Sisters celebrate a major milestone

From left Pia Pugno and Grace Marini with life-long friend Nikki Boucher.

By Tania Phillips

Stanthorpe sisters Pia Pugno and Grace Marini have been celebrating a major milestone in their lives this year.

The duo came out with their mother from Italy after the war looking for a better life, their father had been sponsored by a local family the year before, sending for his family once he was settled.

But that is a few years ago now.

“Only 70,” Grace, the older of the two, laughed.

“I’m 84 – I had the pleasure of being 14 when I came to Australia, I really love Australia.

“The trip out here was quite nice – I had my first drink of beer on the boat and I didn’t like it. My mother gave me a whack across the face and said you don’t be rude somebody made it for you, you’ve got to drink it and I got to love it after that,” she chuckled.

They arrived in Brisbane on 24 March, 1951 coming straight to Stanthorpe – where they have been ever since. Marrying and raising their families in the town.

Life in Stanthorpe in the 50s was very different to living in a war-torn Italy – though life wasn’t easy in either place.

“It was pretty rough during the war, mum was there by herself during all the war but she always made sure I was clean and fed -always had something to eat,” Grace said.

“Dad was gone for six years, (19)39 he went off and when he came home I didn’t even remember him – I was only two when he left and I was eight when he came home. I didn’t know him, I was wondering “what is he doing here”.

“I was already the chef of the house. Mum had to go to work there was no pension, nothing so she had to go to work with the men so I had to stay and look after the house and find myself something to eat. I managed quite well.”

Wanting a better life for his wife and two daughters their father made the decision to come to Australia, leaving their small village a year before his family.

“We came from Abruzzo – near Rome – we lived in a little town that’s not there anymore it’s gone – it went down with all of the Earthquake,” Pia, who was only a small child when she came out here, said.

“One and a half hours in from Rome we were on the bus for – it was a pretty little spot, very rural like here – like rocks.

“Mum and her daughters came out then – me and my sister – dad came the year before. My dad was actually a prisoner of war. He came out in 1950 and we came out in 1951. We spent a month on the boat.

“When we got here we couldn’t understand a word of English of course, very us for us fellows- we never had anyone to help us, not like they do know.”

My dad worked for the people who sponsored us out, he worked for them until he paid back his passage and our passage and he bought a block of land. He was a farm-hand labourer. Three of them bought this block of land, the other two left and dad stayed.”

However despite the early language difficulties, the sisters said Stanthorpe was a great place to grow-up.

“There were lots of Italians here, it was good. It was hard – we had nothing but I reckon we still had a better childhood than the kids now because we had no toys or anything,” Pia said.

“My mum was a good cook – we’re all pretty good cooks still but she was the best, she could make you eat anything. Mum became a diabetic and that was the end of her cooking. I’m the one that missed out on the Italian food because when she became a diabetic, we said what you eat we eat, don’t cook anything different. Well it’s not fair so we lived on a lot of grilled steak and salad after that. But I’ve been told I’m still a pretty good cook.”

Lamb was the speciality of the region the ladies grew up in but that was only once a year – their mother was 38 when she came out and had never tasted beef, they had no meat just chicken and they killed one pig a year.

“I can still see her walking down the paddock collecting all the weeds you can eat – dandelion – milk thistles, all that stuff, we had a lot of that,” she said.

The sisters went back to Italy in 2000 for the “trip of a life- time” meeting a lot of aunts who were still alive and living in Italy.

They went back again in 2010, meeting their last remaining uncle and aunt with both parents coming from big families.

I ask if they have a good life here.

“Well I don’t know any different do I – this is where I have been, where I grew up, I have a lot of friends here”.

“When I got married I went four kilometres away so I’m still here and I’ve got my plot over there so I will be finishing here,” Pia laughed.

“I always wanted to leave when I was young but I’ve worked out that it doesn’t matter where you go life is still the same, you are better off where you have family and friends.”