi, not far from San Ferdinando, he came in September 1949. I met him when he worked on my brother’s farm. We were engaged for four months and we married on 2 July 1955 at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Leeton.
We first lived in a rented house on the Griffith Road and then rented another house on the back Yanco Road where my brother Bruno had a farm. We stayed there for two years and then bought our own citrus farm, Farm 1232, which we still have. We have three children; a boy and two girls. I did not have to work on the farm after I was married. I looked after my children and the house. Our son now runs the farm, and my two daughters married. We came to live in town 20 years ago. We now have eight grandchildren.
I went back to Italy for a visit in the 1970s and found that I could not imagine living there any more and loved the thought of coming back home to Australia.
I went through a lot but we have met some beautiful, honest, sincere people and have had a good life here. The Australian people were so friendly and willing to help me. I remember when I became a citizen in 1957, the ceremony was held in the dormitory hall and they asked me to say something. I was a bit nervous but said I was lucky to come to Australia and happy to be here. Australia is the best country.