Earlier this month my mother-in-law, Maria, passed away. She was a beloved mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great-grandmother, auntie, neighbour, friend and worshipper at the Francesca Cabrini Roman Catholic Church in Bedford, England.
The last few weeks has been a time when I am reflecting on the loss of my mother-in-law, and therefore it seems only fit and right that I write this tribute to Mamma. My mother-in-law, Maria, was 91 years and although she had some challenges with her health in the last year – it is still unexpected that she has now passed. I have known her for about 28 years, and in that time, there are several memories of her warm welcome, kindness, passion, love and family values which had been demonstrated and captured in my memory and heart.
Maria was born in Italy in 1930 in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Italy, which would have been very different than it was today. She grew up during the war and apparently disliked it for all the harsh realities she witnessed and experienced. She remembered the bombs and poverty of those days and told these stories over the years. She started working when she was teenager in a grand house in her town. Santa Maria is a nice town to visit, which is authentically Italian – with relatives still there, I still see their way of life as classic and iconic from their passeggiata, ferragosto celebrations, wedding traditions, family gatherings, local cuisine, songs etc. The real stories of Capua and the Santa Maria Amphitheatre are great reminders of the ancient and rich heritage that the area still has to this day.
After the war, she met my father-in-law, Raffaele, on a day out at the Royal Palace in Caserta, where she ‘rescued’ him whilst he was working on the boating lake with her handkerchief when something went in his eyes. They made a beautiful couple and the rest they say is…history.
Being after the war, there was high unemployment in Southern Italy with many emigrating to other countries for work and new opportunities. This was eventually the same route taken by my in-laws to Bedford, England. I have blogged and carried our personal research into this in my previous post entitled: “Little Italy – Quarters of the World for Italian Settlers”. What is remarkable is that Raffaele came first on his own for two years as by his contract at the time, so Maria was left behind with one child. Therefore he went back to Italy after two years, but Raffaele returned to Bedford for a second time for work just before my husband was born in Italy.
In the late fifties, Maria made her way with two young sons from Caserta, via Naples, an overnight stay in Milan with a relative, on to Paris, then a ferry via Calais to London. Raffaele was waiting to meet her in the final part of the journey at Bedford, where they made their home for the rest of their lives, and their children’s lives. She told me the story a couple of times with some translation from my husband for the parts that are too difficult to relay, or lost in translation. It was nice to hear that her elder son recognised his father from the photos they had in Italy, as a child can easily forget without visual reminders. She did tell me she was angry as he was late as there was a mix up with the ticket!
I admire her strength to take this leap with two young children and make a new home in a country where she didn’t speak the language, but also you had to work really hard in conditions that were not easy to make a home and build a life. Their story is of all migrants coming over in post-war England at the similar time as many Asians, Polish and Caribbean migrants – the hardship they encountered, as well as the opportunities that they took.
Obviously, although they were Italians – my husband remembers his mother being called racist names, as he was called in school too. I take comfort from the large Italian and multicultural community that still now exists in Bedford and the fact that almost seven decades on, there is still a thriving Italian community in Bedford.
By then, with Maria’s own two siblings in Italy and Brazil – I knew she felt a deep bond to them although it would have been more difficult to communicate regularly in these decades that went by. She still tried her best to keep their families close at heart.
In the sixties and seventies, there are wonderful stories of my family assimilating and integrating with Italian and British culture – from football, church trips to surrounding towns, visits to shows and sightseeing in London – my husband reminds me, such as when his mum went to Café Royale for dinner and dance, and met the boxer Henry Cooper. My mother-in-law worked in various roles in local industrial businesses and factories, whilst raising two more children (four in total) and to continue to improve their lifestyle in the 1960s – as most post-war families were doing at the time. It is truly a special zeitgeist. Her neighbours are still here to attest to the bonds and affection that have lasted for decades. This warmth too has been passed on to my family. Neighbourhoods like these are still the best…when we all care for the well-being and safety of each other.
Maria welcomed me with open arms and I grew fond of her extremely early on in our relationship. She was one of the best cooks I have the privilege of knowing. I bet all Italian mothers and mother-in-laws are great cooks – but obviously Maria has a special place in my heart. She welcomed me from my first visit and I always tried to help her whenever I visited. She gave me masterclasses in making pasta from scratch, regional dishes, wine-making, Easter and other festive cakes. Her meatballs were truly the best! I can just about make a similar pizzagaina for Easter, pizza and calamari, but I still can’t make her stuffed peppers, artichokes etc etc…like she did. I am truly blessed to have had great cooks in my own mother Kamala and in Maria.
My mother-in-law was also well-known for her ‘green fingers’ and love of gardening. Apparently, she grew a prolific peach tree just from a seed. And well into her late 80s – she was still gardening every little patch with vegetables, loads of basil and flowers in the summer months. She also had several pet cats over the years and genuinely loved taking care of these little creatures too.
As mentioned before, the Italian Church in Bedford was built by Italians in 1960’s for their community due to the large size of migrants to the town. In addition, it is where they celebrate the cycle of life with worship for baptisms, weddings, blessings and funerals. Maria would frequently attend mass, or look at mass via satellite broadcasts on Italian TV in the later years and through the pandemic. The Italian priest mentioned in her recent eulogy her kind-heartedness, helpfulness and commitment to the congregation. It was only right that we prayed for her at the funeral at this very church, and then on to the Bedford cemetery, where many of her fellow Italian migrants are around her earthly resting place. We will be holding a memorial mass in February for Maria at the Italian church too.
While we are getting used to saying goodbye – we know how lucky and honoured we are to have known her and have her in our lives. We will cherish the great memories, appreciate the stories, hospitality, support and love she gave us. We will always miss and love her. May her strong but gentle soul rest in perfect peace, and may eternal light perpetually shine upon her now and forever. Rest in peace. Amen.
In My heart
I thought of you today
But that is nothing new
I thought about you yesterday
And days before that too
I think of you in silence
I often speak your name
Now all I have are memories
And your picture in a frame
Your memory is my keepsake– Anonymous