Antonietta Cardinale

On a warm summer’s day in February 1966 my best friend Maria was starting school and I was determined to be by her side. My reluctant mother walked me to Athelstone Primary school, and with the help of a friend who understood English, she changed my birth date, from the 28th of March 1961 to the 28th of January, so that I was able to be enrolled that day with all the children who had already turned 5. I was so eager to start school; I couldn’t wait to start reading and writing.

I was so happy when the official looking ladies sitting behind the desks accepted my enrolment from my very nervous mother. This happiness was short lived because when I was introduced to my teacher and I got into the classroom, I quickly discovered that the only person who spoke my language was my best friend, and she was not handling the separation from her mother very well, in fact to this day when we reminisce about that first day at school my friend is quoted as saying, “Questa maestra non viene da questo mondo, essa viene da un altro pianeta”.

I quickly lost my enthusiasm as my early school years were very hard because of the language barrier and also because my parents did not speak English. All communication from school went through me; in those days there were no ‘English as a Second Language’ classes and my parents were very keen to know what notices, news and reports I had from school. Most of all they were interested in my progress. I remember having a passion for books, but unfortunately I could not read the words; I did not let that stop me though: I would borrow books from the library, examine the pictures with intense interest to details and then make up a story which I thought would go with the picture. This worked when I was at home alone, but when I was chosen to read in class I struggled and found the English children were not kind with their remarks. There were other children from Italian families in my class, who could speak English and it was with them I became friends. Eventually, I became fluent in reading and writing English.

My parents continued to speak their Abruzzese dialect to me and this is the Italian that I know and speak today. It is not the beautiful, poetic Italian which rolls from my colleagues’ tongue, but I am proud that I have the ability to communicate in the language I am so familiar with and make myself understood, even if it is Abbruzzese!

Primary school went very quickly for me because we moved three times and when I left Athelstone Primary I attended two Primary Schools in the Salisbury area, and at both schools I made wonderful friends whom I still have contact with today.

1974 saw the beginning of a new era, it was time for high school, and it was tough, very tough. There was racism to be dealt with every day, not only from the students but also from the teachers. In 1976 at the end of year 10, I left school and the next year I commenced at Business College.

My time at Business College was blessed, I loved the teachers, I loved the Principal, I loved the other students and most of all I wanted to be there because there was no racism. At business college there were students of all different nationalities including many Aboriginal girls, and it is to an Aboriginal Student Counsellor at Salisbury North High that I owe my thanks for directing me towards Stones Commercial College.

Regretfully, one of the reasons I left high school was because of my year 10 maths teacher who encouraged racism in his class and enjoyed fuelling the student’s inappropriate language. After a particular harsh incident in the math room, I decided there and then I was leaving and went directly to the School Student Counsellor who was assigned to the ‘white’ students of the school. She did not ask why I was leaving or even if I had plans for the future; she simply gave me some forms for my parents to sign and to be returned the following day. My father signed the form only on the proviso I would go to work with my mother at Ingham’s Chicken Factory and, in my eagerness to quit school, I happily agreed to my father’s request.

When I went to the counsellor’s office the next day, the Anglo Counsellor was away and the Aboriginal Counsellor was there. She looked at the forms, looked at me, then asked “Is this what you really want?” I replied “I hate it here and I do not want to be here”. She gave me back the forms and said she would only accept them if I promised to give some thought to her advice and go and check out a business college in the city. She gave me the address and the next day I did not go to school. My father, who worked night shifts, did not have his usual morning nap, instead he accompanied me to the college and happily enrolled me to commence in February of 1977. The following day I returned the forms, Pauline (the Aboriginal Counsellor) accepted them with pleasure. I have never forgotten her or what she did for me.

I proudly finished my commercial studies with certificates, merits and outstanding report cards, and went out into the exciting world of work! My first position, at the age of 17 was office junior at a company which made generators. I did not learn much there because my manager was always very busy and did not have much time to train me, but I did become an expert in the mail run. In 1980 I went to work in the advertising section of a large tyre firm in the city. I loved the position but again racism reared its ugly head and it got to the point where I could take no more. In 1982 I left to travel to Italy.

I was 21 and it was my first trip back since I left in December 1962 at the age of 20 months. My parents came back with me, and while they remained in their beloved paese of Le Marane which is situated 2 kilometres from “la citta’ dei confetti”, Sulmona, I travelled the north eastern coast of Italy. I fell in love with the country of my birth and enjoyed every minute I was there. I especially loved meeting my zias, zios and cugini, sharing meals and drinking coffee while sitting round the kitchen table in the house my grandfather built. Comparing family similarities, gestures and quirky idiosyncrasies which are unique to my family brought me enormous pleasure and satisfaction.

My parents were 41 when I was born and I received nothing but unconditional love from both my mother and father. I was their everything and despite their lack of English and understanding of Australian culture I truly believe they did a wonderful job in raising me in strong Italian cultural traditions and values which are still with me today; my hope is that I have been able to pass some of these onto my 3 wonderful children whom I adore.

When I returned to Australia at the end of 1982, I decided to complete year 12, I enrolled at the local Tafe, and at the beginning of 1983 I commenced my matriculation. My grades were average, and the few times I achieved an “A” was cause for grand celebration with my fellow adult students. I truly enjoyed the atmosphere of adult education, and the teachers were amazing, always respectful and supportive for what we were all working towards. The year was progressing well and in September of 1983 while I was preparing for exams, the tyre firm where I used to work, advertised my position in the employment section of the newspaper.

The Advertising Manager contacted me; he had employed 5 girls since I had left and he offered the position back to me. It was a hard decision to make, because if I did accept the position, I would have to commence immediately and with exams only weeks away I was torn as to what would be best. Education and studying were not strongly encouraged by my parents; they were of the opinion that if you had work, you were fortunate. They felt the offer to go back to work was a feather in my cap, and I must admit I was very proud that the Aussies had to come back to the Italian! And so I left matriculation 3 weeks before final exams, went back to work in the Advertising department and lay down rules which were duly respected. The Manager saw me in a different light and all of a sudden I had respect from my fellow workers. I feel it is important to say soon after I went back, the manager retired and one of the designers left. With new management and staff the office became an amazing place to work, I was given more responsibility and for the first time in my working life I really looked forward to going to work.

All good things must come to an end, and in 1986 the tyre company merged with another company, and all staff members were offered packages. The offer I was made was too good to be true, I had plans to purchase a new car and the “golden hand shake” was going to come in very handy. I was not worried about my future because I had already been offered work at a Doctor’s surgery, two minutes from my home. One day just before I left the tyre company, the Managing Director called me to his office, and offered me a position with the new company. I thanked him for the offer, and politely declined.

The experience I gained while working as a medical receptionist was incredible, it opened up an amazing world I did not know existed. We were all equal, no matter what our nationality, the rooms consisted of Australians doctors and Australian receptionists, Chinese doctors and Chinese receptionists, Indian Doctors and one Italian receptionist. As the sole Italian, I used to pinch myself, because I had never been so welcomed into a work environment; many of the patients were Italians, their English was not good and my dialect came in very handy because they all spoke and understood dialect. We had so many celebrations in that office and I was always asked to provide the homemade pasta, pizzas and cannoli, and to my amazement olive oil was referred to as a fantastic wonder food not something greasy and slimy and only used by Europeans.

At the beginning of 1989 when I left to get married and move to Melbourne, there wasn’t a dry eye in the surgery. In Melbourne I found there was a completely different attitude, to having another language. You were sought after and highly encouraged to take positions even if you could not speak perfect Italian. I consider myself very fortunate to have answered an advertisement in Il Globo for a secretarial position in medical rooms for a general surgeon. At the interview I was informed by the surgeon I would have to speak Italian, I replied I can’t speak Italian, I can only speak Abruzzese, the answer I got back was “I don’t speak Italian either, I can only speak Veneto so together we will get it right!” I was fortunate to be able to work in these rooms in a variety of roles from full time secretary before I had my family, to home based accounts person while I was home raising my young family, to part timer for the other specialists who shared the same rooms and even casual cleaner when required.

Christmas 1999 saw the return to Adelaide with my husband and 3 children. My parents had moved to Melbourne at the beginning of 1994, but the adjustments proved overwhelming for my father; for the sake of sanity it became clear it would be best for all the family if we returned to Adelaide.

We built a home suitable for the whole family (parents included) and life settled. My children went to school, my husband concentrated on work and I cared for my elderly parents. In 2003 I decided it was time to pursue my ambition to become a nurse. I began working at a local nursing home and was fortunate to be able to complete certificate III in Aged Care while I was there. Once I completed the certificate I worked in the community with many Italian speaking clients. I found the work rewarding in so many ways, being able to deliver services and assist someone elderly, isolated, frail, and in many cases not mobile, brought me great joy and eventually I found my way to CIC and shelved nursing to concentrate on support work.

The Coordinating Italian Committee was my saving grace when my father required social support and assistance. My father was in his element when the bus came to pick him up, there was a running joke with my mother, he could have been on his death bed the day before, but come Monday morning, he would rise early, after being awake all night with the eagerness of a child to prepare for his outing with the other Italians. CIC offered him the opportunity to socialise with other Italians, to enjoy a home style cooked meal and – most importantly – it allowed him some respite time from my mother.

My mother’s mobility was not good; I can remember from an early age having to share her care with my father, and of course with age her mobility got worse and her care needs increased. My mother understood my father’s need for respite for he was now elderly too and found it hard caring for her. It was her choice not to be part of CIC activities; she felt she would be a burden because she could not move freely. This was not the case; she would certainly have been welcomed but she always declined to attend any function or program.

With my father at CIC, I began to volunteer there and after 4 months I was employed as the Daycare Assistance – Wow, what can I say it was fantastic! I loved it and I had never worked in a similar organisation, with staff who were incredibly dedicated and able to deliver such a magnificent service to the elderly Italian community.

In my current role at CIC I find each day brings a different surprise, there is no time for boredom. Flexibility is a must, as bouncing from one assignment to another in a matter of minutes and then back to the original is the essence of the position. The groups I coordinate consist of gorgeous elderly ladies and lively senior gentlemen who have experienced and endured all forms of hardships and joys. Sitting with them and hearing their stories, as well as those of the Daycare participants, never ceases to amaze me. I never tire of hearing the story of an immigrant’s arrival with only one suitcase and the hardship they experienced because they could not speak the language. As my father, many migrants had more than one job; to see how proud they are of their achievements, despite the incredibly long and hard work undertaken just so they could feed the family and pay the mortgage, only adds to the rewarding satisfaction my work gives me.

The little girl who left Le Marane in 1962, grew up as an Italian in Australia, and is now referred to as “Australian”. When I meet someone for the first time, when I say my name I am regularly asked “are you really Italian”? Australia is my home, it is the place I grew up, was educated, went to work, married and had a family and it will always be my home. Italy is where my heritage is, the culture I am so proud of, the values which are so important to me and most of all my birth place and it shall remain forever forged with loved in my heart.


Antonietta Cardinale, February 2013