Our Lady of Cospicua

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

The desperate cry of sirens pierced Cospicua, a small town where everyone felt at home—until today. It was the kind of town where you knew the man who brought his goat around each day to fill the pitcher you’d provide with fresh milk, the kind of town where a friendly man on horseback would deliver your bread and tip the brim of his hat to you in farewell. I rose from knees bent on the same rough, cream­-colored tile I cleaned each day bordered by blank kitchen walls, washcloth saturated with filth and water in hand, to face the window above the sink, whose drapes were made transparent by the midafternoon sun. These were the sirens foretold by many radio broadcasts about the war. That’s all that was on the radio then; war this, Nazi raids that, and casualties everywhere. My mother’s arm quickly rounded my shoulders, round the oversized, itchy brown linens she had sewn for my sisters. They draped over me and made it rather difficult to run. Her arm guided me, shuffling me outside the house. It was immediately recycled for my siblings. We were eight: three brothers, four sisters, and Mom. I was the middle daughter. Dad had left us to earn money for the family as a crewman on a tour boat in America.

We carried nothing special in our pockets; nothing was as important as was assuring our survival. Once our feet met the aged, earthy-yellow street tile beneath us, we made for the nearest shelter as fast as our legs could carry. Thankfully, our neighbors had a shelter. We came upon their house built of stone and thicker blocks of the same color as was expressed by the streets. Their house was centuries old and dug into the earth. It was cramped. We ran over intricate, imported carpets of lush reds and purples; around glass rattled by the winds of our movement and past a wall of mirrors—whose juxtaposed stillness was almost haunting; down stairs and through a basement of slate, trying not to break anything amidst the chaos of a town still under siren’s warning. We huddled into a cave and hid how fearful we all were, how uncertain we were that we’d emerge alive. We were so petrified we might as well have been cave wall sediment. The cave was a tunnel of ashy gravel sealed off from light by klanking, thick metal slabs for doors the men of the house latched shut with the twist of a rusty metal L into position. Although the sirens continued, everyone settled like puzzle pieces. An eerie calm before the storm fell like a blanket upon us. The thunder began at a distance—booms like the fireworks. We needed strength. My mom spoke in hushed tones, rosary clenched in tense hands to her chest, “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee…Pray for our sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Thunder encroached on us until we heard a loud explosion and stone colliding with stone. I’d never heard anything so loud since my brother Joseph hid in the China cabinet during a game of manhunt. In one swift jostling by his shoulder, my other brother, Charlie, knocked it over and reduced all our chinaware to fractured porcelain pictures of pink flowers. Joseph was happy for the moment—at least until Mom chased after him with the wooden spoon, “Wait until I catch you!” The cave shook a little and dust rattled on the cave floor like sand to the bottom of an hourglass. We didn’t have the luxury to keep time. We waited, without light and without words, for what felt like days after the sirens no longer echoed within us. The heat of our anxious bodies made the cave much less cold—slightly inviting. We spent the rest of our daylight held up in this stuffy place. We trusted the cave would be safe, but what choice did we have? We could never be certain.

When we emerged, there was just enough light to see that the grocery store on our street had fallen. We didn’t have a refrigerator then, so I used to run to the store every morning after mass but before elementary school with the money our father sent us. This was before the bombs destroyed every school on the island. The store was small, a few aisles stocked each day. The owner and cashier were one in the same person: Santo. He was as kind a man as his name bore resemblance to that of St. Nicholas. He was generous to many and often provided the local parishes with food for the hungry. He was young, married with a family, and we’d speak whenever I frequented his store. The bomb invaded his grocery, decimated it. Our neighbors found Santo under the rubble—dead. Warm tears streamed down my cheeks; they dripped from my chin to a pile of yellow dust and sundered stone—what had become of Santo’s grocery. We walked home slowly lest we need retreat underground.

Days later, our Uncle Mikiel, dressed to escort us to Santo’s wake, announced his entrance with aid of a twisted ring door knocker finished in flat black. His long, dark overcoat flowed over his figure and secured him with eight buttons like the eyes of a spider. He was a burly man from his years in construction, his shoulders and arms pulled the wool into awkward constriction. His voice rasped as he shouted over the round, white kitchen table. He urged us to flee to his property in Valletta: “You’ll die if you stay here! Think of the children, Maria!” He pounded his fists on the table to advance his rhetoric—really to rattle my mother into submission.

He owned a plot of land, once a place where street vendors lived to sell their wares to tourists, on which he built four small houses. Each were two cubes merged awkwardly together, roofed by square prisms and layered by thin, rectangular stone slates. One was for him, and two he rented to other families who sought shelter from siege. Though reluctant to leave home, our mother consented in extended exhale. We occupied one and each slept that night and for a few months on the cold, unforgiving floors.

The morning after the first night, we pounded the dirt and streets through Birgu until we arrived at the dockyards with our uncle. I went with my mother to watch her try our luck. We approached the first shipman we saw with a ship large enough to have us all aboard; his wavy, copper brown hair made him look like a Brit. He had the body of a soldier but was sweet to my mom, like he’d been a friend to her for years. She haggled a bit with him to get a trip to Valletta. He was an observant man. I bet he knew our reasons to go before she spoke. Perhaps he also knew the bags mother carried under her eyes were more of a burden than that over her shoulders. His boat was a midsize, single-level passenger steamboat with two black to pitch black smokestacks and a rectangular captain’s room towards the front of the boat. He kindly accepted my mother’s offer and waved us aboard. The wind was a wraith against us until we came ashore.

Valletta, Malta; 1940

The war followed us. The bombs first came in the mornings and afternoons. Bombs rained down so frequently we memorized the routes we’d have to take to the shelters when the sirens rang out. This training served us well when the bombs came at night, in waves. We’d go to sleep every night fully clothed in the bunked beds my Uncle used to furnish his cube homes. Bombs continued to fall through every season, so we’d dress accordingly. Any night could be a night we’d have to run for our lives. Ironic most children fear the dark, yet our only chance to live was to descend below the level of the dead. We often slept in these apathetic tunnels, carved into earth and stone, for fear we might die if we left before morning. All but our mother, she never slept when we had thunder.

Valletta’s first bombing alarm brought Uncle Mikiel to collect us outside the house. He pointed to a tower a short distance away whose face was that of three clocks on beige brick. The closest shelter was the tunnel network under the Grand Master’s Palace. We made haste down a street of four houses, bricked in beige like the rest of Malta, whose yards were divided by sparse wooden fence posts linked by black wire.

The Palace was an intimidating citadel whose eyes were tall and green, and whose entrances were mouths flanked by sand-colored stone columns. The Palace swallowed up fearful, fleeting people as fast as they could force themselves inside. Its organs were immaculate, but there was no time to digest culture. We were pushed along by peristaltic contractions of panicked people until we reached the winding intestines, where we were led by Uncle Mikiel into an expanse of rusty pipes and stone as rough on the skin as it was on the eyes. Mom clutched her rosary and moved her fingers as if counting beads as she spoke, “Defend us in the day of battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil…Cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

After the thunder rolled over Valletta in the same way Mom rolled fresh dough, we were resurrected. The push of the crowds—eager to carry on their lives—resurfaced us as if we were oil and someone flooded the tunnels with water. The same streets we walked to the Palace looked almost foreign. The four houses we had passed on our way were razed to the ground. The stone architecture was scattered everywhere against the backdrop of a sky now a cloudy mosaic of murky grays. The wooden fences were obliterated, no more than bits now. This street became a burial site. A family of four—father, mother, and two daughters—didn’t escape in time. Their small, sepia dog survived and moved about the rubble: into, out of, and back into the home’s doorway. It played the most disheartening game of peek-a-boo—as if this was all a game of pretend and its family would appear alive on the inside. The dog barked without relent until the naïve smile left its snout. The dog lay down to rest its jaw on its forelimbs and whimper in dismay. Go on we must.

Aside from the Palace, Valletta was a port town, not much larger than Cospicua, which often saw British shipments. Malta was completely rationed by the time we avoided bombs in Valletta. We’d attend mass here as a source of continuity. Every service was given in Maltese and the parishes resembled those in Cospicua: carved stone stairs with a central rail which led to vast wooden doors. There were three altars: two accessory, one main. This served to administer communions more efficiently for how most of Malta was Catholic. The churches were designed to entertain beams of light upon each alter and every corner held a sculpture of a different Saint. Prayer, especially in song, solidified the family and helped keep fear at bay.

Each day after morning mass, I walked down the street to where the burly, tan-uniformed British navy men collected the ration tickets for our family. We’d share a loaf of firm Italian bread every day for the eight of us. Often my mother went without, so we might have slightly larger portions. She prayed before every meal, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”

On rare occasions we’d have meat—usually rabbit. The taste and texture was not far from chicken, yet it was salty enough to dry your lips. We had no refrigerator. We had no furniture. We had left it all in Cospicua. All we had were are linen and Mom’s sewing machine. Days after the bombing, we received a letter from our father. It contained little more than a recount of his job experiences in America, how much he loved and missed us, and how he wanted us to be safe and follow Uncle Mikiel’s guidance. His words were as distant to me as he was.

Three knocks soon after came upon the door on an early morning. It startled us awake since we slept on the stone floor in the open room of the Valletta house—we didn’t want to be elsewhere when the bomb warnings sounded and didn’t have enough money for beds. We barely knew anyone in town. Who could it be? Connie, my sister and second oldest to Mom, answered. Grandpa, our mother’s father, surprised us with a visit in black pleated dress pants, a double-breasted polyester trench coat, and a newsboy cap to match. He held a letter with a red letter seal. He took off his overcoat and handed it to Connie. To me, he handed his envelope. He asked us kids where he could find Mom, so we pointed him to the kitchen. We stood behind him while he occupied the archway from the open room where we slept to the kitchen, which was the same as the open room save for the presence of an oven and a wooden counter. He sighed as he said the words we fear we’d hear: “Maria” he exhaled heavily, “Bombs destroyed the house in Cospicua.” We lost everything aside from the clothes Mom made for us and her sewing machine. His envelope was another letter from Dad in America and contained within it some American money expressed in rough paper, torn in places, with faces and symbols foreign to me. I put the money on the wooden counter and watched as my mom inhaled my grandfather’s news. She stared downward, as if lost within herself.

Without pause, my grandfather said we were to go to Gozo. As far as he knew, Gozo was untouched by the siege. The next morning, we gathered our clothing and boarded a green bi-level bus to later board a ferry to Gozo. The bus dropped us off two blocks from a hotel, where we stayed for two years until I completed my schooling. The siege reduced all schools on the main island to mere dust and fragmented stone, so we hadn’t attended school since the bombs rained in Cospicua. Before the bombs, we’d frequent another uncle’s house because his wife was English and our father told us we better learn English. We took it up in school and practiced whenever we’d go to their house. We’d sit for tea, as was customary for most intimate conversations in Malta, and speak entirely in English over the sound of biscotti being dipped in clear brown tea turned smooth caramel by introduction of fresh goat’s milk and a flick of the wrist, spoon in hand. We were not as fortunate in Gozo.

Gozo 1940 – 1943

The school on Gozo was small, yet two years was still not enough time for me to acquaint myself with all the faces. The school was outwardly white brick and inwardly the same. Each classroom was roughly twenty adolescents and a teacher. Chalk was their weapon of choice. The kind of chalk you’d use once and have on you the rest of the day. At the hotel, I assumed my usual routine from Cospicua: wake, mass, pick up groceries, school, hotel, and start another day. The only distinction was I no longer had a home. The hotel was four stories of Maltese refugees like us. Our eight, add grandpa and uncle, occupied a room on the third floor with little more than two beds, two coffee-colored wooden night tables, kitchen—which bore a stove, countertop, sink and refrigerator—and a shared bathroom between our room and another. Each room, however, was shared by two families, so we were then four families to a bathroom. I was lucky enough to have the corner by the window.

Each day, I’d leave my brown, drawstring knapsack, canvas in make, on the windowsill after school and either start to clean the hotel with the same washrag as the day before or help my mother cook. This was the best way to learn. Cooking and teaching us kids to cook was a quiet pleasure for my mom, and she was delighted to now eat more than rationed bread and salty rabbit. My favorite dish to make was pastitsio, a deep pasta lattice of ground meat and shredded cheese in a succulent tomato sauce with even more cheese baked to a golden crust on top. I’d get the large silver pot atop the fridge, put it in the sink, and run a bath for the pasta to come. Then I’d gently salt the incoming water being bring to a boil, and let the warmth of the steam release my pores. On exposure, I’d sweat, allowing this to remind my face to breathe again. The yellow tortiglioni went in hard but emerged tender, now accepting of a spa treatment in bold red, thick tomato paste; full-bodied and vaguely floral red wine; parsley; salt and pepper; a generous helping of garlic powder measured in my palm—I had to be careful not to let some slip between my fingers; and chunky, minced beef. So my mother considered cooking, as well as cleaning, the virtues she ought to pass on to us daughters for us to be successful wives: “You want to be a wife someday, you’ll need to learn how to cook!” This was my life for the years in Gozo, and for the several more after spent in Valletta. Maltese women didn’t aspire to life beyond the house, and I didn’t get a taste until nearly six years later.

Valletta, Malta 1949

My sister Vicki answered the door of Uncle Mikiel’s house in which we stayed on a cool, rainy spring morning in May, to find my father. Only he didn’t look like how he did when he left. We were a family for twelve years without him, minus the money he sent back and the letters he addressed to Mom. He announced the family would move to Brooklyn. He picked up the habit to talk more in English than in Maltese, and my mother didn’t like this very much. His words were as foreign as he was to us now. English was not our own Maltese. My mother was the only one who welcomed him sincerely with open arms, teary eyes, and at a gait somewhere between a walk and a run.
His presence in Malta was as transient as it was bittersweet—like he came here on an errand. Unlike the first time he left, I didn’t feel empty. I felt the same. He put in for our papers to immigrate, and months later, Uncle Mikiel slid them under our door with a swift ‘schlick!’ These papers brought us to the ship, a mighty mass of industrial gray and black metal. Stories high, it towered over a city still licking its wounds. We walked aboard over two rickety, wooden planks which ‘creaked’ like warped floorboards. Salty air filled our noses, as if we could smell the crash of every wave upon the ship. I looked back upon damaged Malta to a crowd of outstretched, waving hands—waving to those already aboard. Malta was no longer my home. My mother spoke softly to herself, her head bent over her clasped hands—as if to shield her prayer from us, “My holy Angel Guardian, ask the Lord to bless the journey which I undertake, that it may profit the health of my soul and body; that I may reach its end, and that, returning safe and sound, I may find my family in good health. Do thou guard, guide and preserve us. Amen.”

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