The gamble of their lives
Sisters Christine and Josephine De Mase were born into crushing poverty; their family barely eking out a living in small southern Italian town amid the aftermath of World War II.
With Europe in ruins and the future looking bleak, the girl’s parents decided to risk all on a move to the other side of the world.
Recalling their early years in the town of Viggiano, they tell of how their Father Vincenzo would roam as far as Switzerland in search of work, usually coming home empty-handed.
Their Mother, Giuseppina Monda, tended the houses of more fortunate people, stashing away the meagre lunch of bread and cheese she was given to feed to her young family.
“There was a lot of poverty during that period. Mum and Dad barely made ends meet. They lived in some stables that they rented and we slept upstairs in one small room,” Christine said.
“Mum cooked for us on fire pit in the floor – and that was only when we had food,” she said.
“When mum gave birth one time it was in winter and the snow meant the midwife couldn’t come so she had the baby on her own,” Christine said.
“I went to school for a year before we left Italy. We got fed at school and often it was the only meal we got,” sister Josephine added.
Christine said her mother had been one of 13 children in a poor family.
“When some relatives came from America, mum’s parents gave her one of their daughters to take and look after. They thought she would have a better life in America than they could provide. But Mum always wondered what became of her sister,” she said.
Like many other Europeans at the time, in 1963 and 1964 the family left everything behind; all that they had known and loved in search of a better life in country they had learned about only through second hand accounts.
“With times in Italy extremely tough, in 1963 Dad emigrated to Australia. He went by ship, which took 40 days. He set up a base and we followed in 1964, the same way - by ship,” Christine said.
“It was a huge risk… a gamble,” she said.
Uprooting their lives, they took what they could carry to start afresh.
“I remember we went to Naples to get the boat to Australia. It was there I had my first banana. On the ship, I had bread, butter and jam for the first time. The ship was a happy time for us,” Christine said.
Vincenzo found work as a labourer and when his family arrived they encountered a strange land.
“I was expecting to see kangaroos and koalas. We were told they would be everywhere. But when we got here it was different,” Josephine said.
“We rented a house in Carlton and the fridge was full of food and drink we had never had before,” she said.
“We had to go to school and Mum went to work straight away. For her there was no time to study English,” Christine said.
“Mum worked in a factory in Rathdowne Street making kids clothing. It was piece work so you only got paid for what you made,” she said.
While their parents toiled, the sisters encountered the difficulties of being ‘different’ in an Australian high school.
“School was terrible for me.” Josephine said. “I didn’t understand any English and because I was tall I was put at the back of the class. I couldn’t learn anything.”
“There was a lot of racism back then. We were called dagoes or wogs. It was terrible really. It made you feel like you didn’t fit in. I remember it being like that for a long time – ten or fifteen years – I think probably until the next wave of migrants from Asia came in the 1970s,” Christine remembers.
The De Mase family were the living embodiment of the Australian government’s new ‘populate or perish’ immigration policy and, as such, they found a place within the thriving migrant communities emerging in Melbourne.
“We had family and friends close by and that’s how we spent most of our time. We’d gather at each other’s house – and there was always food. In Carlton you could buy Italian groceries,” said Christine.
“We would mostly spend time with other Italian kids,” Josephine added.
Meanwhile, Vincenzo and Giuseppina were both working over-time; not wasting a moment of the sudden surplus of work available to them.
Vincenzo worked for whoever would take him while Giuseppina worked extra shifts in nearby factories or as a cook and nanny for her bosses.
Through this hard work they prospered, providing their children with stability. And in 1966 they bought a home in Flemington which became a magnet for extended family.
“Mum would cook and bake. Wine, tomato sauce, salami and pickled vegetables were made with all hands on deck creating great fun days,” Christine said.
“There were many memorable trips on Saturdays to the Vic markets and we’d go home loaded down with boxes of fruit and veg,” she said.
Having achieved the Australian dream, Vincenzo, sadly, barely had the chance to enjoy it.
“Dad died at just 49. He had a heart attack. It was sad because Mum and dad had finally gotten themselves into a good place. But dad died and Mum was on her own,” Christine said.
“Mum was a remarkable person who worked extraordinarily hard to put food on the table. Into her late 80’s she was growing vegies, making wine and sauce and salami. She was always cooking,” Josephine added.
“Nothing stopped her,” said Christine. “Mum was a strong person. She was independent and very hard working.”
The impact of their parents’ decision to immigrate is not lost on the pair, who are the first generation out of a cycle of poverty.
“They had a hard life,” said Josephine. “We owe everything to our parents, they had nothing.”
“With our parents it wasn’t about studying hard, it was about finishing school and getting a job. As long as we had a job and were able to support ourselves, that was good enough,” said Christine.
“Back in those days it was easy to find work. I left school at 15 and got a job. Then I met my husband and I stopped working and had three kids,” Josephine said.
“I started work at 17. I did what a lot of Aussie kids were doing. I got a job over the Christmas holidays. It was on St Kilda Road – which I had never been to before,” Christine said.
“I went to the interview not really knowing who I was applying to but it turned out to be an insurance company and I’ve just retired after 40 years. It was the only job I ever had. I made a lot of friends and met my husband there,” she said.
“I have often wondered what would have happened to us if we had stayed in Italy. In Italy at the time there was nothing - no work. I would probably have ended up a housewife with kids in a very humble home” said Christine.
“There is one thing Mum would always say,” Josephine added. “’Grazie a Dio per Austaliano - Thank God for this country Australia, this is where our lives began’.”