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The beautiful letter of 1973 from an illiterate woman to a distant husband

5 min read

Being far from the people you love is one of the most difficult experiences in life, even with today’s trans-continental video-calls, skype and similar, all solutions cheap and easy.
So one can only imagine how hard it was for our ancestors not so long ago, when international phone calls were luxuries for few and the only way to keep in touch was writing letters that took days, sometimes weeks, to arrive. But that’s assuming, of course, they could write!

It was November 2, 1973. The man had gone on the moon for four years now, a television was in (almost) all the houses of the inhabitants of western cities and Italy had already begun a first phase of arrest by the “economic miracle” which, between the 50s and 60s, had brought the country among the first economies in the world.
However, in the 1970s, 5.2% of Italy’s population was illiterate and most of those who could not read or write were women in rural areas. One was a mother of three, likely from the area around Catania, on the eastern side of Sicily. Her story has made history, thanks to a poignant letter written entirely in pictures, discovered by the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino.
On 2 November 1973, now 46 years ago, the Sicilian woman wrote a letter to her husband, who emigrated (like so many compatriots) to Germany. The letter was part of a numerous correspondence now lost, explains Bufalino in his book La Luce e il Lutto, published by Sellerio Editore in 1996 (“Light and Grief”).
The woman and her husband were illiterate, and in cases of illiteracy, people usually turned to a person able to write, both a friend and a paid person, who was responsible for drafting the letter and the person who dictated. However, the author of the letter chose not to rely on a professional but to make small drawings that could tell her husband all the events that had interested her, probably to preserve the intimacy of their correspondence.
The letter begins with a heart pierced by an arrow, and continues with four anthropomorphic figures, probably women and 3 children. She continues the narration talking about the events on the family farm, which has plowed for 150,000 lire, with political news, stating that the pastor advised her to vote for the Christian Democracy instead of the Communist Party, and a whole series of others indications concerning the domestic economy. The ending seems to suggest:
See you on Christmas.
Naturally the understanding of the drawings is exclusive of the two communicants, and it is difficult to arrive at an exact interpretation of the pictographic writing.

Bufalino was able to retrieve their letter and translate the symbols into words. Here is his translation, rendered in English by the author of this article, and republished below in the original Italian:

My dear love, my heart is tormented by your far away thought, and I stretch my arms toward you, together with the three kids. All in good health, me and the two older, unwell, but not seriously, the little one. The previous letter I sent you didn’t receive a reply, and I am sad about it. Your mother, hit by a disease, is in the hospital, where I go visit her. Do not worry that I go there empty-handed; or alone, generating gossip: our middle son comes with me, while the oldest looks after the youngest.
Our little field, I ensured that it was ploughed and sown. To the two daily workers, I gave 150,000 lire*. The town elections were held. I voted for the Christian Democracy, as the parish suggested. For the Hammer and Sickle, the defeat has been huge: as if they died, in a coffin.
But whether one or the other wins, it’s the same. Nothing changes for us poor people: we dug yesterday, and we will dig again tomorrow. Many olives, this year, from our olive trees. The men and two guys I hired, one to knock them down, the others to pick them from the ground, cost me 27,000 lire (about €90). I spent 12,000 (about €40) more for the olive press. I obtained enough oil to fill a large jar, and a small one. I can sell it at the current price, which is 1,300 lire (about €4) a liter.
My far away love, my heart thinks of you. Now, especially that Christmas is close, I wish that I were with you, heart to heart. A hug, then, from me and our three little kids. Goodbye, dear love, my heart is yours and I am faithful to you, joined to you as our two rings are

In italian:
Amore mio caro, il mio cuore è trafitto dal tuo pensiero lontano, e ti tendo le braccia insieme ai tre figli. Tutti in buona salute, io e i due grandicelli, indisposto, ma non gravemente, il piccino. La precedente lettera che t’ho spedito non ha ricevuto risposta e ne soffro. Tua madre, colpita da un male, si trova in ospedale, dove mi reco a trovarla. Non temere che ci vada a mani vuote; né sola, dando esca a malelingue: m’accompagna il figlio mezzano, mentre il maggiore rimane a guardare il minore. Il nostro poderetto, ho provveduto che fosse arato e seminato. Ai due “giornalieri” ho dato 150.000 lire. Si son fatte le elezioni per il Comune. Ho votato Democrazia Cristiana, come il parroco m’ha suggerito. Per la Falce e Martello la sconfitta è stata grande: come fossero morti, in un cataletto.
Ma che vincano gli uni o gli altri, è tutt’una. Nulla cambia per noi poveretti: abbiamo zappato ieri, zapperemo ancora domani. Molte ulive quest’anno, dai nostri ulivi. L’uomo e i due ragazzi che ho assunto, l’uno per bacchiarle, gli altri per raccoglierle a terra, mi sono costati 27.000 lire. Altre 12.000 lire le ho spese per il frantoio. Ne ho ricavato tant’olio da riempire una giara grande e una piccola. Posso ricavarne il prezzo corrente che è di 1.300 lire al litro.
Amore lontano, il mio cuore ti pensa. Ora, soprattutto, che viene Natale e vorrei essere insieme a te, cuore a cuore. Un abbraccio, dunque, da me e dai tre figliolini. Arrivederci, amore caro, il mio cuore è tuo e ti sono fedele, unita a te come i nostri due anelli.

*about €500, or $560 today

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