Nonna’s Lens: Fighting and Finding Stillness in Isolation
In front of the hills of Arthur’s Seat, Margherita Nerini-Garcia stands before the Mornington Peninsular shore. Margherita, my nonna, pulls off her dress and throws herself into the water like a puppy without a lead. She lifts her feet, kicking the buckle of the current from underneath her. It is here, in the surge of the water, that she feels weightless, elevated from gravity. In her words, “There is nothing pulling you down”.
Now, she sits opposite me, wearing a plaintive expression through the lens of her camera. A Skype call closing the distance between Melbourne and Coolum Beach. She moved here with Tata, my grandpa, over a year ago because Dromana is “too bloody freezing”. She’s wearing the same pinky mauve lipstick and ring of kohl eyeliner that she’s worn my whole life. And she’s stopped dying her hair. Peppery tones frame her olive complexion in a short, sweeping crop.
We’ve been practising social distancing for over a month and she feels like it’s getting to her. She’s not in a good headspace to do the things she usually enjoys. Her painting classes have stopped, the library is closed. Her local pottery group has taken a break. Pottery, she says, is the one thing that quietens her mind.
“You know when my mind starts at night sometimes? The only way I can bring it back into me and into the present is to think about pottery”.
She tells me about the “potter’s nod”, which is when her head moves around in small circles, like being hypnotised by the ceramic wheel: a sign of great concentration. This process is as meditative as it is gratifying, soothing her impulses to overthink and stimulating creativity with her hands. For her, the pandemic has created a stillness in her life that she feels stifled by.
“I think it’s just the freedom of choice. That’s the difficult part. You feel like you’re a little bit in jail,” she laughs to herself. “We’re not in a very good place at the moment. It makes creativity…” she draws in a deep breath, “well, I’m finding it very difficult”.
She’s in the middle of painting a still-life piece, a project which has been sitting in her living room for a week. “I’ve approached it twice. I’m being very critical of my own work.”
She steps away from the screen to retrieve it, returning with a large landscape canvas in her arms. It makes up half of her petite stature. Through the camera’s foggy grain, I can see an old kettle with a goose-neck spout outlined in the background of the painting. Not yet shaded in, it’s surrounded by clouds of dark brown paint, tracing the shapes of fruits and vegetables in the foreground. Blurry oranges, cauliflower and onions overlap each other like a messy kitchen table. Painting, like pottery, is a fluid process for her, but she admits that she’s new to this kind of expression. Her artistic direction is usually guided by her teacher and without the assistance of her classes, she feels creatively lost.
We reflect on the motionlessness of this phase of our lives. While she feels restrained by social isolation, it gives us a moment of pause to connect. Our reality is much like this still-life painting as she fills in the gaps of her experiences that until now, had not been clear to me.
Nonna and her mother came to Australia in April, 1957. She was seven years old on the Flotta Lauro, a ship from La Spezia, the port in northern Italy where she was born. They arrived in Adelaide, where her father had settled a year earlier to work as a plumber in Maitland. At first, she couldn’t speak any English at school and wouldn’t answer when the nuns called her “Margaret”.
She recalls telling the nuns that she wanted to study pharmaceuticals: “They said, do you think you’re better than us?” She was looked down upon for being an outsider and didn’t know anyone else from overseas – that is, until she met Renato in 1966.
Renato was eight years older than her, from an Italian family that her father knew, living in Melbourne. They married when she was 18. If she were to go back in time, she would tell herself not to get married so young. In her words, “You don’t know yourself at that age.” But she wanted to confront adulthood with new perspectives, people and places: “I’ve always had the dream of experiencing things. There’s got to be more than this life.”
They lived in Melbourne during the 1970s, where Nonna worked in the arts, directing and acting at the National Theatre in St Kilda. She says she’s never considered herself an intellectual, despite also studying an honours degree in psychology and eventually working in computer database systems throughout the 80s and 90s.
In January 1994, Renato died suddenly of a heart attack. She was 44 years old with a six-year-old son: my uncle, Giancarlo. She was wrapped in grief as it mounted her like a shadow, wilting away her spirit. But with support, she built resilience. “I found that I could do things. Like you know how you always have that doubt about yourself, no matter what age you are? I realised that I was a strong person.”
Nonna and Tata found each other after they each experienced periods of grief and isolation. Tata’s first wife, my Abuela, passed away a few months before I was born. They met at a formal gathering in late 1995 and married in February 1996 at the same location Nonna had her first pottery class.
Tata shuffles to the screen. He’s wearing a burgundy t-shirt and his cheeky, dimpled smile. I ask him about the first time they met. “As soon as I saw her, I said, ‘I’m in love with you!’ and she couldn’t believe it. For me, it’s a true story.”
He tells me how my great-grandmother tried to set him up with other Chilean women after Abuela passed away, but he mistakes the word great-grandmother for grandmother in English. Nonna corrects him from behind the camera, shouting from the kitchen, “It’s Jasmine’s great-grandmother!”
He pauses and doubtfully shakes his head. “No.”
Laughing, she howls from the fridge, “I’m having ice cream!”
I laugh and Tata corrects himself. “Great-grandmother? Okay.”
Nonna returns, wrapping her arms lovingly around his shoulders. She doesn’t know how long these restrictions will last but she predicts that our normal way of life may be changed for good. “Maybe, in the year 2020, we needed some pulling back. Maybe this is what we needed.”
For now, she walks by herself in the mornings, the mountains around her, the water on the other side. Just like La Spezia, just like Dromana. That morning, she looked up to the sight of butterflies: “Tonnes of them,” as she describes. “There were all these beautiful butterflies and they looked towards the sun. It was just a beautiful scene. It made me feel very good. Just to be able to see it.”
She pauses for a moment, smiling at the thought. And, just like in all moments of uncertainty, she’s found stillness. Suddenly, whatever is pulling her down, floats away.
Cover by the author