I want you to picture an Italian woman in your mind. You can picture a real person, alive or passed, or make one up that encapsulates the qualities you associate with an Italian woman. Describe what she’s like, not only physically, but emotionally. What are her values? I envision someone who is passionate and loving, fierce and tough, strong, but also tender. Lucky for me, this person isn’t a figment of my imagination or the culmination of a million encounters with donne Italiane. The person I just described is my Nonna, the woman who taught me about an Italian woman’s love.
Italian women are almost always viewed in two distinct ways; first as passionate lovers and second as forceful mothers. If you do a search of Italian women the suggested searches will include dressing like an Italian woman, how to date an Italian woman, why are Italian women crazy, arguing with an Italian woman, and so on. When you search for Italian mothers you will see results for Italian mothers and sons, irreplaceable Italian mothers, signs you were raised by an Italian mother, as well as things like a wooden spoon, cooking, and angry. At the core of both of these stereotypical groupings, there is a common thread: love. A love that carries them through the many phases of life. This love transforms from fiery love that makes them desired by men, to a more tender love that embraces friends and family in their motherly warmth.
When it comes to my Nonna, she fits comfortably in the latter category. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that my Nonna was ever anything but an Italian wife and mother. Born in a small town in Abruzzo in 1926, Filomena came into this world during the time of Mussolini. Traditional roles were the norm, with women and girls being responsible for caregiving, cooking, cleaning and generally holding households together during these unimaginable years in Italy pre, during, and post-World War II. Forced to flee her home to escape the Nazis, my Nonna and her family took refuge in the town of Pratola-Peligna. It was there, in the direst of circumstances, where Filomena met Pelino, my Nonno.
Pelino was an electrician by trade and, according to my father, ran the Roccaraso ski resort. Filomena and Pelino were married on December 22nd, 1946. In their first 10 years of marriage, they had three little girls before deciding to move to the United States. My Nonna was less than enthusiastic about moving to an unknown country, one where she didn’t speak the language, but as a good Italian wife who loved her husband, she agreed after some convincing. Honestly, after seeing pictures of Pelino at the time I can say that I get it, he was quite the handsome fellow and might have also convinced me to move to a foreign country!
After arriving in Chicago in 1956, they added one more to their family with the birth of my father in 1957. The birth of a son, the child that would carry on the DiBacco name, changed things for the three sisters. Although fiercely debated amongst the siblings—read: my aunts all seem to have a similar memory of their childhood while my dad has an entirely different one—the arrival of another male in the household thrust the three daughters onto the path of an Italian mother-in-training from a very early age. Italian women are taught that they need to take care of the males in their lives. Afterall, why should a son have to make his bed and do the dishes, when he has three capable sisters to do that for him?
Contrary to what our modern belief systems may tell us, priming young girls to be future mothers and wives was in-fact an extension of my Nonna’s own motherly love. Not only were these young women caring for the men in their family, but also they were being groomed to successfully take care of their own families one day. My Nonna was taught that her value and duty was as a mother and wife and these were the necessary principles she instilled in her daughters so that they could carry on the tradition and value of love in an Italian home. Even today, while modern Italian women balance careers and motherhood, a majority take on the lion’s share of housework and childcare. I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with being a wife and mother. I am who I am because I had a wonderful stay-at-home mother who raised me.
In 1962, my Nonno passed away in a tragic accident, leaving Filomena to raise four young children. She was stricken by grief as not only did she lose the love of her life, but a piece of her identity died with Pelino. The years that followed were dark. When you have such a big love, the aftermath of losing it is immense. Nonna wasn’t able to get out of bed for over a year. She and her children wore black for an extended period of time afterward. There was never a question of her finding someone else, she married the love of her life and that was it, she would remain alone for the rest of her days. At 95 years old, she still wears her wedding ring every day.
Throughout my life, I always thought that my Nonna was simply from a different time, di un’altra epoca. After living in Italy myself for almost five years, I can easily say it is a combination of her generation and Italian culture. So, from my Nonna and the many other Italian women in my life, I have learned many things about love I want to pass on to you.
Love means trusting your partner and allowing them to convince you to step out of your comfort zone, like taking a leap of faith and moving to an unknown new world with your young family. Taking care of people and being there for them in simple ways is the purest form of love, such as making sure they have a freshly made bed and clean socks in their drawer. Cooking is its own love language of which everyone is a grateful recipient, a form of love that speaks for itself. Love can sometimes take shape in other emotions, like anger or disappointment or throwing a frying pan at your teenage sons’ head when he shows up four hours late returning home from school (true story).
An Italian woman’s love is boundless, intense, varied, and bold. If you haven’t had the privilege of being loved by or loving an Italian woman, I highly recommend it. Sending a heartful thank you to all the Italian women who shaped me as my own version of an Italian woman and taught me how to love.