One time I asked my mother what it felt like to be 97, and in her stoic noncommittal way she answered “tiring”. This will be the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. She died a few months shy of 100! We have a strong female gene in our family, the women hang on, but the men tend to drop like flies. A combination of female resistance to the mundane and a compelling urge to keep on going just because we can. We can be stubborn (very non-committal here) overbearing, loud and opinionated, but shirkers we are not!
My mother was born in Malta in 1916. The beginning of the most tumultuous century in world history. She was born at the onset of the Great War (WWI) and the influenza pandemic that proliferated through the awful trenches of WWI in Europe, and later transported to the rest of the known world. Malta’s strategic location smack in the middle of the Mediterranean made it an attractive crossroads to trade activity from North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia,, to the rest of Europe. The pandemic travelled these routes and eventually found itself on the island. Historians have written very little about the 1918 pandemic in Malta, but it was a turning point for life on the island.
365 churches stand on an island the size of Manhattan. Some older than the US by several hundred years. Internal church burials under coveted mosaic and marble chiseled floors were the norm. When the 1918 pandemic broke out, the Catholic Church in Malta stopped the practice and started building cemeteries outside the confines of the churches. Internal burials ceased for health reasons. Besides traditional Catholic cemeteries, Malta has a Muslim Cemetery, British Forces cemeteries overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and a small Jewish Cemetery. The first burial outside a church was in 1872 at what is now the State-owned Cemetery Addolorata, but it took the pandemic to get burials out of the church and into the cemetery. This is the world that my mother was born into.
The lives and survival of our parents is a combination of wonder. A generation that moved from one life challenge to the next matter-of-factly without the imminent need of ‘safe spaces”, counselors, and the self-inflicted psychoanalytic crap of today. They faced trauma reasonably unscathed and left themselves open to the possibility that when one door closes another will open. Some cynics might call it a cliché, but my mother’s generation lived by it.
In August 1920, my grandfather left Malta to the other side of the world to find a better life for himself and his family in the New World. New York City to be exact. A man who looked toward the future and wanted more for his family than the life a small island had to offer. Out of the ravages of WW I and the pandemic, he realized that things will not be very easy in Malta. He wanted more for his family. For the next eight years he set up a career and a home in NYC before asked the rest of the family to join him. In August of 1928, my grandmother, my mother then eleven years old, and her brother then eight years old, travelled to NYC to start a new life in mid-town Manhattan and an area fondly known as Hell’s Kitchen.
In her last years of her life my mother could care less whether she remembered what she ate for lunch, but she could name every store, church, and neighbor who lived between 47th and 50th in her NYC neighborhood. After graduating from High School, and in her late teens, my mother accompanied her mother, my grandmother, to Malta to settle family affairs. While in Malta, she met a handsome man with twinkling green bluish eyes, and I want to think that it was love at first sight. They corresponded, my mother from the US and my father from Malta. In December 1938, they got married in Malta.
During WW II, Malta suffered the brunt of both the Italians and the Germans. It would not cave in to the constant bombings that the Luftwaffe threw at it in an attempt to bring the British to their knees. Malta located between Italy and North Africa, was imperative to the Germans to continue their dominance in the Mediterranean and North Africa. But Malta was not going down without a fight. This was to be my mother’s early married life.
My parents, newlywed and young, spent most of the war underground in a shelter. Malta was sieged from the air and the sea. By 1942, the British could neither sustain the attacks nor feed the island population bombed to its core without fuel and food. The British tried for months to get supplies through to Malta but without success. Finally, in August 1942, a convoy with much needed supplies limped into the Grand Harbor, but not before sustaining the loss of several merchant ships, a cruiser, and a destroyer. The rest of the convoy so badly damaged that the Maltese still consider it a miracle that it made it through at all. Convoy day is still celebrated today. This was my mother’s world as a young bride and a mother.
My elder sister was born in 1941, smack in the middle of this horror. She spent most of her infant years with underneath the ground in a war shelter. Up until she died, my mother refused to eat “bully beef” a British take on Spam, and the only reasonable staple during the war, if one was lucky enough to get it. She also tended to hoard supplies if a hint of war was anywhere in the world. She hated the sound of sirens because they reminded her of air raid warnings. Nowadays they call it PTSD. She called it “not wanting to live through another war again”.
My mother was the poster child for motherhood. She raised seven of us in conditions that today’s generation can neither emulate nor wish to. Our parents managed to raise a family on one bread winner, one car, one phone line, one radio, much, much, later in life, one black and white television, one bathroom, and several other single amenities of the day, quite common to the early 50’s and 60’s households. We thrived, we grew, we left home, none the wiser and none the worse. An era when all families faced the same challenges of raising children without the excess of today. We didn’t know any better because all families we knew were leading the same lives. We took pleasure in simplicity. Swimming until dusk in the summer, playing marbles on a newly washed marble floor, sleeping outside on Malta’s terraced roofs on hot summer days, and letting our rolled-up hair dry naturally in the hot Mediterranean sun. Nobody locked their front doors, and everyone watched out for everyone else.
Throughout our childhood, our mother was the first to rise and the last one to sleep. Frankly, I never remember her getting up because when we got up, she had already been up several hours, and peeling vegetables and preparing lunch. I don’t remember her going to bed either. She was the last one to put her head down from what I assume by today’s standards would be labeled a “stressful” day.
Our mothers didn’t have microwaves, electric coffee pots, dishwashers, or often washing machines. These were the proverbial super women. Eventually their arms developed muscles like Schwarzenegger from washing clothes, wringing clothes, hanging clothes, carrying kids, and lugging everything in between. They managed households of nine and more without a single trip to a life counselor, psychiatrist, stress manager, or life guide. A breed of women who went through wars and life challenges without drama or blame. They gathered their strength through their own upbringing and sense of responsibility. Our mother never attended “birth” classes before giving birth to my sister in 1941. She didn’t have to be taught to be a mother or a parent. It was common sense. What sets women like my mother apart is not only their resiliency, but their intrinsic ability to raise families sans books, child psychologists, or how-to manuals.
To this generation blaming my parents’ and our generation for everything from climate change to the economy, here’s news for you. My mother never went shopping without carrying a reusable shopping bag. There were no plastic bags. She went shopping for fresh groceries and fruit every morning, she didn’t spend money on microwave crap and didn’t spend money on junk food either. I remember her peeling potatoes and slicing them in thin fine slices to make us potato chips. She didn’t use plastic cups, plates, or cutlery. We went on picnics or had parties and ate on china plates with real cutlery. We also had cloth napkins at table not paper. She walked or took the bus and found no need to either buy a second car or drive. We were taught to turn off the light as soon as we leave a room to conserve energy. We were also taught not to waste water. At Christmas we expected one gift not the entire Amazon truck under the tree. She made us school lunches neatly tucking a fruit for desert and not expecting the school to feed us. A phone was for an emergency not to give an opinion or take pictures. We ate everything she put on the plate because her kitchen had a set menu, and because if we didn’t we would have gone hungry. We didn’t suffer from ADD or any other alphabetic ailments so prolific among kids today. If we misbehaved in class, in church, in public, the ADD was quickly slapped out of us by some adult in authority, and if there was any ADD residual it was immediately removed by either parent as soon as we got home. We didn’t have allergies we can’t pronounce, and riding a bike was an adventure that often meant getting bruised, which we wore like a badge of honor and which our mother took care of with a swab of alcohol that burnt like the dickens and a band aid. Playground equipment was mounted on gravel or concrete floor. We learnt pretty quick not to be stupid. We played games like hopscotch, hide and seek, four corners, and various other games we made up on the spot. We weren’t fat because we had a life. My mother’s generation did with less and achieved more.
In her twilight years, my mother remembered as much as she forgot, or at least said she forgot. Sometimes I think it was a ploy to change the subject. Her hands fragile and bent from acute arthritis didn’t stop her from still puttering around until her late 90’s. She had very little patience with the nonsense the current world was gradually falling into. When I visited her during her last few years of her life, I began to realize that there was more to this woman than we siblings ever realized. Her life was a tapestry of color and time that spanned almost a 100 years. She lived through most of what we read about in history books. But she never uttered one word of regret. She regretted loosing her husband my father, so soon in her life. They were married 40+ years and when he passed at 73, he left a void in my mother’s life she could never fill. She missed him till the day she died.
On my many visits to my mother’s assisted care facility, and speaking with other female residents my mother’s age, I discovered the communality between these women; they all had a story. Remarkable stories. Like my mom, most were war brides raising children in shelters or bombed out homes. As they recalled those years, they weren’t angry, spiteful, or even regretful. They were of the same mind that they did what they had to do. Their stories might have varied but their courage was across the board.
My mother has been gone for six years. A few months shy of a 100 she left the world as quietly as she had entered it. A woman of so many complexities and dimensions that we often mistook for old age. Her mind was as sharp as a tack, and in later years her tongue matched it. She was pragmatic to a fault. She connected the dots with clarity. On one of my later visits, she sat next to me listening to a conversation of a young first-time mother visiting her grandmother at the assisted care facility. The young mother bemoaned her lack of personal time because she had a job and a child. It was stressful. Without missing a beat, my mother looked at me and said: “Why did she bother wanting a child if she couldn’t take care of it?” Who can argue with that? A difference in generational needs: one wants it all, gets it and bemoans it, while the other did what had to be done with grace and fortitude. I miss my mother. I miss the connection between her past and my present. Her legacy is not found in any library, it is buried within the DNA of me, my siblings, and our children. I know that there is a little bit of my mother’s tenacity, resilience, and courage in me. Her legacy is in a blessed memory of a woman who never asked for much but gave so much of herself willingly and unconditionally. “God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.” Rudyard Kipling
May my mother’s memory forever remain a blessing.