“So now that you understand the scapegoat role that your family of origin assigned to you isn’t real and you understand the toxic family system, you can choose to behave differently.” Kaz the lesbian counsellor leaned forward in her seat. “How do you feel about that Frankie?” She asked gently.
“Well…I understand the theory behind what you’re saying… but I need to think about it. I feel a lot of guilt about my mum actually.”
“And going back to Italy for Christmas after what happened last year? How do you feel about seeing her again?”
Frankie picked at the nail of her right index finger. “I’m not sure if I’m going to see her. I haven’t decided yet.”
“It’s important to remember that you decide what is best for you and you decide how you should be treated. You don’t need to feel guilty about facing the truth about your family or using boundaries to protect yourself. That’s all very healthy stuff.”
When Frankie walked in the door after her counselling session I was doing the washing. I’d tried sorting the darks from the whites but got bored and decided to save time and throw everything in the washer together.
“And so we’ll have Christmas Eve at Elena and Gio’s house with the whole family. Then Christmas day is at her sister’s place and I’m not sure where they’re having Santo Stefano, but we’re invited,” Frankie chatted happily.
I loved Christmas with Elena and Gio and their family last year. It was the first time I’d met Frankie’s best friend from primary school and her husband and I felt an instant connection with them. Elena’s family welcomed me with a mixture of curiosity and Italian hospitality, and no one minded that all I could say in Italian was ‘May I have another glass of red wine please?’
‘We don’t have to bring anything as I offered to do the dishes instead,” Frankie added as I threw my brand new black explorer socks in with her favourite white t-shirt.
“I’d rather cook.”
“No-one wants that,” Frankie joked as she snatched the t-shirt from my hands and ushered me to the laundry door. “Go take two pairs of boots out of your suitcase, it’s too heavy.”
We flew in to Milan and spent the next week and a half breathing in the tranquillity of the cliff-top villages of the Cinque Terre and the vineyards, olive groves and rolling hills of Tuscany, before driving home to Abruzzo for Christmas.
“Let’s wear our Christmas jumpers tonight!” Frankie announced excitedly as we prepared to head to Elena and Gio’s house for Christmas Eve. We’d decided that Christmas outfits were our new tradition. We even bought Hugo the French bulldog reindeer ears to wear back home in Melbourne.
“I think I’m just going to message my mum tomorrow and give her my Christmas wishes,” Frankie said as we drove to dinner. “I don’t want to speak to my aunty after what happened last year.”
“Do you feel ok about that?” I asked, trying to sound like Kaz the counsellor.
“Your voice is all wrong,”
“And how do you feel about that?”
“I feel like you should stop asking me how I feel,” Frankie giggled.
When we walked into the function room underneath Elena and Gio’s villa, the women of the family were bustling around the kitchen. The room was filled with the sweet, comforting smell of sauce simmering on the stove. Gio threw more logs on the stone fire place and yelled at the dog for stealing tinsel from the tree, while the kids sang and danced along to a Christmas concert on the TV.
Frankie and I were greeted with enthusiastic hugs and kisses and enquiries about Frankie’s mother's health.
“Bene, bene,” Frankie answered. All good.
The following morning Frankie messaged her mum before driving to Elena’s sister’s stone country house. On our way we passed the sparkling waters of the Adriatic and wound our way through the vineyards and olive groves and citrus orchards, towards the snow-capped mountains of the Apennine Ranges.
Once again we entered a function room underneath the main house, with a huge open fire place, a kitchen, living area and dining table set for twenty people. The women were cooking huge trays of lasagne in the oven and sautéing lamb on the stove, while the men played cards and drank organic, home-made red wine. The room smelled like hot oven-baked bread and sauce and soup with meatballs and parmesan.
Plates of food continued to arrive at the table until 11 PM, when we finished playing card games and Frankie and I headed home.
“Mum hasn’t responded to my message. Maybe I should ring her?” Frankie asked as she navigated the narrow, windy lanes into town. “Have I done the wrong thing?”
“I think you need to do what feels right for you,” I answered carefully.
At five to midnight Frankie’s aunty emailed her. It translated to:
“Your mother thanks you for the wishes you didn’t send. It could be her last Christmas you know.”
Frankie sat in bed, wearing her Christmas snowman pyjamas and staring at the screen.
“You didn’t do anything wrong. You just got adopted by a woman who clearly didn’t want you and a family who made you feel like you were never one of them. And they didn’t give a shit where you were for Christmas so they can fuck off,” I ranted.
Realizing that Kaz probably wouldn’t have spoken that way, I quickly added, “How does that email make you feel sweetheart?”
Then I rambled on about how Frankie always deserved to be loved and no one gets to make her feel like she wasn’t good enough to be part of their family and maybe she should consider doing the paperwork at the courthouse to locate her birth mother.
Frankie turned her phone off, adjusted her pillow and went to sleep.
The next morning she bought me coffee in bed.
“So I thought about it a lot this morning and then I messaged my aunty back. I’ve decided that I can’t waste my life feeling guilty about my mum when these people continue to treat me like this and she continues to let them.
Frankie handed me her phone. I glanced at the jumble of words and handed it back so she could translate it for me:
“As always, I’m fine. Thank you for asking. You are no-one to tell me what to do and you don’t speak on behalf of my mother. For your information I sent her my Christmas wishes. Perhaps tell her to check her phone.
You’re the ones who should feel guilty for the way you treated me last year. I flew all the way from Australia to spend Christmas with my mum and you said my partner and I couldn’t attend.
If mum wants to speak to me she can call me or she can ask someone to call on her behalf. I am available.
Alexandra and I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.”
Frankie headed to the bathroom. “And I texted mum again and told her to call me if she wants to speak to me. Hurry up, we don’t want to be late.”
She won’t call, I thought to myself. She didn’t care at all last Christmas and didn’t even bother to wish Frankie a happy birthday.
We headed back to Elena’s sister’s house for another full day of eating, walking and board game playing. Frankie obsessively checked her phone in between mouthfuls of soup. After the pasta course, she received her aunty’s response, excused herself and headed outside. I ran after her and then Elena and Gio followed me.
Frankie read them the message in Italian and translated it for me.
“Your message didn’t arrive, not that that would have been enough. So what if we didn’t want you at Christmas last year? You don’t like us anyway. You should have stayed with YOUR family and been a shop assistant because as a Doctor you understand fuck all.”
We all stood silently, staring at Frankie as she absorbed the words. Then Elena’s mum came outside. Elena showed her the email and then I watched as Gio, Elena and Elena’s mum began gesturing and arguing about what Frankie should do. Elena’s father heard the noise and came out to investigate. Elena demanded to see all of the emails and so everyone huddled around the iPhone, reading and arguing.
FInally Elena’s dad yelled ‘Basta!’ and stormed back inside, followed by Elena’s mum. Then Elena and Gio hugged Frankie and headed to the fire place to warm up.
“OK what’s happening?” I asked.
“I’m just going to answer her back and then that’s that,” Frankie answered. "I’m angry. Really, really angry. I can’t believe I’ve allowed myself to be treated like this all these years.”
“That’s good, but why was everyone yelling?”
Frankie quickly typed her response:
“I am a Doctor, a surgeon actually. And a Ph.D. That’s a doctorate for those of you who don’t speak English. And I conduct research at a level you can’t even comprehend. If you need to continue to attack me to make yourself feel better about your life then please continue. It only takes the push of one button to delete your words and I no longer care what you think.
The level you have reached shows that none of this is about my mother. And again, if she needs to speak to me then put her on the phone. I am available and she knows that.
Alexandra and I are having a beautiful Christmas with people who actually want us around and we hope that you are enjoying an equally beautiful time yourself.”
As Frankie ushered me back to my chair, Elena’s dad was standing at the head of the table. He stared at Frankie as she approached, then tapped his spoon against his wine glass several times and waited for everyone to quiet down.
Then he made a speech - something about sailing his ship at night and the captain having midnight snacks at the table.
I turned to Frankie to translate for me but she was crying and hugging Elena. Then Frankie hugged Elena’s father and kissed him on both cheeks while he cried and then Elena and her mum hugged each and they both cried. When Frankie walked over to me she was wiping away her tears.
“I’m going to cry too!” I yelled dramatically. “I can’t understand anything and I’m freaking out!”
It turned out that Elena’s mum and dad were very upset by the emails that Frankie’s aunty had sent. While Mrs Pelegrini thought that Frankie should go and see her mother, Elena’s dad, Elena and Gio didn’t agree. In his speech, Mr Pelegrini told Frankie that he was away while his older two children were young, because he was the captain of a ship at sea. He was stationed back home just in time for Elena’s birth.
“You and Elena were like twins when you were little. You grew up eating at our kitchen table. And now you’re all grown up and we’re so very proud of you. You were our daughter too Francesca, and you are where you belong. You are home with your family and we love you.”