My grandparents’ garage, Reservoir, 2001
Growing up, my sister and I would spend the hours between school and dinner at my grandparents’ home in Melbourne’s north. After migrating to Australia in the late 1950s, Nanna and Nonno carved out a rural-meets-suburban life based on their memories of parochial southern Italy. They grew silverbeet and fava beans, raised chickens and spent most of their time in the garage-cum-kitchen, where the only entertainment was a black and bulky boombox most often tuned to a static version of the local Italian station.
One day in the winter of 2001 when it was too cold and too dark to be outside, and when – as an 11 year old – I sought something better to do than my homework, I dragged a mustard-coloured vinyl chair over to that boombox, put in a cassette and pressed play. Earlier that year, Train had released their soon-to-be Grammy Award-winning song, Drops of Jupiter and like anyone born in the heyday of cassettes, I recorded it off the radio.
Boredom compels you to do strange things – those dull afternoons are in fact, the reason I started writing – and for the next few hours, I listened to that song, over and over. I hummed along. I sang along. And eventually, I knew every lyric – from Mozart to tae bo and the Milky Way to Venus — and I wondered what it all meant.
Sometime during this meditation, as I pressed rewind and play once more, Nonno abandoned his re-reading of Il Globo to shuffle across the tiles and play a game. Taking my hand into his own short, stout and tanned fingers, he gently twisted each of my fingertips from side-to-side.
Tick-tock-tick-tock, he said, his Italian accent adding an extra vowel to the end of each word. Ticka-tocka-ticka-tocka.
When all of my fingers had ticked like a clock, he brought my hand up to his ear and with wide eyes, nodded his head.
I had always known of this game. It was a Nonno idiosyncrasy often used to placate rowdy grandchildren or break up sibling arguments. He never explained where it came from or what it meant and like the Train CD I never bought, I didn’t think to ask. But in those moments, when there was only his leathery hands cupping my own, when there was just the clock and it’s constant tick, it all felt strangely reassuring – as if it was Nonno’s way of saying that everything was okay.
Nonno is now in his late eighties and lost in the throes of dementia. He speaks little and remembers less. Sometimes, when my sister and I are with him, he asks my sister where I am. That kitchen-garage is now just a garage. It is covered in dust and dirt and spiderwebs. The salmon tiles have blackened, the lace curtains are moth-eaten and the fava beans only come in a can.
Like my grandparents, the kitchen-garage has become the old version of itself.
It is the same with that Train song. It should bring back memories of run-on childhood days, buttered bread toasted in the woodfired oven and the loud click of those gummy boombox buttons. But on the off-chance it comes on the radio, I am reminded of how much I dislike it now. And yet, it will always mean more than it should. It is one part of a memory inexplicably linked to another. It is that afternoon, that game, my grandfather and myself – a 30 second portrait of my childhood that if not for Nonno’s now absent mind would not even be something worth remembering.
But there is one line, not even ten words, a last lyrical breath before the song fades out, that has lingered: and now you’re lonely, looking for yourself out there. And when I hum that to myself, whether I have listened to Drops of Jupiter a dozen times on an old boombox or skipped over it on the radio, I hope that somewhere the clock is still ticking. I hope that somewhere, for Nonno, everything is still okay.
© Alessandra Bergamin.