Italy is known for their overbearing mothers and the sons who worship the ground they walk on. It can be hard for someone in love, trying to compete with ‘Mamma’ for first place in their lover’s heart. This was the stereotype I knew and many warned me about, but I have come to realise that having a typical Italian suocera is not all that bad.
The relationship with my Italian mother-in-law began long distance. My husband and I were living in Australia, which felt worlds away from my new suocera. I feared she would be a dominating ‘Mamma’ like the ones depicted in films. I had just lost my own mother to terminal cancer and the thought of welcoming a new one into my life was overwhelming.
After our move to Italy, two years later, I was curious to learn the basics of the Italian Home & Kitchen. I wanted to experience it straight from the source and who could be better for the job than my southern-Italian suocera? I found ways to listen and learn from ‘Mamma’ and discovered that she, in fact, has a lot to share.
It has been through recipes, routines, and the frequently unwanted advice that a fountain of knowledge has poured out. Overtime, I have learned invaluable lessons that have been passed down through generations of strong Italian women. I let my guard down, opened my heart and finally understood that the ideals of my suocera are filled with nothing but love, pride, tradition, and lots of Mediterranean magic.
Lessons from my suocera:
Baking Soda can solve just about anything.
Bicarbonato is used in every Italian home to wash fruits and vegetables before consumption. Soak in a bowl with water and bicarb, just don’t forget to rinse – ingesting bicarbonato ‘non fa bene’. Bicarb is the real hero here, but with a splash of white wine vinegar the world is your oyster. Use the combination to soak your whites, colours, and tough stains or add a tablespoon of both in the washing machine for a bacteria-free cycle. I’ve taken things a step further and now use bicarbinato to polish marble counter-tops, jewelry, tiled floors, and even, occasionally, my teeth – all suocera approved!
There is an art in making something out of nothing.
I have seen my suocera create magic with, what appeared to be, an empty kitchen cupboard on a number of occasions. My suocera was one of seven children and had three bambini herself. The art of making flavour-packed, yet affordable meals was the key to her successful household. This skill is so deeply engrained in her psyche that I knew I was in good hands. The art of ‘minestre’ has opened me up to a world of healthy meals and, as my suocera says, “contains every food group for the perfect diet: vegetables, carbohydrates, and protein.” The endless variations that can be made with pasta, vegetables, and a dash of sugo (just for colour) is astounding. I have been perfecting my own ‘minestre’ offerings and recently got the stamp of approval from my suocero who said “This is better than my wife’s, but we don’t need to tell her that!”.
Bodies are meant to be celebrated.
A couple of years ago I went on a beach holiday with my Suoceri. We spent days by the Ligurian seaside soaking up the salt and sun. As I looked around the rocky spiaggia, I noticed that almost every woman was wearing a bikini including my 70-year-old suocera. I grew up in America, where most women over forty are shamed into wearing a one-piece bathing suit or at least something that covers their bellies. On the beaches of Italy, the body is respected. It is common knowledge for Italians that a person will look different at sixty than they did at thirty. This is not shameful or something to hide, this is just ageing, which is an honour and a privilege. I will wear my bikini proudly because, for me, it reminds me that I am alive.
Dress up even if you’re staying in.
I remember some of the first photos my suocera sent. She was standing in front of her long dining room table; on it were gorgeous candlesticks and an intricate table setting. She had on a black velvet dress and pearls around her neck. I asked her what the occasion was and she wrote “ma niente – cosi’.” At first, this seemed so silly to me. Why would anyone want to dress up or set the table if they weren’t expecting guests? The nice table cloth would get dirty, the good silverware, the expensive wine glasses, and even the wine that was meant for a special occasion would all go to waste. I didn’t get it until I tried it. Nine months locked down in the Italian countryside has meant almost every Holiday, Birthday, and Domenica was spent just me and my husband.
What I have learned is it is important to celebrate often even it is just for you. There is something to be said for putting on an outfit you love and spending the night in – on your own terms. Through this, I have found a new respect for myself and my home. Now, I take pride in the table I set and the way I present myself even if it is just for two. The best discovery was that I am not doing any of this to impress someone other than myself and the relationship I have cultivated within because of this practice now runs deeply. I am starting to understand where these Italian mothers have learned to nurture their pride.
Take good care of what you already own.
If you iron your clothes (even your t-shirts), wash, and hang them properly then they will last a lifetime. Not only will you consume less, but overtime, gratification will form for how well you have preserved your items. You will realise how much you already own and how little more you really need. I’ll admit, I still haven’t committed to ironing my t-shirts, but I have seen the benefits and I am working on it.
Pay close attention to the cracks.
When my husband and I moved to Umbria, I was handed down an industrial electric mop from the 80’s that my suocera had been hanging onto ‘just in case’. As she was teaching me how to use it she said “Allow the machine to be guided by the cracks between the tiles. If you do this, the floors will be cleaner than ever before.” So, I listened and did as I was told. I followed the cracks. It worked so well I started using the same method when mopping by hand. Why hadn’t I ever thought of this?! Just follow the cracks.
Unfortunately, this wonderful 40-year-old machine died quickly after it was gifted to me, but I still follow the cracks, dips, and grooves in our tiled floors and, as I do so, I can’t help but wonder if this idea could translate to other aspects of life. If I pay close enough attention to the neglected parts of my body, mind, and spirit, if I tend to the built-up dust and dirt, and just allow myself to be guided by the cracks, will I come out cleaner? Shining brighter than ever before?
Yes, my suocera can be pushy about what time of day is best to consume fruit, how long one must wait after eating to go for a swim, or how much water to give my plants, but underneath the spontaneous advice lies a lot of truth and love. Love so fierce it is like I am one of her own.