EVERYTHING ABOUT MY FATHER (or almost everything): “The giving-ironic-british-style man”.
Elio, my “babbo” (dad) as we say in Emilia Romagna, is the oldest of three brothers and was born shortly before the beginning of the Second World War, on the 12th of March 1937. He spent his childhood in the countryside around San Mauro Pascoli (FC – Italy), just like the majority of his peers. My grandmother Angela (known as Angiolla), unfortunately lost his first husband to TBC. Before that, the couple had a daughter but the woman knew very well that she could not make it on her own. She was aware that even the support of her family at large would have not been enough to ensure their survival. She was far too young to call herself done and she gave love one more shot. She met Antonio, her second husband and my grandfather. They had three sons and, shortly after that, the man died of TBC as well.
A lot of the things I learned about my dad have been passed on to me during the years, like instalments of true family memorabilia. I have discovered some other things about him during my Erasmus Experience, in 1993, when the both of us started to exchange letters (yeah, we used to do that back in the days). In that short period of time, I saw and understood my father for the very first time, not only as a parent but also as a person. At that time, he was overwhelmed by what I would call “female loss”, given that I was living in Spain at the time. Little by little, we opened up to each other in order to know each other all over again. I am now learning some other things about him, the funny bits, and I will do so until death do us part. Being the oldest son, even if his sister was actually older than him, and not having a father, I always pictured him as the person who had to guide the crew, the one paving his own way by eliminating obstacles, while trying to keep the family together.
He was tall, skinny and had bright blue eyes. On the other hand, even at a young age, he had little to no hair. Nowadays we would call him a “character” or a “fella”, the one that you could fall in love with in a second because he makes you laugh because of his intelligence and smile because of his unprecedented generosity. In our home, which now is my parents’ home, there were never too many photos: one of them pictures a very young Elio, dressed for Carnival. He’s dressed as Bill, one of Tex Willer’s characters, the American guy “defending” the Native American community (again: the importance of surnames should not be taken for granted). It’s a surname that has always been used to reference to him, it still does. He’s Bill, BABBO at home even though in the last years even I learned to call him by his surname.
A long time ago, in Europe, people who were not wealthy enough to go to school started working at a very young age, learning the secrets behind different professions. Bill, for example, made it to the end of elementary school. Together with his younger brothers, he then started gathering some experience in a workshop where they learned to work with wrought iron. When he felt like he was ready, being the oldest son, he decided that his brothers and him should have started working on their own. They were three, so they were in the position of starting a little family business, something which was very common at the time. In the beginning, everything went smoothly and they quickly learned their job. Dad, however, had an idea: he decided that he should take an even bigger risk and broaden his horizons. He thought about working with aluminium: it was not really known, as a material, but it had better isolating qualities compared to iron or wood. Needles to say, that sounded like a very good idea, given the fact that they lived in Emilia Romagna (ITALY), next to the sea, and those other materials could be easily damaged.
Let’s go! Aluminium here we come!
“F.lli Zamagna” was eventually founded and started providing doors and windows. In all those years of family business, Bill has always had everything in control, even in the darkest moments and during family-related problems (don’t worry: it’s all normal, it’s all just part of the game). They managed to keep afloat (which is not always easy, when it comes to big families) and every single one of them gave his/her best. If nowadays I own an apartment and I do not have to pay rent, it’s because of him. When I was younger I used to criticise his absence as a “babbo”. Now I realise that there are only 24 hours in a day: there is just so much you can accomplish. He took a decision and I still had the chance/the possibility/the desire to get to know him and build our relationship as adults.
When F.lli Zamagna started, he was the one looking for potential clients. He still remembers vividly the day they opened the doors of their small workshop for the very first time. He also remembers when the three of them looked at each other, before asking: “And now?”. Bill started running back and forth, full of positivity and initiative, using his little Vespa or APE PIAGGIO, presenting himself to the many construction sites scattered across Emilia Romagna. Little by little he managed to build a steady business, something that could last for a very long time, that never closed its doors and that always paid every single employee and did it on time. Needles to say, it has lasted for more than sixty years. Nowadays everything has been passed to the grandchildren, who named it “Nuova F.lli Zamagna”: they understand the importance of broadening one’s horizons and opening themselves to foreign countries, while staying true to their family’s work values. It’s thanks to them that this part of my history is still alive and well. (Thank you).
One of Bill’s peculiarities is the ability to easily and effortlessly destroy things (I took after him even in that regard). He managed to destroy countless vehicles: Vespas, little lorries and more. It was so bad that his marriage had to constantly be postponed. For a little while he was also known as “the plaster cast uncle”.
After one of the many incidents, this time while falling from a very tall ladder while taking some measurements, he started walking with a limp. They urgently took him to the Rizzoli hospital in Bologna to have him undergoing a medical procedure. Since after the incident, he started wearing an insole in his shoe and he never ever complained because of his situation. According to us, by the way, dad Bill has always walked normally, just like everybody else.
One time, I still remember it vividly, he had so much freaking “luck” . He was stroked by an electrical shock (12.000 W) on the terrace of the apartment we lived in, while trying to take out a caterpillars’ nest with the help of a broomstick (whose handle is made of WOOD). No one ever noticed how out of place and DANGEROUS that old post was. Enel forgot about it, apparently, and we even used to throw buckets of water at it, during the summer. No one knows how, but Bill ended up alive. He was in a coma for a handful of hours, had some bad burns but even (some of) those disappeared with the time. Not even the Enel employee believed that something like that was possible, when Bill’s wife had told him what had happened and had asked for the old post to be removed. The man, believing that a true miracle had happened, suggested that the Zamagna family issued a lawsuit and asked for a refund, because there would have surely won. To be fair, we were just very grateful to have him still with us. We recognized the miracle/gift and left it to that.
Looking back at BILL’s story now, I can clearly see all those signals, the so called non-coincidences. It was never his moment. It was not supposed to be. I don’t know why, I just know that it was never the right time. Thanks to his presence we had an easier life, you know? Maybe it was just written in the stars, maybe our family was not bound to have any more orphans.
He helped so many people, without asking for anything in return and I’m pretty sure it’s because of him that I believe so strongly in giving without wanting anything back. He is a generous person with a British sense of irony. I saw him helping everybody, even people who were blatantly taking advantage of his kindness. When some family member criticised him for that, he always had the same answer: “In this exact moment I don’t need that money, it does not change my life. At all. So why not doing it? To do good makes us feel good regardless”. I saw him help relatives. I saw him help friends in need. I saw him help so many eastern Europeans who came to Italy in the Nineties and did not know what to do or how to survive.
Bill got sick, after having left the aluminium business and retired. He discovered it all by chance (does chance actually exists?) on my birthday (another non-coincidence). Our family gathered around him and they started to call this monster with its name from day one, just like one should: he had prostate cancer. With the time, he luckily got healthy again. After this terrible period of time, Bill remembered the dreams he had as a young man and focused on one in particular: he decided to buy a hotel next to the sea. He was 65 years old, when he decided to realise this dream of his. It’s maybe for this reason that the cancer never came back. In that time, he also met a lot of Albanians and Romanians who worked in the hotels of very good friends of him.
In the Seventies he almost bought a hotel for a very cheap price. The extended family wasn’t having it, afraid of the many risks related to this kind of business, and he did not manage to do it on his own. A time eventually came, in his so called second maturity and after all that sickness, when that dream resurfaced again and he got almost twenty years younger just like that. He didn’t buy the hotel of his dreams, but he made something similar and I can almost say that he managed to realise his dream at last. He spent years directing many hotels of the Riviera Romagnola (Italy), owned by some of his very good friends. He was a genius with numbers and mathematics, always ready to help and funnily ironic with the clients (he even went to buy freshly made Bomboloni at 3:00 am, you know?). He was extremely aware of even the smallest of details and was of course very honest. Not only that, he also dipped his feet in the culinary aspects of it all, being a very good example of a multitasking man and helping the cooks, while discovering a brand new passion. In the Zamagna’s household, nowadays, he’s of course the one taking care of the meals. He did not manage to buy the hotel of his dreams but he directed one for many years and, when N.O.B. was already a teenager, the whole family tried to do the same. It was very difficult but, thinking back about it, it has been a truly remarkable experience.
Bill and I attended the wedding of my best African friend together, in London. Once we were back at the hotel, instead of pulling the cord next to the toilet in order to flush, he turned on the fire alarm. Bill, during this African wedding, when even I could not stand the very loud music, welcomed the breaking of the speakers by saying: “Dai che ai la vem fata, ani pos pio'” (Thank God it’s over. I can’t do this any longer). Bill saw me making mistakes, made me make some as well and very rarely made observations about it, while I was experiencing those failures. Bill talks very little but has always an ironic commentary ready for you or a perfectly timed reply, just like the stereotypical British people that we see on TV. Bill doesn’t criticise and is welcoming towards all the foreigners who arrived at the Zamagnas. He is also a mean poker player: he knows when to stop, understands his limits and has a kick ass memory that I am extremely jealous of. Bill is even involved the charity “PADRE LELLO”: his wife takes care of the logistics while he silently works to assemble huge balls of wood. Those are then given to the knitters of the city to have amazing hand made pieces created with them.
The MAN and FATHER Bill, has told me last year that during his childhood the kids in the neighbourhood used run away from them and scream “Go Go Go! The orphans are arriving, they caught TBC”. While they were doing this, the Zamagna brothers were merrily riding their bikes in the countryside. Ironically enough, all those people are now dead, whereas the Zamagnas are still alive and well. A MAN/FATHER that told me that he does not remember anything about his own father, except the date of his death: 31st December. He has never been a talker, he has rarely judged people but on that occasion he managed to let go and say: “You can imagine what kind of New Year’s Eve that one has been, for us”. (I have to admit, I was taken aback by this sudden openness. I was almost tearing up, did not know how to navigate this new situation but, as per usual, we found our own way to deal with it).
“A positive, ironic, smiling, giving person. A human being that rarely complains, that never judges, a peace keeper that is ready to help just for the sake of it. If, nowadays, N.O.B. is the way she is, it’s also thanks to him”.
What’s the moral of this true story? You can change direction, my friend, no matter how old you are. If you fail to follow your dreams, it will have repercussions on your health. On the contrary, you’ll get younger, if you pursue them. Moreover, it sometimes pays to look at your family for inspiration: if you change your own prospective, trust N.O.B., it will be more than enough.