Living a married life for 70 years is no small feat. Retaining a deep love and respect is exceptional. Believe it or not, Papa Ċensu and Mama Maria still recall the date and circumstances of their first kiss.
Mama Maria knew that Ċensu needed some hobbies to refresh his mind- Philip Farrugia Randon
A few years ago in a TV interview, Ċensu Tabone referred to marriage as a closed box. “You don’t know what’s in it until you open it.”
Then he stopped for a second, looked at his wife, Maria, with twinkling eyes, smiled and said: “I couldn’t have found anything better”.
Maria was still in her early mid-teens when she was smitten by Ċensu, seven years her senior. She decided that he was the one for her.
Let me share a small secret: to this day whenever we tease Mama Maria about a lady who, when still in her teens, supposedly had tried to innocently compete with her for Ċensu, her eyes and voice still betray a jealous trait. Whenever this topic surfaces, Ċensu unfailingly looks lovingly at Maria and asks “But who won?”
Problems almost started on the very first day of their honeymoon in Gozo. It was wartime.
Papa Ċensu, who was then a very young doctor in the Royal Malta Artillery, was recalled to Malta since an imminent enemy air attack was feared but luck was on his side.
Before he left Gozo, the fear of the threatened attack was found groundless, so his superior officer quickly sent a message, “Tell Tabone he can go back to bed!” Presumably, he did.
He specialised in ophthalmology in the UK and soon after was entrusted with the anti-Trachoma campaign in Gozo, which was a big success.
Papa Ċensu discovered a new cure for this terrible disease and this soon won him international acclaim. He became the first ophthalmic surgeon to be employed with the World Health Organisation. This led him to work in far away places, such as Taiwan, Indonesia, Iraq and his name and fame grew as he developed further within the WHO.
Meanwhile, the family was growing at a persistent rate, reaching a final count of eight children, actually nine since one died immediately after birth. The funny side is that while Papa Ċensu was working abroad he would visit Mama Maria every year and before returning to work, Maria would be expecting the next baby. One year he missed his yearly visit. When he came the next time, they had twins.
During one of his work phases abroad, overseas calls were introduced in Malta and Mama Maria was reputedly the first to use it. She went to Cable and Wireless by appointment to phone her husband. It was such a dramatic, expensive exercise.
Maria cried at one side of the phone and Ċensu on the other. They barely said one word as the charges soared but their spirits were united in the ether.
Papa Ċensu founded the Medical Officers Union (now MAM) and later entered politics in the early 1960s. That meant a very busy schedule, which allowed little time to share with the family.
Maria was by his side and backed him to the hilt, though she too had a somewhat active life and was one of the co-founders of the women’s section of the PN. At home he was the boss but she was the general manager. He gladly delegated to her certain duties, such as managing the family finances, which needed some juggling to make ends meet. We still jokingly refer to her as the “financial wizard”. Paper abounded and super abounded in the house, ending up filling not one but three studies.
I once affixed Dante’s words on the door of the first study: “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate” (Abandon all hope, ye who enter).
I was referring to Mama Maria’s continuous hopeful efforts to convince her husband to put some order. Though there were discussions on the topic they remained simple discussions, which always ended in the same manner: Ċensu smiling, hugging Maria.
Whoever thinks that a successful marriage exists only when both spouses are the same in character and habits, should revise this idea. Papa Ċensu has a mania for being punctual. She, on the other hand, has a chronic inability to look at the clock and appreciate that she has only a couple of minutes to stop what she is doing, wash, change and leave.
I must concede that when Papa became President of Malta, Mama was always punctual, terrified that she would leave the public waiting. Even her cooking has always been a last-minute affair. Mind you, her food is unreservedly first class but she manages to do everything at the last ticks of the clock. I remember often hearing Papa Ċensu returning home, when she would tell us “keep him busy” as she took out all the necessaries to perform a cuisine miracle. He knew this all along but he also knew the end result would be delicious and, in any case, quick. Mama Maria knew that Ċensu needed some hobbies to refresh his mind from the heavy chores of the day, so she backed him even here at some cost. He would cannibalise electric fans, which he bought from a second-hand dealer (Tal-Pikless), and adapt and adopt, restore and revamp them into workable machines, which admittedly were far from elegant. Steve Jobs would not have entrusted him with an Apple design.
His other hobby was mending clocks, including actually creating missing parts. All this meant a certain amount of invasion in some parts of the house. Maria knew this hobby was essential so she wisely concluded that it was likewise essential to treat it as such. Surrounded by eight children, in-laws, 19 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren, the Tabone couple look back at these past 70 years of married life as one continuous love story, which the good Lord, whom they fervently and lovingly adore, has graced them with.
As in the past, they still do not miss their daily Mass, Holy Communion and Rosary. As in the past, they still feel close to the needy and those who suffer. When Ċensu was a very young boy and his teacher would tell him, “very good!” he would answer, “but is it very good indeed, Miss?”
Allow me to take up that cue and lovingly tell Mama Maria and Papa Ċensu: “It has been very good… indeed!”
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