The granddaughter of Malta’s first prime minister, GRACE GATT, is now 106 years old. Maureen Saguna meets up with her to learn about the golden years… as well as her tales of bombing, love and loss.

In 1916, stainless steel was invented, Monet painted Water Lilies, and Grace Howard was born. Grace is now 106 years old, making her one of the oldest people in Malta. She is also the only granddaughter of Sir Joseph Howard, Malta’s first prime minister. 

Although she was born in the middle of the first world war, Grace’s earliest memories are very happy.

“She grew up in a large house opposite Teatru Manoel in Valletta where she lived with her parents and her paternal grandparents. Her grandfather became prime minister when she was five and passed away when she was nine, but she was very close to him and he was the first person she travelled abroad with,” says Grace’s son Edgar, who spoke on her behalf as we sat together. 

Grace Gatt with her son Edgar. PHOTO: Matthew MirabelliGrace Gatt with her son Edgar. PHOTO: Matthew Mirabelli

“Travelling was a grand affair at the time and involved multiple trunks, fine clothes, and hats. They travelled by ship and train, and each trip would last up to six weeks, which would be unthinkable today.

”There is no doubt that Grace’s childhood was a golden one despite the war raging in Europe. But the second world war left an impression on her. In 1940, the year the relentless bombing known as the Siege of Malta started, she married Alfred Gatt, whom she had met when friends invited her to join a carnival company. Taking part in carnival dance competitions was something the couple continued to enjoy throughout their courtship and early years of marriage. 

Grace with her husband Alfred.Grace with her husband Alfred.

“A year into their marriage, they had to be evacuated from Valletta and went to live in Mosta when the capital became too dangerous. Then they moved to Sliema, where my younger brother and I were raised,” says Edgar.

“My mother remembers the war very well. In fact, she gave birth to me in a shelter in 1942.” Edgar’s younger brother John was born less than two years later. Sadly, John passed away a few years ago and his loss was one of Grace’s most painful experiences.

Loss is part of life, and when you have lived more than a century, you get to experience more of it than the average person. Grace’s husband passed away when she was just 61, but she never remarried and still talks about her life with Alfred with nostalgia. 

“My parents had a great life together,” Edgar remembers. “My father was secretary to George Borg Olivier while he was prime minister, so they attended receptions, parties and dinners. They also entertained at home.” At this, Grace points out that Wednesday was the day they hosted at their house while their friends hosted on the other days.

“We had a good life at home too. I remember things like ringing a bell so the maid would serve us dinner and again when it was time for her to clear up the dishes,” adds Edgar. After dinner, Grace would sit down with a book.

“I used to read mysteries and detective stories, especially John Grisham,” she says. “And we always had the gramophone on, playing operas.”

 Grace is, in fact, an opera enthusiast. Having grown up literally a few metres away from the national theatre, she had easy access to opera performances and some of the best singers in the world. Her family even had their own box at the Manoel, where she attended from the age of six. “My favourites are Madama Butterfly and Tosca,” she says with a smile.

Russian history and culture is another of Grace’s interests. In 1919, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia forced many Russian aristocrats to flee, with some finding a new home in Malta. Among those was Princess Nathalie Poutiatine, who became a good friend of Grace’s. 

“Even though she travelled all over Europe, she never made it as far as Russia, because she is afraid of flying and travelled mostly by train and car,” says Edgar. “She has always been a very cautious person.”Her cautious nature might have contributed to Grace’s longevity. She believes in moderation and in not taking unnecessary risks.

“She has always been very careful to eat well and in moderation,” her son shares. “She doesn’t know what her secret to a long life is, but she believes that her evening ritual, which she swears by, might have something to do with it. She used to have a tot of whisky at 7pm, followed by a light dinner of salad and a boiled egg. Sadly, she cannot drink alcohol anymore, because of the medicines she has to have.”

Although she had live-in help throughout her life, Grace was the queen of her kitchen, taking pride in cooking different dishes every day of the week. She was also a dab hand at embroidery and used to make flower arrangements, especially for Lady Laycock, the wife of the then Governor of Malta. 

“She has always been a very attentive mother, spending all her time with my brother and me. That is, until 6pm struck and my father came home from work,” smiles Edgar.

“She would then hand us over to him and would go to play cards with her friends for a couple of hours.” Grace says that her favourite were rummy and canasta, two card games she continued to play with her friends until recently. When her husband passed away, Grace started spending six weeks with friends in Marsalforn each summer.

They spent their days swimming and playing cards on the patio of a house which has since been taken over by restaurant tables. She also lived in her own house until she was 95, but a short stint in the nursing home where she now lives led to a change of lifestyle. There she met many old friends and decided to stay. 

“Sadly, all her friends have since passed away, and now she is waiting for her turn,” says her son. “She had a good life. It’s not easy to be her age and so dependent on others when you have had such a great social and family life.”Grace has had a long life full of love, fun, and also pain, but even as she lives out her last chapter, she embodies the quality she was named after.

This story was first published in Sunday Circle, a Times of Malta publication. 

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