‘I was born in 1938 on a small self-sufficient farm on the outskirts of Ascoli Piceno, a city on the north coast of the Adriatic Sea. I am the 10th child of a family of 12, seven brothers, four sisters and myself.’
So begins Maria Martinelli’s life story.
I came to know Maria through her memoir Nonna’s Story, loaned to me by a mutual friend. When I call at her home in Hamilton, I notice high on her bookcase the biggest Thesaurus I have ever seen. That’s a clue as to how this first generation migrant woman, who wasn’t able to seriously study the English language until she was in her early thirties, could write a book.
Self sufficiency is a word that has been used loosely ever since the1960s, when it became a lifestyle aspiration of the hippy generation. If you’ve watched The Gourmet Farmer on SBS television, you’ll notice it is still an aspiration even for more affluent people, like the show’s creator, hobby farmer and former restaurant reviewer Matthew Evans.
The self sufficiency I learned about from Maria’s detailed account of her first 19 years on a small farm in Italy is something else entirely. It’s not a hobby to dabble in, it’s not a supplement to the shops down the road – this is real life survival. Maria learned everything, from weaving and dying cloth for their bed linen and clothes, to baking daily bread for the large family, to being a builder’s labourer on their home extension project after World War II. It is no wonder that Maria became just the second Italian woman she knew of in Newcastle to gain her driver’s license – at the age of 30.
Maria’s family home was on the highlands of the Tronto Valley, with spectacular views of rich, fertile farmlands and in the far distance, the snow-capped Appennini Mountains. In winter, a mantle of snow covered her home, at night lit only by a kerosene lamp.
Farm animals were integral to a self-sufficient lifestyle. The stall for 4-5 cows was tucked into the hillside under the bedroom shared by the seven boys, with the generated heat keeping them warm on freezing winter nights. Cleanliness and hygiene were impeccable. It was the children’s responsibility to brush and feed the cows every day, as well as feed the other animals - 2 pigs and their piglets,10 sheep, 20 hens and a rooster. Waste was scrupulously cleaned from the animal compartments and barrowed to the manure tub, while straw bedding for the animals was regularly refreshed.
There was no running water, electricity, or public transport for travel to nearby villages, towns or the city. There would have been little cash to buy things anyway.
There was a large vegetable garden, an orchard of fruit trees, a vineyard, and olive trees. The soil was tilled for wheat and corn by a cow-drawn plough - the main reason the family kept cattle.
An Italian farmer ploughing in the Volturno River area, near the Italian Front
in World War II, 4 April 1944
Photograph by George Kaye, unrestricted access courtesy of National Library of New Zealand
Crops were harvested by hand, and everything grown on the farm was processed, then stored in the ‘cantina’ or cellar for family use. Not just wheat and corn, but also legumes, potatoes, preserved vegetables and fruit, lard and processed meats like salami, and prosciutto sustained the family through the long cold winters.
The family even had a cannabis plantation. Harvested plants would be soaked in water for a week until they rotted, dried in the sun to resemble straw which was then beaten until it became fluffy. The fibre would be brushed, spun into thread by hand and woven on a loom. The material was used to make such essentials as grain bags, mattress sacks, bath towels, paper, string, and shoelaces.
Mattresses were stuffed with corn cob leaves, replaced and freshened each year. The five girls slept in a big bed in their parents’ room, often keeping them awake with their giggling and chattering.
The whole family worked hard, none less so than Maria’s parents, Giacomina and Giovanni Ciccanti. Giocomina had only one and a half years of schooling but was a gifted and respected healer, often called upon in her community to deliver babies or fix broken bones and dislocated limbs, using ‘body packs’ made from woven cannabis. Giovanni had fought in World War I and travelled widely, including to North America. In that time he picked up a smattering of English and other languages.
When World War II broke out, things began to change for the family. Two of Maria’s older brothers, Domenico and Leo, joined the army. Maria turned 7, and started school. Mussolini was in power.
Maria and her family witnessed terrifying scenes on the road below their house. Soldiers were unloaded from army trucks, shot and their bodies burned.
It was not unusual for young soldiers to seek food and shelter at farmhouses like theirs – Maria’s parents never refused any of them, whichever side they fought on.
Maria enjoyed school immensely, even though in winter, she was sometimes so cold in the unheated classroom that she could barely hold her pen. At night, she did her homework on the kitchen table, under a kerosene lamp. Pencils were treasured possessions, so she was careful not to wear hers out too soon.
While just 3 years schooling was compulsory, Maria passed a test to become eligible to undertake 4th and 5th class at the next village. It was a four kilometre walk there, and another 4 kilometres home.
Maria remembers that they never washed their hair – a drop of olive oil was massaged in to the scalp, hair was brushed briskly and then combed to remove dust before it was plaited.
‘Our hair always looked and felt very soft, shiny and clean after brushing,’ writes Maria. ‘Our teeth were never brushed, either. The fresh fruit and crispy raw vegetables were our teeth cleaners.’ 
Although the family was fortunate enough to have a spring on their land, water was precious. It had to be carried back to the house several times a day to meet the family’s needs.
About ten minutes walk from the house was a pond. Kneeling on the bank, Giacomina would labour over the family washing, helped by her daughters as soon as they were old enough. But first, the soiled bed linen, towels, table clothes and clothes would be carried on their heads to the pond. Half the day would be spent washing, scrubbing, and rinsing.
Next, a fire would be lit under a 50 litre boiler, to which 3 kgs of ash, preserved from winter firewood, would be added. That boiling, ashy water would be bucketed into a wooden tub, containing washed items that needed bleaching and disinfecting. The following day, it was back to the pond to rinse everything, spreading the washing out in the sun to dry on the grass or over shrubs.
Winter was the time when inside work was done. The men repaired tools, and made the cane baskets used to carry fruit and vegetables, or soiled and clean clothes., The women wove all the material needed for bed linen and clothes on a large loom, and then dyed the work clothes. At winter’s end, a tailor and dressmaker would be hired for a week to make dresses, shirts and work trousers for everyone.
This loom, being used by a workshop participant learning traditional weaving in Italy today, is similar to that remembered by Maria Martinelli
After the sheep had been shorn, and wool spun of a spinning wheel, jumpers and socks were knitted. Sheets and pillowcases were painstakingly embroidered.
Maria had a strict Catholic upbringing, attending Sunday School and mass in the parish church that was actually situated on their farm.
‘Unfortunately the rules of our church were so strict that almost everything was a sin,’ she writes. Even as a child, she had a healthy skepticism, detecting contradictions and a lack of logic in some of the teachings and practices of the church. Nevertheless, her brother Albino trained as a priest, and two sisters, Giuseppina and Linda, became nuns.
When Maria left school, she joined the family workforce on the farm. She was able to shoulder much of the workload borne by her hard working mother.
The end of the war brought many changes. Tractors replaced cows for ploughing, sowing and reaping the crops. People no longer wanted to remain on farms, as the money pouring in for the post-war reconstruction of Italy meant they could work for wages.
In the meantime, the Italian government began to upgrade rural areas, installing electricity and water fountains (water was not yet supplied to houses), improving roads and providing buses to the city of Ascoli Piceno. Maria’s parents took advantage of a government subsidy to improve their house and land. Maria and three brothers helped their father build ‘a new house to be proud of.’ A structure was built around the pond so that the women could stand while doing the washing; they no longer had to kneel.
Two of Maria’s sisters, Rosa and Noemi, found work in Milan. When Noemi visited home and saw the wonderful improvements, she bought the family a new four burner gas stove. With this luxury, it was no longer necessary to light a wood fire every day.
Three brothers had found work as builders’ labourers. With money coming into the household, Maria recalls they had the best of both worlds – ‘fresh, organic food, spring water and clean air, and money. My brothers and I were all much better dressed than our older siblings had been.’  It was nothing to jump on the back of her brother Ottavio’s motor bike, and ride to the city or a village dance. ‘These were, for me, the good old days,’ she writes. ‘Full time farm work was becoming a thing of the past.’
What was to follow would be a very, very different life experience for this capable, confident teenage farm girl.
An older brother Domenico, now discharged from the army, searched for a job. Drawn to the Australian government’s offer of a free passage and work, he decided to emigrate. Twenty other young men from the area went too. It was 1952.
In Newcastle, Domenico was soon employed at BHP, and able to sponsor his sister Rosa to Australia. While waiting for his new wife Evelina to travel from Italy, Domenico decided to also sponsor his sisters Maria and Noemi. They embarked on the ship ‘Aurelia’ on 28 May, 1958. The girls’ ‘glory boxes’ containing embroidered sheets and everything they would bring to a possible future marriage were to follow later.
Bound for Australia on the ship ‘Aurelia’ – sisters Noemi (L) and Maria (R) Ciccanti with shipboard friends, 1958
Photograph courtesy of Maria Martinelli
Domenico had bought a house, and had taken three young Italian immigrants as boarders. His wife Evelina had finally arrived, and Maria and Noemi shared the third bedroom.
The sisters enrolled in evening English classes, where they began to learn the basics of the language. After a couple of months, Maria found shift work in ELMA, an electric lamp factory in Hamilton North. She was not able to continue the classes.
Word spread quickly in BHP about the newly arrived single girls. Through Domenico, Maria met Nelio Martinelli, who had come to Australia in 1955 from Lettopalena, a small village in Abbruzzi, Italy. As so many community members had migrated here from that town, he had the benefit of a large friendship network in Newcastle.  Nelio and Maria became engaged to marry.
Maria no longer felt the confidence she’d enjoyed at home; she struggled with the language and the uncertainty of her future in this new country. ‘I knew once I was married, there would have been no point in going back to Italy,’ she writes, ‘as I could no longer live at home with my loved ones.’
Maria and Nelio married on 25 July, 1959, three months after they had met. Their wedding reception was at Anzac House in Tudor Street, Hamilton, once the historic Mechanics’ Institute.
Maria and Nelio Martinelli enjoy a picnic with their firstborn son Vincenzo, 1961
Photograph courtesy of Maria Martinelli
Together they would have four children – Vincenzo, Anna, Renato and Giovanni. They would take in boarders, and work ‘like machines,’ as homemakers and at various jobs. Their children were educated at Catholic schools. Houses would be bought and sold until in 1970 they found a house in Hamilton that had all the comforts Maria dreamed of – especially a hot water system, and an indoor laundry and toilet. It’s where they still live today.
As a busy young mother unable to speak much English, Maria would experience loneliness and isolation - until she eventually found she could make friends after all. She seized her independence and got a driving license. In 1968 she began attending an ESL class in the Italian Centre in Beaumont Street, Hamilton. When she followed this up with a correspondence course after the birth of her third child, there was no stopping Maria Martinelli in her determination not just to improve her English, but to master it. In early 1978, as her children returned to school, Maria enrolled in the Newcastle Technical College and began an intensive English course. In time, she graduated with a Certificate 4 in English Language.
Maria giving a speech to her English language class at Newcastle TAFE, 1997
Photograph courtesy of Maria Martinelli
A thirst for learning, knowledge and self awareness led Maria to later complete many of the free courses offered by Lifeline.
Maria Martinelli (R) with her four children – L-R Vincenzo, Anna, Renato, Giovanni, September, 1973
Photograph courtesy of Maria Martinelli
In 1984, Maria felt a strong desire to return to Italy and see her parents. Nelio was willing, so they made plans immediately. It would be 26 years since Maria had seen her family.
Once there, Maria was shocked and saddened to see that the farms of her childhood had become neglected or totally abandoned. There was far more change than she had imagined. When Maria’s father Giovanni became paralyzed on one side as a result of a lightning strike, her parents had to leave the farm and move to the city to live. Maria found her mother Giacomina suffering from dementia, unable to recognize Maria as her daughter. Yet the homecoming, meeting once more family members who had stayed on in Italy was joyous and memorable.
Those who remained behind – Maria’s 8 siblings with Giovanni and Giacomina Ciccanti
at their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, 1970
Giovanni passed away the following year, in 1971
Photograph courtesy of Maria Martinelli
Soon after their return to Australia, Maria received news of her mother’s death. Now, she understood why she had felt such a strong urge to go back home.
When Maria reached retirement age, she wrote and published her life story. ‘It goes without saying,’ she writes modestly, ‘that my life, lived in two different countries, could not possibly have been very easy.’ 
Reading Maria’s story also demonstrated convincingly – as if I needed proof – why Australia’s industrious and hard working immigrants from Italy, Greece, Macedonia and elsewhere have left such an indelible mark on Hamilton. Those small landholders who have truly practiced self sufficiency possessed a formidable range of practical skills that have been passed down the generations. Even if those skills are not used directly in their new country, they become – in human relations jargon – transferable skills, to be adapted and applied in different settings.
In writing her memoir, Maria wanted her children and her grandchildren, and those who follow, to understand where she came from, and how very different her childhood was from theirs. Maria’s lived life and her writing achievement honours the devotion of her own parents. It is a gift and an inspiration not just for her immediate family and friends, but for all of us.
Writing pads filled with Maria’s flowing script became the manuscript
for ‘Nonna’s Story’
Thank you to Maria Martinelli for sharing her story and photographs.
‘Nonna’s Story’ has recently been reprinted. This unusal and beautifully written account of Maria's first 19 years growing up on a subsistence farm in rural Italy covers the period before and after World War II. It is available in Hamilton from Beaumont Street Newsagency, Q's Books, Pina Deli and MacLeans Booksellers (on inquiry). RRP is $20.
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 Maria Martinelli 2006, Nonna’s Story, Vincenzo Martinelli, Merewether,
 Maria Martinelli 2006, Nonna’s Story, Vincenzo Martinelli, Merewether, p.1
 Maria Martinelli 2006, Nonna’s Story, Vincenzo Martinelli, Merewether, p.21
 Maria Martinelli 2006, Nonna’s Story, Vincenzo Martinelli, Merewether, p.36
 ELMA - Electric Lamp Manufacturers of Australia
 The story of the devastation by the Germans in WWII of the village Lettapaleno is readily available on the internet.
 Maria Martinelli 2006, Nonna’s Story, Vincenzo Martinelli, Merewether, p.43
 Maria Martinelli 2006, Nonna’s Story, Vincenzo Martinelli, Merewether, p.108