My 65-year-old experience of life’s bittersweet taste. In the beginning of 1955 I was 10 years old so I remember a much simpler life ..
Life is a mix of many good and some bad and ugly things .......
'Things' that occur, chances that arise, thoughts that lead to good openings, ideas that go awry, accidents that prove beneficial, mishaps that hurt, decisions that we take that alter our path towards the future.
One good decision that I remember well was to take my schooling more seriously at the start of Form 3. I was 14 attending Middle School. I had spent the first 2 years being careless, skipping lessons and playing truant and behaving like the 'tough' repeaters whom I was befriending. My great aunt who had raised me up from a baby and who loved me dearly (God please bless her soul x x x) was indeed worried and furious when on inquiring about my progress in Italian, the teacher informed her that he had not seen me in class for a whole week.
She tried to drive some sense into me and begged me with tears in her eyes (poor dear) not to hang out with such boys who were older than me. Fortunately I listened that time and got a prize for English in Form 3 and was first in Class in French in Form 4, but I still have the ugly thoughts of how I must have worried the poor woman.
In 1952 I was 8 years old. I lived with my great aunt, a spinster aged 52. She had raised me from a baby, not because my mother rejected me but because mum was busy having a baby every year. That's how it was in those days. Every family had 9, 10, 12 (like us) and even 17 kids. I had three siblings who died and all the families had the same experience. Many babies and young children used to die and it was the custom to bury them in white coffins, while the church bell pealed less sadly.
In those far off days, in the early 50's, Gozo was 80 years or more behind other European countries. We lived in a church-run state, so having sex outside the intention of making a baby was a grave mortal sin for married couples. Poor dad who worked so hard for a small monthly salary had 12 mouths (9 actually) to feed. And mum besides the mountain of housework was a tailor and used to sew dresses for the neighbours. That's why I finished living with my great aunt and 3 other old relatives who lived in the same house, only a few doors away from my mum's.
I loved living in such a big house complete with a large cellar and a fair-sized garden at the back where I could play when I was alone. Everybody's attention was on me. I was maybe a little bit pampered while my 8 siblings lived with mother.
I saw all my dear old relatives die one by one. The oldest was my great-aunt's mother, Maria who died aged 92 when I was about 4 years old. I still remember her feeding me a boiled egg sitting on a door step in the terrace. My aunt's sister, Josephine who died at home when I was 9 or10 and her brother Francis, a retired teacher who died in hospital at about that time too. They all loved me and considered me as their own baby boy. I will never forget them and I pray for their souls every day.
Then there was Toni, the husband of my other great aunt Paula. They lived next door in a one-roomed house with a roof terrace. I spent a lot of time with him, going to his field on foot in the afternoons after he finished work, and doing odd jobs on his terrace where he kept some hand tools, a saw, a brace, a hammer, an assortment of nails and pliers. He bred rabbits in a small shed in one corner of the terrace and kept a couple of canaries in a large cage. I liked helping him, or better watching him doing things. At one time he was building small bird cages with thin strips of wood and wire. This is where I started learning to use my hands, I think. Once at about the year 1969 I was building a marine plywood 14 ft boat and he used to help me with money to buy things I needed.
(Building this boat was a big project and another happy period for me, Toni and 2 of my brothers. I will write about this later on)
Toni passed away a few months after I got married in 1979. That was one of my ugliest periods, I was so sorry to see him helpless and shrunken in his bed, his face all blue and purple, speechless and his eyes begging me for help. I tried to comfort him as best I could but all I could do was to call an ambulance. He died two days later in hospital.
His wife Paula had died maybe 3 years earlier. In her last year she suffered from dementia and one afternoon she opened her wardrobe and handed me a small black bag half full of coins. She told me that I would surely need the money but one peek inside the bag confirmed my suspicion; all half-pennies. But it is the intention that counts - if the coins were gold sovereigns aunt Paula would have given them to me with all her love and blessing. How can I ever forget such simple and genuine people. I will always have them engraved in my memory and in my heart for as long as I live.
Happy Times - Games and Playthings
More bitter-sweet memories come to mind. Bitter because we were poor, but not hungry or destitute. And sweet nevertheless because we had a simple life and we were young and happy. Playing in the streets was great fun. During the late 40's and 50's there were absolutely no cars in all Gozo. I remember a doctor who had one. I do not know the make but it had side-steps outside the doors and one evening he almost ran me down while he rounded a corner too close to the curb.
We had all the streets to ourselves and we used to spend lots of time running barefoot chasing each other some of us were police and others robbers, playing at 'Corners', at hide and seek, racing during word games and more games, like playing with marbles and with hazel nuts at Christmas time.
We had no toys and we had to invent, recycle and improvise. Obviously our parents did not have any money to spare. Only two friends of mine, brothers Tony and Joseph had real plastic and tin toys. They had cousins in Detroit who used to send them loads, cranes, trucks, trains, boats, planes, rugby balls, comics and the lot. I used to play with them at their house sometimes, that's why I know. That was the first time I saw a rugby ball and learnt about Superman from the comics.
Imagine, we did not even have a ball; I remember shooting a cloth ball - rags rolled into a kind of round shape. All of us boys had patches in our shorts and patches in the knees when we wore long trousers in winter. So thinking back, we all had a poor childhood though we were happy and used to this so simple life.
At one time, all the boys used to go to a nearby tomato factory to get lots of shiny tin strips from the scrap heap. The strips were all of one size, 1 inch wide and about 18 ins long. In those days toy-shops did not exist in Gozo and we had to invent our own playthings. so with these strips we used to play at roman soldiers by 'weaving' helmets, swords and square shields. We duelled and drilled and fought and chased each other to our hearts content, always barefoot and dirty from playing in the streets the whole time.
We used to play with everything, cardboard boxes, empty milk tins, wet clay, empty sacks and whatever we could find and use. We made bows and arrows, catapults, we built tents from sacking, made bonfires, collected soft drink bottle taps and empty cigarette packets. From these we saved the front panel and kept them in packs like cards. I remember myself crawling under the tables of the nearby wine shops to pick up the taps from the floor. Very unhealthy looking back on it, but we were kind of immune it seems. I had hundreds in a large drawer and when I was alone at home, I used to build a large wall or a round well or attempted to construct an arch.
Next : colourful galleons .......... wood, string and kite paper
Weaving ropes with knitting wool ...... playing at horse and rider .... hooves of tinned milk empties ...
to be continued .........