It is a story told in black-and-white,
and one of the many reasons I love photography.
My grandma Lily was born in 1914, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the Great War. Her parents, Francesco and Francesca (yes, they were true soulmates in every sense), were humble, hardworking, loving and beautiful people. Francesco was a gem cutter. He started with nothing, worked hard, and eventually built a workshop of his own that employed ten people. His family and his home were his world. Francesca was the soul of that world, and of the company too. She took care of accounting, and made sure that everyone, including the workers, was happy and well-fed.
Francesco had another great love, his faithful horse. They had been friends and companions for years. In the summer, Rigo would pull a buggy when they went to church on Sunday, or to visit Francesco's parents in a nearby village. In the winter, he would pull a sled and safely carry the family and the supplies of food and other necessities from the local store. Rigo was a wise, calm creature. The bond between him and Francesco was strong, stronger than anybody would have imagined.
When the Great War, later known as World War I, started, the army requisitioned all privately own horses, mules, donkeys and even dogs. When all the horses in the neighborhood were gone, the day that Francesco had feared so much finally arrived. The army officials knocked on the door of Francesco's house with a paper that said Rigo was no longer his, he belonged to the military.
Francesco had a family to take care of, and a baby that was just a few weeks old. He wasn't expected or required to enlist. The army wanted only Rigo. But Francesco wasn't willing to deceive his friend. If Rigo had to go, he wouldn't go alone. Francesco joined the army with him, and they left side by side to fight in a war neither of them wanted or understood.
Francesca was suddenly alone. Francesco was gone, and she didn't know whether she'd ever see him again. The workshop was suddenly silent, as all the workers were young men who had to enlist as well. Those four years that followed were hard for a young mother with a baby, who scraped by on very little money.
The Italian front was brutal for both men and animals. It was 375 miles long, and its largest part was in the Alps, ten thousand feet high. In the mountains, soldiers had to fight ice and snow. In the lowlands, their enemy was mud, damp and lice. Horses were often eaten, when there was nothing else left.
For four years, as Lily was growing up, she knew her father only from an old photograph and from the occasional letters and postcards he sent to his family. He never mentioned the fear, the death, the devastation. He always talked about how much he loved Francesca and Lily, and how much he looked forward to returning home. He always signed his letters: "Francesco and Rigo."
Four difficult, devastating years went by. The war was finally over. And a miracle happened. Francesco returned home. And he wasn't alone. He came back with his beloved Rigo. They both kept their promise: they survived.
Lily loved her father dearly, and she adored Rigo. The horse had a long, happy life, and the picture of little Lily on his back is one of my most beloved family photographs. It is a story of great love, great courage, and a very special bond between a man and his horse. It is a story told in black-and-white, and one of the many reasons I love photography.