Dear readers, tonight with us is a matriarch of a wine-making family from Canada. She is here to tell us about the 250-year history of three families.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
Hello. My name is Anna Di Angelo and I am in my 80th year now. I am the only daughter of the late Domi and Gloria Di Angelo. I still live in the same 1920s family bungalow near the massive century-old Hartford peach and fruit farm on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. My grandfather, brothers and nephews have all worked there as farm labourers. The Hartford family have been very good to our family, the Di Angelos, over the generations. Some may think it’s an Old World feudal type of arrangement, but I know better. Without the Hartford’s help, our family would never have rooted and settled here. …. I cannot read or write so I am sharing these thoughts through dictation, helped by my older brother, Gregorio. … Greg knows that I love plants. I was never allowed to work on the Hartford Farm because, as I was told back then, I was a girl. People also said, back then, that I was simple or ‘backwards’. Well, yes, I am a girl, but I am not simple. I have just never cared for most nonsense that people think important. I know, as example, that healthy plants in a healthy garden are very important, more important that a shiny new car, or new clothes. I know that healthy growing plants gives us life. Healthy plants only thrive with the right balance of soil, sunshine and water. For most of my life, I have been quite content to tinker in our family’s back garden and grow our large growing family’s vegetables. Over the years, I’ve often helped other local villagers care for their plants and gardens too. They would bring me their sick and dying plants to mend and I would tend to them until they were better. I did make a little bit of pocket change doing that, but mostly people would thank me with a fresh cutting or a new root for my growing garden … I especially love grapes and have worked very hard at developing a sturdy strain that survives the cold winters of Ontario. They grow all over the trellis in the back garden now. They grow up the walls and surround the windows too … My vine has even been incorporated into the Hartford estate. Greg had suggested to Mr. Hartford that, if done properly, they could grow my hardy grape to make icewine. That was the only time I was allowed on the Hartford farm. They needed me to watch over and prune those young shoots, to coax them to give their luscious fall fruit. Greg, my older brother, watched over me, while I watched over that maturing vineyard. Then, a few years after that, the tending was taken over by Greg’s boys, Tony, Charlie – and my bastard boy, Johnny.
Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?
When Johnny was a baby, Uncle Joe hand-carved a little billy-goat for him out of driftwood. I painted it. When Greg came back from the war, the family believed that I, as a teenager, couldn’t look after Johnny properly. It was decided that Johnny would move over to their house and grow up as the older brother of Greg and Angela’s two sons, Tony and Charlie. I didn’t mind. They were just over the backyard fence. The gate was always open and all the young boys would come over to see their grandparents, and me.
I remember when Charlie first got a job working at the Whistleman Winery in the 1970s: he started to stay in the back bedroom, my parents’ old room, because his hours were so unpredictable. I didn’t mind that either. I would make up food parcels for him to take to the fields and made sure his clothes were clean, just like I used to do for my brothers, Greg and Attilio, when we were younger. Poor Attilio was killed during the war. Greg never really got over that huge family loss. He always believed it was his fault that Atti died. I doubt that, because Greg has always been a good son, brother and father to his own boys.
Personally, I think war is a horrible and unnatural human disease that kills and maims virile young men. It destroys the living. It destroys Life. What good gardener could possibly approve of that?
What do you do now?
Well, I’m old now. 80 plus. Officially, I am the matriarch of the still growing Di Angelo family, even though I never married. Johnny, my son, did grow strong and healthy in my belly, after I was raped.
I was fifteen at the time, walking home with my wheelbarrow along the lakeshore path, when that unknown man approached me. At first, he was kind, funny and friendly, but then he suddenly grabbed me around my waist and threw me down on the ground. The wheelbarrow tipped over.
When my monthly bleeds stopped, I told my mother I thought I was with child. Turns out I was. There was a lot of confusion, upset and anger at that time. But what could be done? I was pregnant in a Catholic family and the man was unknown.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
My latest adventure, if it can be called that, is that my lovely darling boy, Johnny, was murdered in his forty-second year, some 20-odd years ago. For a long time, no-one knew by who, why or for what.
In my old age, I have recently discovered the truth about his murder. And honestly, I can’t believe it. Humans, as I’ve said, can be so stupid sometimes.
Johnny was a good boy. He never hurt anyone. Oh yes, he would rough-house with his step-brothers from time to time, but that was just kids growing up, healthy and natural.
At core, Johnny was kind. Johnny was handsome. Johnny was smart. And Johnny was doing so very well with the Hartford vineyard with sales from Niagara to Ottawa when he was knocked down.
In the end, as I now understand it, the evil strain that killed him was envy.
What did you first think when… ?
I remember the day very well when Tony, Gregorio’s eldest natural-born son, first met Hope Hartford from the huge Hartford estate. He was helping his father bring in the fall harvest. Tony was carrying a large bushel of peaches into the sorting barn when Hope, who had been sitting on an overturned bucket sketching the chicken coup, asked him to stop what he was doing so that she could draw him in her sketchbook. Well, Tony, at fifteen, was smitten. She seemed quite taken with him too. They used to get milkshakes together at the soda shop in the village. He would walk her home, whistling, holding her hand. Poor Tony. He carried a torch for her, long after she left for Europe then returned to marry Sean O’Sullivan. Even when Tony got married and had three fine girls of his own, I knew that he’d never really gotten over Hope. He had a tattoo etched on his arm. A heart with her name in it. Hope. I listened too often to him lie to his wife, mother and girls about it. When I tried to point that out, he just dismissed me, as they often did, with a teasing laugh, “Oh, silly Auntie Anna with another crazy idea!” But I knew. I knew that love-sick man was headed for some serious trouble.
What was the scariest thing in your adventures?
When that thunderstorm banged, rattled and spewed fire over the Hartford vineyard, my heart broke to learn that it had burnt to the ground in one wild blaze. I later heard from Tony’s wife, that it wasn’t lightning that had destroyed all those years of our family’s toil. Inconsolable Tony had deliberately burnt down the vineyard after Johnny’s body was discovered floating in the lake. He believed that the O’Sullivans twins murdered Johnny. But he was wrong! Tony’s grief over the loss of his step-brother compelled him to destroy the only well-rooted life that our family had ever added to the Hartford land. Burning down the vineyard did not bring back Johnny. That fire didn’t save anything or anyone. Tony just destroyed all that good growing life for nothing.
What is the worst thing about…?
I think the worst thing that happened to me, aside from my dear parents dying, was my rape. Why would a full-grown man force himself on a young girl? Why? It still makes no sense to me. The only reason, as far as I can determine, is that a man wants to deliberately hurt, and then, impregnate a girl. How sad is that, to overpower a girl, to force her to carry your child? It’s brutal. It is mean.
When I saw that photo, the one that the O’Sullivan twins published a few days after their father, Kieran, had died, I knew my rapist. I knew that face. Those hands. That hair. But Tony’s wife said it wasn’t possible, Kieran wasn’t in the Niagara region when I was raped. Still, there’s no denying that that man LOOKED like my rapist. Angela had a theory, but she didn’t share it with me until long after Johnny was dead. And Johnny, bless him, Johnny, as far as I could tell, did have the same hair and the same hands as his biological father.
It was all so complicated at that time because Angela wanted to keep the Hartford vineyard that Johnny had inherited from old man Hartford in our family. The Di Angelos couldn’t have kept it if Johnny’s real paternity had been exposed.
What is the best thing about it?
If I had never been raped, I would never have had Johnny. I would never have known the bliss and blessings that that darling boy would bring. I would never have seen my Johnny grow from a babbling bright-eyed baby boy into a strong young athlete to a successful wine-selling merchant. I was so proud of our Johnny. We all were. Just think, I would have missed all that joy! And joy is the one undeniable element, like sunshine and water, that makes humans happy and healthy.
Tell us a little about your friends.
I didn’t have any friends from the village, not in the conventional sense of the word. I didn’t read or write, and my parents didn’t think it necessary that I learn. Girls my age, the local Italian-Canadian girls, were all raised as Canadian-Italian girls. It all got so confusing during the second world war. My father and his friends all supported Mussolini, but my teenage brothers, Greg and Attilio, were all for the English and Canada. The girls were the same. They loved the New World but their Italian-loving parents loved the Old. That was such a bad, sad and mixed-up time.
I am very lucky though that I come from a large and loving family. I have never really felt alone or left-out. Even now, in my old age, Charlie’s wife, Suzy, brings over small casseroles and baked goods. She’s such a loving and strong young woman – with a third child growing in her belly now!
Any romantic involvement?
Well, after my rape,my brothers, my father and my uncles, my nephews and grand-nephews were, and are, very protective of my safety. They don’t allow strange men near me. I don’t engage with unknown men anymore because of what happened. – I mean, who needs to go through all that again? – No. At 80, I’ve been single all my life. And that’s fine by me. I have my little house, my lovely garden and my extended family. It is more than enough for a happy old woman like me.
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
I don’t hate anyone. Hate and hating is for fools. Life is for living and loving. Perhaps, if I had been properly loved by a good man, I would have had more babies, but that wasn’t the living Earth’s plan for me.
What’s your favourite drink, colour, and relaxing pastime?
I admit that sometimes, even after my parents died, I enjoy a solitary thimble of icewine. It’s the same wine that I used to make for my father. It’s delicious. Just a taste, mind you. I saw how angry it could make papa if he had too much, especially when he would argue about Mussolini with his sons.
Ontario-grown icewine really is an earthly elixir. A Good Earth Gift to All. You should try some!
What does the future hold for you?
At 80, my hands are gnarled. It’s difficult to prune the backyard grapes and pull the weeds that threaten to choke the young vegetables in the garden now. My fingers just don’t grasp like they used to. Luckily, Charlie and his young family come regularly to help. And Tony’s girls – especially Alma, that lovely one now engaged to Adam O’Sullivan, Hope and Sean’s only child – help out whenever they can. I know I am lucky. I am still healthy. I still have my marbles.
It was so tragic how the Hartford girls’ mother, June, died of that creeping mental illness, just like her mother before her. That mind illness sure is a bad strain in the Hartford clan. Their progeny will always have it. Just like our clan, the Di Angelos, are always going to have to fight off that deep and dark depression that so blighted Tony, and before him, his father, Greg.
The thing is, Nature doesn’t make any one thing ‘perfect’. Some breeds just grow stronger and are better able to adapt. That’s just a fact. As example, Charlie and Suzy’s kids will be fine as long as Charlie doesn’t start getting too depressed and down, like his father, Tony.
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
I can tell you that I know Adam O’Sullivan and Alma Di Angelo can never have children. Why do I know this? Well, I’m a plant breeder, and, though illiterate, I am a very good gardener. For decades, I have tended and watched the living. I know what Nature wants. I know how Nature works. And Adam and Alma’s union will fail for one very good and simple reason …
Margaret Lindsay Holton is an award-winning writer from Southern Ontario, Canada. Her first novel, ‘Economic Sex’, was published under penname with Toronto’s literary house, Coach House Press, in 1985. Her second and award-winning contemporary novel, ‘The Gilded Beaver by Anonymous’, was printed under her own artist’s imprint, Acorn Press Canada, in 1999. Her last novel, TRILLIUM was mass-market released twenty years later, via Amazon in 2019. The Gilded Beaver, Second Edition, has just been re-released on Amazon, with her name on it.
You can find Anna on the pages of Trillium.
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