Giovanna Quarin was born on Oct. 2, 1933, in Biauzzo, a village in Italy’s Friuli region, in the northeastern end of the country. Her father, Giovanni Ottogalli, died from appendicitis while mother Ida was pregnant with Giovanna; Ida was left to raise their daughter and son, Mario. (She later remarried and had another three boys.) By 13, Giovanna had left school to work full-time in the fields, and in a tobacco factory with her mother. “This was during the war,” says Rita Zoratti, Giovanna’s daughter. “They were quite poor,” but the family made do, raising rabbits to eat. In the night, Giovanna would sneak outside with a sickle in her hand and “steal grass” from a nearby landowner’s property to feed the animals, Rita says.
Giovanna dreamed of leaving her village, and at age 16, she left Biauzzo to work as a maid to a wealthy family in Florence. After four years she returned home, and struck up a correspondence with Luigi Quarin, a Friulan who’d moved to Canada (they were re-introduced through a mutual acquaintance). Luigi, who lived in Hamilton, Ont., “didn’t speak a lot of English,” Rita says, “and he wanted to marry an Italian girl.” In December 1954, Giovanna boarded a ship for Canada. She arrived on New Year’s Eve, and the couple was married on Jan. 29. The reception was held at Hamilton’s Venetian Club, where they were members.
Giovanna and Luigi moved into a house in the north of the city with Luigi’s parents and brother. “It was a very Italian community,” Rita says. “There was an Italian grocery store, an Italian doctor, and everybody on the street was Italian.” Luigi worked as a roofer, and Giovanna got a job at a candy factory until their kids were born. The first, Ed Quarin, came in 1955; Rita and Linda Viola followed. At home, the family spoke the Friulan language native to their region of Italy. “Our friends all spoke Friulano, and we sang in Friulano when we got together,” Ed says. Hamilton’s Friulan community was so big that they eventually splintered off from the Venetian Club to start their own, Ed says. The Famèe Furlane of Hamilton (the name translates to “Friulan family”) was founded in 1969; Giovanna was frequently at the club cooking food for events, helping with committees, or visiting friends.
When Ed was 5, the family moved into their own house in Hamilton; five years later, they moved again, to the home where Giovanna would stay for 45 years. She loved to host family dinners, cooking “every kind of animal,” Linda says, from rabbit to veal to beef. “She was always making up for the food she didn’t eat in Italy during the war,” says Linda, and was famous for making her own sausage and salami. Giovanna hosted Christmas every year, packing family members into the house to play cards, tell stories, and sing songs. “There was never a lot of money when we were growing up, but my parents were very social,” Rita says. “In the summers, we’d go to the beach with a convoy of Italian friends,” and belt out songs while one friend or another played accordion. As a singer, Giovanna “had no tone,” Rita says, “but she sang very loud to make up for it.”
When her kids were young, Giovanna went to work part-time as a caretaker at their school. “My mother was quite the joker, and really liked kids,” Rita says. “People would say to me, ‘Do you know what your mother did? She sprayed me with a water bottle!’ ” After she and Luigi retired in 1990, Giovanna had more time for a favourite hobby, bocce ball. She and other ladies from her club would travel to Windsor, Guelph or Toronto, competing against other Friulan clubs.
As they got older, Luigi’s health worsened; he developed diabetes, and showed signs of dementia. Giovanna spent more time taking care of him until he passed away last June from lung cancer. It was very difficult for Giovanna at first, Rita says: “She talked about how it was lonely, especially eating meals by herself.” Giovanna reached out to the community that had always supported her. “She was more social than ever this past year,” Rita says, spending time with friends and family (which today includes five grandkids). In July, Giovanna and her daughters went to Italy to visit her half-brother, Sergio, who still lives in Biauzzo. “That was very special for her,” Linda says.
On Sept. 4, Giovanna and a friend were driving to the Famèe Furlane club to attend a meeting when an SUV collided with their minivan. Giovanna died of her injuries at the Hamilton General Hospital (her friend survived). She was 77 years old.