One strong woman

A tribute to my 2nd great-grandmother Silvia Mura.

After Thursday’s International Women’s Day I reflected upon the stories my Nonna Elisa (grandmother) told me about her nonna Silvia. She had endured many hardships and is a great example of a strong woman, someone my Nonna calls a saint.

Scolastica Silvia Mura was born in 1878 in Tavernelle, a small village in the picturesque mountains of north-western Tuscany, Italy, where she was the daughter of parents who could afford to give her an education unlike many of the people in the local villages at the time. Often Silvia would help my Nonna with her homework and problems at school. She also gave support to the village community who would frequently come to her for help and advice.

However, her life was far from a fairy tale – her story was more a life of labour, survival, and dedication. It wasn’t until I began extensive ancestral research, with the help of my Nonna recalling her family history, and other family and friends, that the truths of her life story have come to light.

At the age of 22, Silvia moved to the nearby village of Taponecco where she married Felice. Not much is known about Felice since he died a year after they were married, leaving Silvia pregnant and widowed at an early age. Two years later she married Antonio. After the birth of her second child Luigia in 1902, she had two boys who never survived. After the births of three more daughters, one of which was my bisnonna Ines, she had another two boys, who both died the same year they were born.

Poor education and access to medical facilities meant that remote locations like Taponecco had high infant mortality rates. In Italy at the time, the infant mortality rate was around 330 deaths per 1,000 live births, unlike today where it is considerably lower – 3.3 deaths per 1,000 live births^. In the 1900s, tragically this was the norm in the lives of many rural Italian women like Silvia, who gave birth to nine children of which four did not survive.

Silvia was the tireless mother in the Taponecco home. She cared for my Nonna and her three brothers as her daughter Ines was working in the fields, and her son-in-law Ettore, my bisnonno, was working in other towns wherever he could find work. She also cared for most of her other grandchildren and some great-grandchildren as they were often left with her. In essence, Silvia was the single-handed childcare centre. Her modest home had no running water and no gas to light the fire, yet she managed to cook, feed and care for all the children. As she was one of the most educated in the village, she would often help those who came to her. My Nonna recalls her being the ‘herbalist’ of the village, advising people on their health issues when the village chemist was away. She also delivered many babies around the neighbouring villages as she was the midwife when the doctor was unavailable or couldn’t make it in time. She gave all of herself to whoever was in need.

During World War II, Silvia was a protector. Often when they were tending to their vegetable garden or with their animals in the fields and they heard bomber planes above, she would take my Nonna into the bushes to hide and reassure her of her safety.

In the depth of World War II, Nonna recalls being in the main farm paddock with Silvia and hearing a loud explosion coming from the small stream down the hill. My Nonna was four years old, yet this is vividly entrenched in her memory today. Silvia took her and went down to the ‘canale’ to see what had happened. As they started walking down towards the stream they held each other by the hand. Along the way the reality of the what they heard unfolded as in the thick green grass they saw the horrors of war. Silvia, not wanting to upset her impressionable young granddaughter, began to collect the human remains from the explosion in her apron in an effort to keep the reality hidden. But even with her best intentions, my Nonna still has the memory of seeing a small hand that Silvia had discreetly collected and tucked in her apron. This gruesome sight was just the beginning as they also witnessed the dismembered remains of a cow, hanging in the trees above them. On that day many people from the village came to help and deal with the tragedy. Three lives were lost that day, and at the time while Silvia respectfully carried the remains, little did she know that one of the victims was her own grandson, Mario, who was nine years old.

Even through her true strength and generosity, Silvia was still a victim of abuse and violence. My Nonna recalls the story of Silvia and her daughters being forced out of her own home by her first born and only son Felice, who was known to have a temper “just like his father Felice.” “In the middle of the night, he made them get out of bed, pick up all their sheets, and go somewhere else, that’s what Felice did to nonna, threw them all out, her daughters including my mum were only 13, 14 years old.”

After her second husband Antonio had a stroke in the 1920s, and was an invalid in bed for the rest of his life, Silvia continuously cared for him even though he was an abusive man. Constantly calling out from his bedroom and treating her like a servant, yet Silvia never retaliated. ”He would make her get up at night, especially if there was snow that it was so cold, and make her get up and go out to the ‘gradile’ (a place where they did most of the cooking) to make him something to eat. By the time you could put the fire on to cook something, she would fall asleep the poor thing, so he used to bang on the wall with his walking stick, and mum would have to get up and go over there to wake her up, can you imagine what happened went she came back? She would’ve copped it for sure, that’s how he was, I know he was angry with himself because he couldn’t do anything for himself, but he didn’t need to act that way, to me I have no sympathy for him, I have no love for him whatsoever, but my nonna, I loved her.”

“Nonna was the cook, bottle washer, babysitter, nurse for Nonno, she was everything. I’ve never heard her complain about anything. I never heard her raise her voice to anyone, never.”

Antonio died in 1951 and it was the same time her son-in-law Ettore left for Australia. Later in 1954 my Nonna, her mother, and younger brothers had decided to join their father and older brother in Australia. When Silvia was told the news of their journey, she knew she was too old to travel that far with them but was happy that her daughter Ines and grandchildren would find a better life. My Nonna said her last goodbyes to Silvia to face her own challenges as a young Italian migrant woman in Australia.

My Nonna explains “she had an easier life after when we left, and that Nonno died.” Silvia went to live in the seaside city of La Spezia with her daughter Marietta for a while. Then after some time, she moved back to the village of Taponecco where she passed away on the 9th of November 1966, at the age of 88. “She just died in her chair after lunch, that was the best way of the lot!” my Nonna recalls.

Today we pay tribute to this truly strong, inspiring woman, and recognise all that she suffered and her great humanity.

“Era una donna di ammirare. Un carattere molto delicato e generoso. Era una donna miracolosa.”

She is our Santa Silvia.


Thank you to my Nonna, Elisa Bastiani, for sharing the story of this amazing woman.
^Istat – (Istituto nazionale di statistica)

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