Oreste Mordini was born in Torino di Sangro, Italy, on Sept. 23, 1920. His parents, Nicola and Maria, ran a farm in that hilly part of Italy, on the Adriatic Sea. As a child, Oreste was charged with shepherding the family’s sheep and milking the cows. When he wasn’t busy helping his parents and nine siblings work the land, he’d play with the chickens and rabbits, and tend to the family garden—a hobby that would remain constant in his life.
Oreste became accustomed to doing a lot with little at an early age. Nicola and Maria made sure the children always ate, but other daily necessities were sometimes lacking; Oreste would fashion shoes from leftover wood and rubber. After grade school, he worked on the farm full-time, but when Oreste was 19, the Second World War broke out. He joined the war effort, training as a medical assistant in Italy.
Within a year, Oreste was sent to Albania. Midway through the fighting, in 1942, he went back to Italy to meet a young woman he was arranged to marry. Melania was the daughter of family friends from neighbouring Fossacesia, a hill town on the Sangro River’s mouth. Within days of meeting, Oreste and Melania were engaged. He went back to the battlegrounds, where he became a prisoner of war, and didn’t see his fiancée again until 1945, when the war ended, and they married.
From then on, the two were inseparable. In 1946, they had their first child, Nick. Two years later came daughter Mary. By 1951, when resources were still scarce in Italy and jobs scarcer, they waited until Melania gave birth to their third child, Tony, then decided to immigrate to Canada. A neighbour heard that Oreste was leaving Italy with very little money, and invited him over for a talk. “I want to give you the money for you and your family to go to Canada,” the man said, glad that someone in the town would be moving away for a better life. “But you don’t have to pay me back.”
With about $500, no English and three children, the young couple arrived by boat, settling in an Italian neighbourhood in Toronto. Oreste got a job with a building supplies company, and to supplement the income, Melania kept boarders from Italy, squeezing them into cot-filled rooms and cooking for them every day. They put money aside so Oreste could quickly repay his generous friend.
Oreste and Melania were often described as opposites. “If one was hot, the other was cold,” says their grandson David. They liked to joke and bicker. However, while money was tight in those first years in Canada, their relationship was solid enough to sustain them. “Their biggest accomplishment,” says David, “was their love for each other.” They rarely spent time apart, except for when one had to return to Italy for a funeral.
Inside the house, nonna—who never learned English—could be seen making meatballs (a recipe she kept secret), her 13-layer lasagna, and big, handmade ravioli squares stuffed with ricotta cheese. “If she wasn’t standing, working in the kitchen, she was in the garden,” says son Tony.
Outside in the backyard, grapes, tomatoes, hot peppers, basil, rosemary and zucchini filled a colourful patch. The pride of the garden was four fig trees, which Oreste guarded carefully. He tended to his plot, as he had during his boyhood. Though he lacked formal education, he was well versed in the natural world, and knew how to irrigate the land, build greenhouses from leftover sliding doors, and prepare the soil with truckloads of manure from a nearby farm.
Oreste eventually took a job working in a factory for a waste management company. He remained there for most of his working life, and rarely paused for vacation. When he retired at age 75, he retreated to his garden. For the last several years, though, he had been in and out of hospital with various health complications (skin sores, water in his lungs). Melania was suffering with Alzheimer’s. The barometer of their health had been food: their family knew that they were on the decline when Melania’s lavish family feasts turned to simple pasta dinners, and Oreste could no longer work on his land. On Nov. 7, at 5 p.m., Oreste died of a heart attack at the age of 90. “My grandmother wasn’t alert when we told her nonno had gone, but it was almost as if she knew,” says David. Four hours after Oreste’s passing, Melania died, too, at age 95. They were married for nearly 65 years.