Death: A Stranger?

In November, thoughts turn towards death. Even the Advent version of figolli is funereal, with their “bone” shape reminiscent of All Souls’ Day.

Death means different things to different people; it’s an end, or a new beginning. It’s an occasion to air all your black clothes – or an occasion to make the obituary Mass feel and look – like a garden of flowers with kaleidoscopes of butterflies hovering over them.

For me, Death was what made me realise I had begun growing up. It happened shortly after I had my appendectomy; I was merely six years old. It was a clammy, grey Monday morning, as I recall (because Doreen the maid always came on Mondays, and that day she did, too). Every staccato scene is still as sharp in my memory as if I were riffling through a photo album.

My only sister and I had been to the Public Library after Mass, and I’d selected my ration of Science Fiction books. Even at that age, I loved to dream that one day, my name would be on the cover of one of them.

On the way home we had dropped by at Nanna Marija’s house. After one of us grandkids had broken the key in her lock, she had concocted a pull from the top of the stairs to the lock; this manual “remote control” made it possible for her to avoid going up and down.

The person who designed Nanna’s house must have thought he was designing a theatre set. The door opened to a flight of stairs. To the left, there were two steps leading to a room, and, by that, overlooking Merchants Street, was a big bedroom with a balcony.

To the right, there were another two steps which led into another big bedroom, and from that, a corridor as wide as a room, a huge kitchen, and then, a pantry in which she had placed the cooker and a lot of wall-shelving, and a tiny bathroom. Light came from a window to an internal yard. Nanna had no television, and no Rediffusion. However, she read The Times of Malta every day, religiously. She had no telephone service, either. This perhaps explained why we were unaware of what was happening within a stone’s throw away, at the Old Market, just at that moment.

I remember that I was wearing my scratchy top with the fluorescent herringbone pattern. It made me itch, but I loved it. As usual, Nanna gave us money to go and buy pastizzi from Johnny’s teashop, just below her house. How were we to know that a tragedy had just unfolded just a stone’s throw away, as we hopped, skipped and jumped our way home after eating them and washing our hands with Imperial Leather soap which Nanna loved so much? To this day, the smell still reminds me of her – just as a herringbone pattern makes me queasy.

It was the morning my father died – July 11, 1966; in our summer holidays. When we got home, there was already the smell of warm tea and sweat, and cloying, conflicting perfumes and after-shave lotions. Aunties and Uncles and assorted people I had never seen before in my life had materialised from all over the country, in the sitting room at our house, saying trite things such as how he was praying for us from heaven, and how my mother was too young to be widowed at forty. I felt nauseated, so I left the room, and retreated to our bedroom.

Nobody noticed. Nobody cared. I knelt on the window sill, sobbing and breathing onto the panes, drawing pictures in the condensation with my fingers. My Auntie Stella knocked tentatively on the door, opened it, and peeked from behind it, asking whether she could come in. I nodded through my tears.

She sat with me on the bed, hugged me, and cupped my chin with her thumb and forefinger. “You’re a big girl now!” she told me. “Life will be very different. You have to learn how to fend for yourself.”

I looked at her, uncomprehending. “…I don’t mean simple things such as polishing your shoes or making your own lunch… I mean the tough things, such as maths homework and speaking up for yourself and waking up half an hour before you really ought to…”

My father’s death made me resilient – but it also made me fragile. It made me a fighter – but it also made me a victim. Gradually, it dawned upon me that some people will only exercise the authority vested in them if it will help their nearest and dearest. With hindsight, I realised that certain people will only offer help if they know they will be compensated at the end. I discovered that girls who are pretty and obedient tend to get more sympathy than those who are scrawny and naughty.

That is why one minute, I could not understand what Aunty Stella meant, and the next, I could. I had begun to grow up.

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