I would bet my house that all children of immigrants can remember their parents telling them stories set in the “old country”. Stories told and retold by mama and papa, or other foreign language equivalents of “mum and dad”, to children as they grew up. Little vignettes about a mysterious time before the children were born or arrived in their new country. They were stories that gradually became familiar, comfortable and predictable with multiple retellings. They may even have been spiced up by a backdrop of war, political upheaval, financial hardship or other major calamities.
These tales were fascinating to us as children because they spoke of a time in the lives of our adult parents before they had become the grown-ups we had always known them to be. The stories often became part of family folklore and described strange places, different values and unfamiliar customs while giving us a little peek into the past lives of our ancestors.
The tales were all the more intriguing as we tried to imagine how our parents felt during that shadowy past in another universe, as though we had been magically transported back to those days ourselves. Sometimes stories from our parents’ youth allowed us to see parallels in our own young lives. At other times, the happenings were so different from our personal experience and clashed so greatly with our contemporary sensibilities that they seemed absurd. Often the stories were so engaging that they strengthened the bond between parent and child by forcing us to empathise with our mother and father as children; How would I have felt? What would I have done?
These stories also gave us some insight into the psyches of our parents. Knowledge of their momentous past helped to explain their personalities, to some extent, as well as shed light on some of their principles and ideologies. Those special proceedings which loomed so large in their consciousness as to warrant regular retelling to their children must have had a significant effect on their character.
The noteworthy experiences in our parents’ stories must have been substantially formative. It is easily argued that it is the legacy of those experiences, and the resulting effect on our parents, that has formed their own personal paradigms. Perhaps the tales also help to explain some parental eccentricity or idiosyncrasy where no other explanation is available. Listening to the life stories of your parents can be a revelation. Just why does my mother seem to be so infatuated with dolls? The first short story in this collection may be an explanation.
The tales recounted to me by my immigrant parents were all of these things. They were all the more enthralling because, being set on the Mediterranean island nation of Malta during the Second World War, they were especially exotic to a boy born in the inner city and raised in the far western suburbs of Sydney, Australia.
An added bonus to me from listening to those stories was an increased sense of identity. This was important to a migrant son who was well aware – at times painfully so – that his story was very different from that of those around him.
Over many years, I had been thinking seriously about writing down the tales recounted to me by my parents. The story entitled, il-Pupa, being the major catalyst to begin writing. I would find myself retelling what I regarded as an amazing story to others, but not receiving the reaction I expected. I would always become emotional telling the story while my audience seemed to be relatively unmoved. I concluded that I must not be telling the story very well. So, I decided that I would write it down “properly”, one day.
In the interim I remembered other stories my parents had told me about their time as children during WWII. I patiently sought out more details of the stories from my mother over cups of tea and I softened up my father in order to extricate reminiscences with a glass or two of whisky, committing information to memory and jotting down summaries when I got home. Thus, the research process for this book was warm and gratifying in itself. While writing, I would sometimes phone my mother or father to clear up a salient point or get a more detailed description. On occasions, I would email my cousins for information and they would ask my aunts and uncles for their interpretation of events then relay information back to me. I also researched using that contemporary font of all knowledge, the internet, especially in relation to Maltese history and facts pertaining to the Second World War.
What follows are all true stories based on actual events, although parts of them have been embellished and minor details changed or added, in the pursuit of making the stories more entertaining or filling in the gaps of knowledge. After building up inspiration for about a year, or was that procrastination, I sat down one morning during Christmas holidays and began writing. I became obsessed, stopping only to eat or sleep and to go for long walks to clear my mind. Thus, the first drafts of seven stories were written within six days. I then spent some of my spare time over the next year reviewing, editing and rewriting. Six years later, I have revised the stories a final time and added five more.
These are the stories of my parents growing up during wartime Malta.