When we arrived in Italy we realized we were different. More than just our language and our expectations, it was our sheer numbers that set us apart. It started at the airport. The immigration officer collected our passports then looked down at the young faces staring up at him and exclaimed, "Quattro bambini? Ah, Madonna! Bene, bene." Loosely translated, that means, "Four children? Oh my God! Good for you." This wasn’t what I expected. I thought we’d fit right in.
In California we were definitely not the norm, and when the population-control bandwagon rolled into town, we didn’t fit. I had often received cold stares in stores, in parks, and even once in church, as strangers' eyes flicked down the row of my children and then back up to my face to register their disapproval. I stared right back at them. I was proud of my children, and I loved them with a fierceness that surprised me.
I had internalized the stereotype of the typical Italian family as portrayed in American movies and television—a loud boisterous household with dozens of bambini. Italy was a Catholic country, and since the pope lived in Rome, I thought that the Italian people would be especially careful about obeying the church rules. We knew that after a long fight, the Italian secular government had managed to legalize birth control only four months before we arrived, so we expected lots of babies. Finally, I had thought, we’d fit in. Our family might even seem small.
But my expectations couldn’t have been more wrong. I was amazed to discover that the population in Italy was potentially on the decline. Most of the families we met had just one child. We were in the heart of the industrial north, where the economics of raising a child had trumped church law. For the people of that region, it was an accepted part of their life that you created only the number of children you felt you could afford. In my innocence I had not considered that my husband was an only child, and that I had many more cousins than he did. But the members of my family are dreamy, idealistic Irish-Catholics, the opposite of the pragmatic Northern Italians. Rather than feeling at home at last, I realized we were still out of place.
Paul, the oldest, turned five just after our arrival at Gabi. He looked like George, with the same long face and wavy hair, which, like his father’s, had been blonde until the age of four. He would get George’s thick, curly, brown hair when he grew older. He was a typical oldest child: conscientious, kind, and anxious to please us. From a young age he focused on what he was doing and worked hard. He was very outgoing and had been well liked by all of the new relatives he met in England, as well as the ones in Italy.
James, at three and a half when we arrived in Italy, was a little more happy-go-lucky than Paul. He too, looked a lot like his father, but his round face reflected my Irish ancestry, and his hair was a light brown, as mine had been. He was much shyer with strangers than Paul, and he often shrunk back when he was approached by anyone he didn’t know. A typical middle child, he was adept at amusing himself with his Lego blocks or by looking at books. He could also stay focused on a task and was generally a cooperative, if talkative, child.
Matthew also looked just like George and shared George’s long face. His hair was straight like mine, and dark brown like George’s, and he had brown eyes like George. Even at nineteen months, his energy level surpassed that of anyone in the family. It was hard to manage him peacefully for a full day. He challenged decisions he didn’t like with loud yells and a defiant red face. He longed to keep up with his older brothers and bellowed when he had to stay behind. In compensation for his volatile nature, he was a very loving child who hugged as often as he howled.
Margaret Ann was very different in coloring from the boys, or George and me. She had silky blonde hair and deep blue eyes. Her face combined features of both of us, but she looked like neither of us. She had a sunny nature, and she mothered Matthew. I often found her hugging him when he was upset about something—at least twice a day. She also told him off if he misbehaved, which he didn’t take very well. She was more content to play with her toys than Matthew. Whereas he would yell in frustration and give up when a puzzle piece didn’t fit, she played around with it until it did. She was easy-going, like George, and loved to sit and listen to me read books to her. I was lucky in that all of my children were bright. I worked hard to stimulate their minds, as I had read in my childcare books that the first five years were the most important. I knew that the rhythm of their young lives stayed with them forever. I hoped that the farm would add an interesting back-beat to that rhythm.
My focus on educating them was important when September came and with it the need to enroll Paul in school.