She looked very much like the old silver-haired mother in Umberto Boccioni’s paintings. A great aunt with few words to say, mostly sitting majestically against the light of her window overseeing a backyard smelling of basil and lemons.
Great Aunt Margaret — iz-Zija Gerit, as we knew her — never married. The woman was an arch-Catholic who out of the fear of God and Archbishop Gonzi would never contemplate voting for Mintoff. My father did not agree with Archbishop Gonzi, though he never failed to go to Church and knew his Catechism inside out. This kept a degree of détente between my father and his aunt, enough to keep her contented.
Her house looked like a sacristy. Dark paintings of saints with crucifixes of Jesus butchered on the Cross. As a young family, we would visit her frequently and while getting news of who died in the village, we would occasionally stop for a quick Pater Noster, Ave Maria and Gloria Patri, the recitation of which was led by Aunt Gerit herself. Cue the pious break were Żejtun’s Church bells which, even after so many years, remain imprinted in my memory.
The woman could have been a character out of Downton Abbey, having worked in the service of the anglophile Maltese nobility. Her employer, Is-Sinjur, counted Dun Gorg Preca as one of his confidantes. Great Aunt would secure employment for her two nieces, my aunts, with Is-Sinjur. As wee girls, my aunts lived with their aunt having lost their father too soon. With five children and pregnant with her sixth, my grandmother lost her husband to kidney failure. With no welfare state to look after her, she called on her unmarried sister and brother to help. During the war my father and his siblings grew up with his extended family, which, like many other Maltese families in similar conditions, would chip in to keep things ticking.
Through Is-Sinjur (the earthly one, not the Almighty) and Aunt Gerit, one of my aunts met Dun Gorg Preca and was one of the first young women to join the Societas Doctrinae Christianae, better known as Tal-Mużew. Aunt Gerit did not join. Though a spinster, she remained the matriarch with whom her nieces would live until she left this earthly Calvary at a very old age.
As you could imagine, like her aunt, my aunt went through the Sixties probably perturbed by Mintoff and my father’s support for him. But then again, just as she and her aunt adored the Nationalist doctor and MP, Dr Alexander Cachia Zammit, eventually this loyalty was passed on to the Labour MP and village doctor George Vella who gracefully and kindly returned his respect with equal equanimity.
Sandy and George, though from different parties, enjoyed unfailing loyalty from my devout Catholic Aunts—the reason being that they saw in their MPs a decency that went beyond favour or opportunism.
So why am I speaking of my aunts and their memory?
As I grow older, I tend to look back at long gone relatives as if they were characters in a novel which I lived and experienced as a young man. More so, I could now speak of an age where even when ideological conflicts were harsh and divisive, people stuck to their principles.
Like many, I could say that I was brought up to know why people were conservative or progressive. This gave me a notion of where people stood and why there were political parties that gave them leadership. I also feared but respected the likes of my Great Aunt who held principles but accepted a challenge or two from the younger generation that disagreed with her.
Many Maltese of my age have their own version of Aunt Gerit. I often think of her, especially when I hear latter-day charlatans telling us how the end of principles heralds some standardised era where politics is no more “ridden” with values, but where what seems to matter most is a managerial style of governance by which the people will be content albeit no less brainless.
In my own middle age, you might say that some of Aunt Gerit’s character rubbed off me. As I seek to stand by principles (which she would probably denounce) I know that I would never start from them as fixed dogmas. I detest ideologues as much as I loathe relativists. But I do think that if Aunt Gerit were to hear some idiot planning to revive Georg Borg Olivier’s Party through gratuitous nonsense, I don’t think she’ll be very pleased either.
As I recently found myself telling an old conservative acquaintance who probably was not as fond of talking to me when I was still a student singing Bandiera Rossa to taunt him: “Call me a nostalgic, but I do prefer to have two parties which are distinctly conservative and progressive, rather than two bland organizations which increasingly look alike and have nothing different to offer. At the very least I would then know where I stand with them”.
I would like to think that for once, my acquaintance agreed with me. Most probably, upon hearing my complaint, even Aunt Gerit would have smiled and said a couple of Ave Mariae for me, as I’m sure she did for her nephew in the heydays of Archbishop Gonzi’s quarrel with Dom Mintoff.