Franca Elisa tells us of her life from childhood and adolescence in Sicily in the 80s, raised in a family and social environment where feelings, death and sex are taboos, followed by her personal growth when she moved to Rome, in her university years, leading up to the fullfilment of her greatest desire: having a home of her own.
FRANCA ELISA: «I’m Sicilian, I have been living in Rome for over half of my life, but I am always Sicilian.
Who am I? It’s the hardest question in the world.
I am a person trying to be happy every day… to get to know myself more and more… with many fears and anxieties…
And the only way out is by doing things… Doing things takes me away from fears.
I grew up in a culture where being a mother was the only goal… The ultimate goal, even before being a wife,
even before being married.
I’ve always joked with my parents about me being born nine months and two days after they got married,
because in the end, that was the goal.
Not love, or sharing your life with a person of your choice someone you love, with whom you can share common interests, but… have children.
I would have loved to have a mother who instead would not have given up her projects… To study, to continue working, also because I was fascinated as a child by her job, creating beautiful tailleurs from a piece of paper.
But also what was a joy for her, it has become an obligation.
Because raising three children with a single salary in the 1970s forced her to work for us, for our clothes, to save money by making them at home.
So I saw in her only the mother, a worn out mother, a nervous mother who couldn’t make it.
And so, her being a mother… it was not a total choice.
It was an obligation… and she struggled.
Having then two brothers.
after a few years, turned me in a kind of mother and no longer a daughter.
The mother helper, who should behave, who could not cry, who had to take care of my younger brothers, because mom couldn’t do it.
In all of this… growing up I don’t know if I ever had the desire, the wish or a maternal instinct that you hear so much about.
I dedicated my life more than anything else to my own growth, to understand myself… Becoming a mother\Nwas never my main goal.
And maybe, when the time came was no longer possible.
I never had such important relationships, maybe I didn’t want them, that would make me seriously\Nthink of becoming a mother.
I wanted to be Elisa.
In the past, I have often thought I was not capable… Okay, so… the fear of having to… totally and unconditionally take care of another human being scared me.
I was the human being I had to take care of.
At five, I found myself alone in my little room to think: ‘I have to take care of myself’, because no one else could.
There was no loving grandmother, there was no father because he worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week.
There was a depressed mother, depressed because the postpartum caused her a depression.
A one-year old brother who never left my mom, a newborn brother who cried every night, with my mother worn out having hysterical crisis.
And I decided, I don’t know how consciously, because at five you can’t tell yourself, ‘ok, I take care of myself’.
But that was that, that was my decision.
A decision that surely did not bring any good, because in life you can’t take care… You can’t do everything by yourself.
It is not possible not to ask for help, not having someone to trust.
But that’s what I did for so many years.
To date, when I am asked if I have any regrets?
No, I worked very hard to find my peace.
And… that’s fine.
Obviously, for a family whose purpose was to have a family, have children more than a family.
My mother called herself a mother, a wife perhaps in recent years.
Since we grew up, we left home, she became more a wife than a mother.
“You’ll know when you’re a mother.”
“You can’t understand as you’re not a mother.”
‘”You can only understand me once you’ll be a mother”.
“We will not have a common view ” it was my daily bread.
She’s never been…
she never told me directly: “Why don’t you find yourself a man?
Why don’t you get married, Why don’t you start a family?”
I just saw the look… I was accompanied from silences and those looks, being seen as an alien, different from all the others.
A few years ago, back in Sicily, we meet a friend of mom’s\Nand she asks: “Is she married?”
And mom answered her, I was very happy about it.
Mom replied: ‘No… but she is happy.’
Many barriers came down from there.
many misunderstandings… To be seen, in that moment,
I had achieved the goal to be seen.
I was happy.
Why should I have been the same… to all the others if I was peaceful.
My double name Franca Elisa.
Actually, for mom I should have just been Elisa.
The addition of Franca is due to my paternal grandmother, Francesca.
Two cousins of mine before me were called Francesca, it was almost an obligation for me to be named Franca or Francesca, but Elisa has a story.
My mother worked, during her adolescence, in a tailor shop.
She tells about the years when she worked like a fairy tale, like a movie from the 50s, 60s.
She wanted to study, but in the 1950s, why a woman in Sicily should study?
There’s no reason.
So after third grade, so she went way beyond in her education, she had to stay at home, to help her mother, helping her brothers…
And she couldn’t do it, she wanted to go out, she wanted to see the world, she wanted to do things.
And she came up with a lady, coming from Milan on holiday in Sicily, had fallen so in love with the place, that she decided to open a clothing and tailor shop, and she was looking for girls to work there.
And she was very happy to go and work there.
This lady’s daughter was married to a man, an engineer, who worked at the Argentine Embassy.
I don’t know how true this story is, by the way, this Elisa, who used to come from Argentina on a transatlantic liner, she came to see her mother.
and told of these journeys by ocean liner,
of the parties in the embassy, her evening dresses, the photos.
And she said, “I want my daughter to have all this.”
And so that’s where the name Elisa come from.
My mother is anyway always an anxious person, an anxious person…
And…anyway this woman who she looked up to, was accompanied by a powerful man, an engineer.
She would have wanted me to have all these things, but someone had to protect me, a man had to protect me.
It was a man who had to give me the evening dresses, the jewels, the travels, the parties.
She was always scared, sometimes I thought a little jealous of my total freedom and recklessness.
Above all, frightened, anxiety was a great companion.
An anxiety that she transmitted to me too, leaving at nineteen and come to a big city totally alone.
Start from scratch, I mean, I didn’t even know how to cook an egg, I didn’t know what an electricity bill was.
And every choice I made, every one of my stories was accompanied by her anxiety attacks.
I’ve always seen her split in half: on the one hand, you could see that she was somehow proud that even by myself I succeeded anyway in doing things.
On the other the fear ‘Who takes care of her?’ In the end, I took care of my mother myself.
I took care when I put my head under the pillow at five years old because I was afraid of the dark, and I didn’t want her to hear me cry.
Because she couldn’t, She didn’t have time to pamper me.
I took care of her when I learned to read fairy tales, because no one had time to read me the fairy tales.
There is an anecdote: my little brother… once escaped from kindergarten, he was four years old.
Kindergarten wasn’t far from home. but not so close either, for a four-year-old boy to come back home on his own.
Since he was the little one, he had to do all that the others did, the elder brother had already gone on to elementary school, he didn’t want to be in kindergarten.
He escaped from kindergarten, leaving his coat, his schoolbag, everything… He came home because he no longer wanted to stay in kindergarten, and hid behind some plants in the garden, waiting to get inside, because mom didn’t have to know.
I found him there, I must have been seven… nine years old?
Yes, I was nine if he was four… and he said to me: “Don’t tell mom, otherwise she worries.”
So, at the age of nine, I was mature enough to tell him: “OK, but even if mom is scared you can’t stay here in the cold, in December, in the garden without a coat! I’ll talk to mom to reassure her. ”
And when my mother saw him there, panic attacks…
“Alone, you crossed the streets, to come home… ”
Anyway, even now. after so many years, when there are crises of a certain type in the family, I get summoned.
I have never involved anyone when there were crisis in my life.
In the context of work definitely being a woman without children… makes you look like someone with no problems, with no major commitments, so…
Your availability is almost total, it cannot be total, but you don’t have to rush around to take the child to kindergarten or school, or go home to pick them up, prepare baby food.
You don’t stay up until ten at night trying to put them to sleep.
You are free… And very often, your tiredness also in the field of work it is not seen in the same way.
You can also run your errands at other times.
Being a mother… you are considered with a certain privilege.
You are allowed to have some privileges, because you have to think about your children.
Being a mother gives you the right to say something more compared to those who are not mothers.
I left home at nineteen… and I felt uprooted, with nowhere to stay, right?
Shared rooms rented during college, apartments that were not my own, where even hanging a picture was… a luxury.
And most importantly, I needed a place that it was totally mine.
My home of origin It was not my home, it was my parents’ house, where even my room did not belong to me.
My room was run by my mom, it was she who decided the ornaments to put, the bedspread, the color of the wall…
My biggest wish was to have a home of my own.
And for many years I thought that it would have been impossible, from an economic point of view, the precarious jobs, being unable to get a mortgage.
And I always thought of it as a wish, something so far away, impossible to have.
And talked about it as a wish… And during the lockdown months, at home, on my own, in the company of a cat, I said to myself: this depends on me.
Changing the world, meeting the man of my life, being loved madly is not up to me, this I can do.
And as soon as lockdown was lifted, I went a real estate agency and said, “This is what I have, and this is what I need.” and from there we started the bureaucratic process, and the day I was told ‘OK, the mortgage has been accepted’ it was the happiest day in the world.
And here too I found a family that was close to me.
In my teens, relationships with my family were terrible, they were truly tragic: misunderstandings, silences, arguments… I grew up in Sicily in the 80s, where I was the first… the first one to say I wear my ripped jeans, and I colour my hair purple, I want to go to the cinema, I want to go to concerts, I spend the night outside with friends in front of a bonfire.
Today’s girls, if they hear something like this they would say: ‘”So what ?!’
It was a revolution for me, taking a train to go to Palermo, six hours by train to go and see a concert… None of my cousins had ever done it, it was something… It was unthinkable.
So… I had to struggle all my life, to have someone supporting me in my choices.
And the house also symbolizes that, having made a choice shared with people who love me.
When I decided to buy it, I talked to my brother, telling him: ‘At least a place of my own, I want a place of my own to return to.
And my brother said to me, “But we have a house.”
It’s my family’s house.
Right now, I changed my perspective, point of view on that as well.
It is a safe place to return to, but it’s not mine.
The relationship with my body was dramatic, because… First of all, I’ve always been a very tall girl.
I’ve always been taller than average.
At some point, around 10, 11 years old I exploded, I had my period.
From being a little girl going around topless at the beach, I found myself with big breasts.
In my family we all inherited this from Grandma.
And I find myself with a mother unable to handle the situation.
One afternoon while she was having a coffee with my aunts, so the four sisters who obviously had to manage the situation, they tell her, “Maybe it’s time to buy a bra.”
And my mother said, ‘But no, she is still a child, what does she make of a bra?’
And my aunts laughing obviously point out, ‘But she has a D-cup, she may be a child but maybe it’s time to buy her a bra.”
Anyway, I remember the moments in which in middle school, maybe the only one who knew. was my maths teacher, that one day summoned\ my mother said to her: “She is a woman, she has a woman’s body, she is an 11-year-old girl who’s 1.70 m tall, with her classmates who are little more than children and they look at her, and she is not at ease.”
There was also silence, there was silence.
My mother’s only comfort was the story, what someone elsevhad warned her.
But I wasn’t the one to be protected.
The fact that she had beenvwarned was enough, she was a good mother,vbecause she was aware of what was happening to me.
But I was left alone, alone to manage this body I was terribly ashamed of.
I was unable to managev a woman’s body with a little girl’s brain.
Talking about sex at home was… something totally unknown.
Sex was not pleasure, was not a topic to talk about, there was no sex education whatsoever.
A cousin of minev got pregnant at seventeen, she was very happy about this, unlike myself, she was a textbook mother, she’s the perfect mother.
It wasn’t a mistake for her, getting pregnant at 17, it was what he wanted… She is the mother who reads fairy tales, prepares cakes, who takes the children to school, follows them in the study: she was born to be a mother.
I remember my mother communicated this to me during a holiday, upon my return from Rome.
She was tearful when she told me, as if it were the most terrible in the world, a terrible tragedy, and I responded rationally.
I knew that getting pregnant at 17 was not super cool.
And I blamed her for her absence on the subject, for never telling me how to handle sexual intercourse, how to approach sex.
She replied: “I’ve always told you what to do, I always told you to be careful.”
I said, “Mom, yeah. How should I be careful?’
‘You don’t have sex! It’s so simple!
The worst time of my life he was between 15 and 17 years old.
I had a cousin Three years longer than me, a child three years older than me it was for me the father-mother figure…
The only father figure I’ve ever had.
That’s crazy to say.
He was the one who protected me, that made me win in the games, who told me I was smart, that protected me…
When I was 14 years old we had the first major bereavement in the family, an uncle who was just over thirty got sick.
It was never clear whether it was a virus he had caught in Africa, my uncle worked on oil rigs in North Africa.
Those were the years when they started talking about AIDS.
They did all the necessary checks, but it was never clear.
One morning on February 14th… coming back from school I don’t find anyone at home.
An uncle of mine came to me pick me up and said: ‘Mom’s busy.’
There was no talk of diseases,
illness was taboo.
You must not show the feelings, the pain, you must not… comfort others.
Perhaps the verb must is wrong, it wasn’t part of the culture, there was no habit of this, you kept everything to yourself.
That day I came back pretty cheerful from school it was a day… It was Valentine’s Day, we had joked, played.
I was picked up and brought to an aunt’s house, who… had totally put me at ease.
‘Eat, play, study, do your homeworks, do not think about anything, nothing happened’ And I found out everything… things didn’t sound right.
I found out that my uncle was dead. Listening to a phone call.
Eavesdropping on a phone call… When my father came to pick me up in the evening, I told him: “Why did you hide it from me?
Why didn’t you tell me?”
And he always unable… unable to show feelings or unable to hug me, to comfort me in a painful moment he replied: ‘What was I supposed to say?’
The only one who was close to me at that time was a 17-year-old boy.
He was the only one who hugged me, the only one to tell me… “If you need I stay with you tonight.”
A little later… the following November my cousin got cancer.
They gave him no hope.
As soon as they discovered what he had they said he could live maybe only two, three months.
The worst Christmas of my life.
Even there, I sensed, I understood, I eavesdropped, no one informed me, no one told me anything.
They didn’t even say anything to him.
He knew he was sick, he knew he was going from one hospital to another, but he didn’t know anything.
One day he locked me up inside a room telling me: “At least you have to tell me the truth.”
What did I know about the truth?
I was stupid and young, I was only fifteen.
What were they supposed to tell me? What was I supposed to know?
We hugged, we cried… We’ve been crying for an hour, without knowing what to say.
After nine months, because it was August, he died in August… In those nine months he changed, he was no longer my hero, he was no longer my big brother, he was no longer the one who protected me.
He became nasty, mean, angry, angry that I was free to go around playing around and having fun with friends.
I had run away, I couldn’t bear all the pain and anger he had, all the pain that was there at the time.
I behaved as a teenager I was, I went out with my friends, I went to concerts.
One morning in August, I was awaken pretty abruptly by my mother.
who angrily she said to me: “You’re still asleep, get up!” And she dragged me to the hospital, I had stopped seeing my cousin for a few months, also because it was not possible to see it.
And I managed to see him to say good bye to him, a few days before he died.
He was a beautiful boy, but really nice.
He was unrecognizable in that hospital bed.
In that moment I started to feel anger, the anger I have brought with me for the rest of my life.
And I was very touched by something my mother used to say.
Every time I did something wrong, came home drunk, stayed out late, every time I did something that wasn’t right…
One day she said to me: “Before he died, Salvo he told me “Auntie, take care of Elisa.”
A 19-year-old boy who was dying had to tell my mother to take care of me, because he couldn’t anymore.
I’m angry that nothing can be done.
I am not afraid of my own death, it’s not mine that scares me.
Within a year and a half I lost two loved ones, they were very much loved.
And I saw such a dumb grief in the people who survived him.
one had lost the love of her life.
with two little girls of 7 and 2 years to raise… On her own. My aunt didn’t work, she had lost the love of her life.
the man she had chosen and whom she had married running away from home against my grandfather’s will, who treated her like a princess: she had never worked, he had always been beside her.
She rolled up her sleeves and she raised two wonderful women.
We said jokingly: They look like the movie Let’s hope it’s a girl.
Three women alone who have leaned on each other.
But such an immense pain: the loss of the man you love, my cousin who had lost her father who for her was… the absolute hero;
the one who couldn’t even remember him.
Se was two when he died, and he had spent the last two years in hospital.
The other aunt who had lost a son, and that for years didn’t… she didn’t leave home.
I see death as… with anger… with anger.»