Or should I say “Uncle Ron”, because that is how I always addressed you, even well into my 40s? I guess a part of me continued to feel like the small girl who slipped secretively under the table, still laden with Sunday lunch, to climb up on your knee. I always feared someone else would get there first. And I was in a rush to reach you. Some people are peaceful to be near, and that’s how I found you.
The journey under the table wasn’t far – I was wise enough to arrange the chairs favourably – but it felt to me like a journey to a different land. At some point in adulthood, I came to understand that this land was Italy. If these things were measured purely in blood, well, you were no more Italian than your siblings – my dad, and my other wonderful uncle and aunt. But you, more than anyone, seemed to have one foot in Italy. As a bachelor, you continued to live in Villa Latina – not a villa, of course, but a small terrace house in Worthing, which your parents, when they settled here, named after your late father’s village. It seemed like a piece of Italy to me, and not just because of its exotically turquoise bathroom suite.
Being the eldest living sibling, you knew more about the Italian branches of the family than anyone else. You mourned the loss of the old family ice-cream recipe: there lay a secret and perhaps a treasure chest of vanilla-flavoured gold. Flush with the cash from your nocturnal fishing trips, you invested in Linguaphone cassettes to learn Italian; my grandparents hadn’t taught you, wanting you to grow up English. But you were my Italian uncle, and when I sat on your knee our family background came to the fore. I could feel Italy at my shoulders.
As a teenager, I taught myself Italian and since progress with the old Linguaphone tapes was slow, I overtook you. I resolved to live in Italy one day, and when I did, you came to visit me. We went together to find the real Villa Latina and to root out anyone we could find who shared our surname. Outside the village we stumbled upon a sign to via Fontana Cocozza and I have the photo, right here, of you pointing up at it with your stick. We never did find the fountain, but that’s Italian road signs for you. In any case, by then your knee was playing up; getting around was beginning to be tricky.
Well, Uncle Ron, I’m so grateful to you for the way you brought Italy close to hand. I don’t think I’d have found my way there without you. And at least when life got tough for you at the end, we had our Italian memories to share. I took the photo of you by the sign to show you in hospital; that gave us a chuckle. I’m grateful to have had a chance that day to tell you all this, and to thank you in person, while there was still time. It would be too late now. But it’s good to put these things in writing.