Michael Pignatelli

Mallacoota had many identities living here in the 1930s. One I remember well was Michael Pignatelli (mostly referred to as ‘old Mike’). He had come here with other Italians to participate in the cultivation of beans but after the venture failed mainly through lack of water and transport, he decided to stay here. When my sister, Mione and I were young children, ‘Todd’s Paddock’ at ‘Raheen’ rippled with grassy mounds covering row after row of what had been evenly furrowed ground. It was the aftermath of what was E.J. Brady’s dream of a community farming project during the depression years. The scheme, sadly was just too premature in those days for perhaps Australia, let along Mallacoota.

When I first knew Mike, he was living at the bottom of the hill, on the Foreshore Road near the corner of Martin Street. He was a wonderful gardener and in that black, shell encrusted soil, vegetables and flowers grew prolifically, side by side. It was there I saw my first carnations large, beautiful, dark red clove-scented flowers bloom­ing amongst the leeks and garlic.

Mike’s English was not perfect by any means and names confused him. He called our Mother, ‘Missus de Braid’ (Mrs Brady), other names he coupled to everyday nouns to help him remem­ber, so Robertson became ‘Rabbit Hole’, Pheen­ey (Phenyl) and some, even more interesting.

He was normally a fairly peaceful man but I re­member clearly an occasion when his temper was aroused, I was with Grandfather McCafffrey on the frontage paddock below ‘Raheen’ when an argument erupted between Mike and another man who lived on Martin Estate. Soon it was bedlam. The air was blue from the latter’s colour­ful Australian expletives. Mike lapsed into that of his Mother Land and was ‘letting fly’ in good hot­blooded Mediterranean style, Pa intervening in his best Irish brogue, and me howling in fear. Pa loved a fight, if it meant fists, after all he had lived and worked on the Monaro Plains in his young days, where it was natural to settle argu­ments in this way so he was ready to referee. Suddenly Mike produced a knife (no machete could have looked more dangerous to my young eyes). Pa was completely shocked, this was a new turn of events, quite unknown to him, but he wasn’t giving up as a mediator. I remember being terrified for his safety, as I clutched his hand and tearfully implored him to come home. Mike made the other man retreat slowly back towards the lake. Finally Pa’s exasperated “The Devil take ye both” somehow got through, he . made them shake hands; and at last we went home.

Mike moved over to the township to care take for H.J. Robertson (brother of ‘Mirrabooka’s C.v.) on his property (now the Medical Centre). Robertson left Mallacoota to purchase “Emu Park” on the left hand side of the Highway past Bairnsdale.

When word came through that Mike’s son was coming to Australia, Mike’s pleasure knew no bounds and off he went to Melbourne to meet him. On his return he was ecstatic as he told us that the young lad he had left behind in Italy was now a “verra handsome man” He would drag his hand down over his face, adding, ‘verra similar myself.’ This was difficult for we children to visualize as we looked at Mike’s face, now wrinkled and tanned brown from Australian summer suns. Perhaps he too, had been a handsome, olive skinned young man in his vil­lage years before. Sadly, the joy of his son’s ar­rival in Australia did not bring lasting happiness for Mike. He had been settled and content in Mallacoota but the young fellow enticed him to go back to Melbourne. Working around the Res­taurants, he didn’t enjoy the respect entitled to him as an old man.

I often think of Mike’s garden as I drive around the lake. I have never been able to grow such wonderful carnations nor have they exuded the same nostalgic perfume as the ones he grew all those years ago.

Leone Pheeney

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