At first impression, Elena seems very shy. But once you get to know her, it becomes apparent that her life is full of cherished memories.
The black photo album on the table in the living room at Rathdowne Place contains photos from Elena’s life taken in her home town in Italy and here in Australia with her family.
Vigheffio is a small town on the outskirts of Parma, Italy, and it played a substantial role in Elena’s childhood. On July 6, 1924, Elena was born in a farmhouse with a thatched roof. Elena’s parents, Emilio and Maria, were farmers who owned fertile land in Vigheffio and produced a variety of fresh produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes and wheat. Elena’s family also made wine, such as Moscato, Malvasia and Lambrusco, from the grapes grown on the farm.
Elena’s family also raised cows, pigs and sheep for food and income. Elena was given a variety of tasks on the farm, though she says was not always good at them. When she was eight years old she was given the responsibility of tending pigs. Not long after, Elena became distracted and the pigs escaped. Her father had to call a livestock catcher to round them up.
Elena had four younger siblings: Iolanda, Elizabetta, Alessandro and Federico. Elena is 12 years older than Federico and held a significant role in raising her younger siblings. After finishing school in fifth grade, Elena learnt to become a dressmaker. From a young age, she had already been making clothes for her family from fabrics bought in Parma. Elena refined her skills with the help of an established dressmaker and getting advice from local nuns so she could continue making garments for her family.
World War II broke out during Elena’s mid-teens. There would be frequent bombings near her home, bridges and roads the targets. Elena would cross paths with many German and Italian soldiers, but she had to be wary of fraternising with Germans during the occupation as this was highly frowned on. Elena’s next door neighbour’s house was converted into a hospital by the Germans for their injured soldiers. At any one time, there would be about 20 soldiers in the hospital and they occupied it until 1945.
During the war, a man named Sebastiano came to Vigheffio after escaping the Germans. He and his army division had been imprisoned in ‘La Citadella’, a walled garden near Parma’s centre. Sebastiano met Elena and befriended her father. Trained as a shoemaker, Sebastiano started making shoes for Elena’s family. Elena and Sebastiano began to date in secret as Emilio was wary of men visiting his daughters. However, Elena’s parents soon figured out Sebastiano and Elena were seeing each other and accepted their relationship.
Elena and Sebastiano married in May 1949 and moved to Australia later that year. They sailed on the ship called La Toscana and arrived in Melbourne in early 1950. Elena and Sebastiano lived at her brother-in-law’s farm in Dandenong for a year, and then rented a house on Sydney Road, Coburg, near the old Pentridge Gaol. Elena soon found a job in Richmond sewing skirts and pants, while Sebastiano ran a shoe repair store. In 1954, Elena gave birth to her first child Gloria and in 1962, her second child Edward followed.
In the early 1960s, Sebastiano and Elena opened a shoe factory called Manola Shoes. Manola shoes was a small enterprise that made children’s shoes and employed about 50 people. Sebastiano designed the shoes and Elena helped with machining, transferring her skills from dressmaking to shoemaking. Manola Shoes eventually had competition from cheap imports, but they had success with a second business, Ariella Shoes. They made children’s and women’s shoes, and in the mid-1970s had great success with desert boots. Elena oversaw the stitching of leather uppers until she and Sebastiano retired in 1985. They would spend the cold winter months of Melbourne in Queensland as they loved walking by the ocean.
Elena still holds vivid memories of her youth in Vigheffio and of her early days in Australia. A seemingly shy person, when Elena recalls her life story, her warmth and tenacity come through. Elena lived through the uncertainties of dictatorship, war and migration. She helped run businesses and raised a family she adores. Now Elena resides at Rathdowne Place and enjoys her children’s frequent visits and socialising with the other residents.