NONNA VITTORIA MELIA was born on November 10, 1938 in the beautiful 11th century town of Bivongi, nestled at the feet of the Monte Consolino Range in Reggio Calabria.
She was the oldest daughter in a family of five children, and from an early age was responsible for many household duties and taking care of the family.
By the age of seven, she was learning to cook with her mother, and began baking bread in the village’s communal ovens by the age of nine. She cooked meals for her family of seven and extra food for her grandparents.
Vittoria attended school when time permitted. When she was around nine years of age, she had to start taking her youngest sister, then aged 18 months, to school with her to look after her. By the fifth grade, Vittoria’s duties at home overtook her formal education and she left school.
Olives were a very big part of her family’s life and work. As was the tradition, Vittoria would carry olives in sacks laden on her head, from the fields to the cantina (cellar), rain or shine.
By the age of nine, she had commenced sewing lessons, which included learning how to cut patterns and finish garments.
At 14 years of age, she was outfitting the family by sewing shirts for her brothers, knitting socks, and mending clothes.
It was a frugal world, and nothing went to waste, so old clothing was cut into strips and scraps and turned into cloths for use around the house.
At around 17 years of age, she also began weaving during the day and embroidering the pieces at night, often working until the early hours of the morning by the light of a lamp.
Due to the amount of work she had to do and the seriousness of the responsibilities she held for her family, Vittoria vowed that she would never marry unless it led to an opportunity for a life away from the village.
It was customary at the time for young ladies to be responsible for preparing their dowry in preparation for future marriage, and despite her views on matrimony, Vittoria laboured even harder and had it ready within the three months expected.
She had refused several offers of marriage by the age of 21 and her family were beginning to worry she would remain a zitella (spinster).
Her eventual marriage to Ottaviano came through an introduction from a family friend, and when he revealed that his family intended to emigrate from Italy to Australia, Vittoria decided that he was the right man for her!
They wed in the winter of January 1960, and she walked from her house to the church in the rain, with her family, friends, and townspeople following her in the procession.
After the ceremony, 300 guests attended a festive reception and indulged in traditional wedding favours, confetti (sugared almonds), and dolci (sweets).
Australia beckoned two years into their marriage and Ottaviano and his brother departed on June 29, 1962 from Genoa, arriving in Fremantle on July 25, 1962.
Vittoria’s dream of living in Australia finally came true nine long months later, when she arrived in Fremantle on April 6,1963 on the Neptunia.
Although leaving her family for this new beginning was sad, her path was predestined and would lead to true happiness. The excitement of ultimately having her independence and the abundant opportunities she was presented with in Perth was truly life-changing.
It wasn’t easy in the early years in Australia, however, Vittoria had faith and the knowledge that with hard work, she would achieve all her ambitions. As with many immigrants from the era of the diaspora, Vittoria and Ottaviano were torn between their want for a better life and their regret for having left their families in Bivongi.
Vittoria’s attitude to life has always been; “Never look back, look to the future and don’t stop” and this has served her well throughout her life.
Vittoria’s dreams of an independent and successful life all those decades ago came true and are a testament to her fierce strength and quiet determination.
In true pioneering spirit, she ventured to a new land, which she knew in her heart of hearts would become her beloved home.
Vittoria and Ottaviano created a beautiful home filled with love and devotion and gave their children all the opportunities they could provide.
Over the years, Vittoria has welcomed many into her home with warm, open arms and a loving heart, and made them feel part of her family. She is beloved and respected by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as all of those in the community who have adopted her as a nonna.
Vittoria truly is her own woman and is an inspiration to everyone. Buona fortuna, Vittoria!
WE continue our celebration of the often unsung heroes – the Nonnas – who helped to make Western Australia the vibrant multicultural state we can now enjoy, with the life of Nonna Vittoria Melia.
Nonna Vittoria will be sharing her life story as part of the Nonnas Project at the WA Maritime Musuem this Tuesday, August 9.
A special feature of the presentation will be a collection of her family’s handmade linen, stretching back more than 100 years to the nightgown worn by her own mother.
In her hometown of Bivongi, every young woman was required to prepare a trousseu in preparation for her future wedding.
From the time she was nine-years-old Nonna Vittoria was learning how to sew and would work every night after chores – sometimes until 3am in the morning, weaving and working on the linens. Her magnificent wedding dress, pictured here, was the result of this remarkable dedication.
In Conversation with Vittoria Melia is being held on Tuesday August 9 from 11am – 12.30pm at the WA Maritime Museum. It’s a free event but bookings are essential through https://ticketing.museum.wa.gov.au/in-conversation-martime/vittoria-melia