Today Maria Tabone is 90 years young and, as a surprise, I would like to offer her this bouquet of words for the occasion. However, compressing 90 years and what I want to say in about 1,000 words is no small feat especially if it concerns a woman whom God has graced with an eventful life.
Hailing from Valletta, daughter of Magistrate Francis (known as Kikki) Wirth and Elen née Caruana Dingli, she seems to have been quite a lively character from her young days. This is what I can safely surmise from the anecdotes of her childhood, which she relates still with a naughty look on her face.
She fell in love quite early. Indeed she was still in her teens when her eyes fell on Ċensu Tabone, a young handsome man, almost seven years her senior, and she never looked at anyone else. She was absolutely love smitten.
Since the man of her life was not Mr Average she could not hope for a quiet, cosy life. She married in 1943 in the thick of war. The marriage was celebrated in Gozo where the couple spent their honeymoon. Funny! Half way through there was a threat of an imminent Italian attack and Ċensu, who was then a regimental medical officer, was recalled immediately to Malta. However, before he returned to base the feared Italian attack proved to be just a scare and so back came the order of Ċensu's army superior: "Tell Tabone that he may go back to bed!" And that I am sure he did.
The good Lord soon graced her with a consistent sequence of nine children. (One died after birth.) Life was not easy to cope with an increasing family. When she had three children, her husband travelled to the UK for his postgraduate in ophthalmology. It was then that the first, or one of the first, overseas calls was made. My eyes moisten when I recall this episode. Maria booked the call at the local wireless and telegraphy office and when she heard Ċensu's voice at the other end all she could say was "Ċensu, are you Ok?" And she sobbed. Back sobbed Ċensu, "Maria, are you OK?" This went on for a few minutes until it was evident that there was an emotional stalemate. They hung up and Maria paid an exorbitant bill for the sobs, cries and "Are you OK's?"
During the following years when Ċensu proved to the world that antibiotics could indeed help to cure trachoma, he was engaged with the World Health Organisation and travelled worldwide as its first consultant ophthalmologist, working hard in far away countries such as Taiwan, Iraq and Indonesia. Meanwhile the family increased; Dr Tabone took care of that during every return visit. He missed one year and then had twins! Maria then had the unenviable task to rear all their children in the absence of the father. No mean feat: eight children and all quite a handful!
Perhaps her continuous tackling of problems have made Maria very critical of fussy persons . She still faces a problem without over reacting.
Her husband's different activities presented new challenges for her. A successful ophthalmologist of world renown, he became founder member and first president of the Medical Officers Union (now MAM). That was a handful.
Then he moved into politics at quite a late stage, becoming minister, then member of the Opposition, then foreign minister and finally President of the Republic. And Maria was there besides him. Not as his shadow but as his complementary.
There were very tough times and some dangerous years but Maria was robust and never feared threats and attacks. As some would say, "she was a tough cookie." And when her husband needed a word of support she voiced it. When he needed an ear to listen to his toil she heard him. But she never failed to say what she thought without being overbearing. Well, to be honest you had no chance to be overbearing with Ċensu Tabone.
Mentioning cookie sprouts food in my mind and that reminds me of Mama Maria's culinary prowess. She cooks wonderfully. Believe me, even simple bread with oil and tomato is different when made by her.
She has a golden touch for food. She still will not relinquish cooking turkey for Christmas for some 40 persons (only!). And to this day she insists in preparing her nieces' wedding and engagement cakes which I can assure you are simply mouth watering.
She was first class at sewing and sewed all the wedding dresses for her girls and their bridesmaids. Stunning! But she no longer practices this art.
Very religious without being fanatic, her closest saints are Padre Pio and Dun Ġorġ Preca. The latter has a special place in her life since the miracle which first pushed Dun Ġorġ in his first step towards sainthood happened to Dr Tabone's patient and on which he most willingly testified.
I love the way she relates anecdotes. She assumes you know the who, why and what and delves immediately into the heart of the story leaving you guessing the whodunit and whatsit. This aspect of course has featured several times in the għana which I customarily write in different occasions.
We love calling her the financial wizard of the family because Dr Tabone has never ever interested himself minimally in the subject. He never even carries money on him. It is she who follows expenses and incomes with certain panache. In all honesty, being better than her husband is no great shakes.
The funny part is how Dr Tabone, who is an independent creature, depends on his wife in certain basic things. He is very conservative in his food habit. I can never restrain a laugh when, presented with some different food, he looks at his wife enquiringly and innocently asks: "Maria, do I like this?" Invariably he follows her directions.
She still loves watching TV with her husband. Very often she engages herself simultaneously over a game of patience (I suspect she cheats!) and some word search puzzle at which she is consistently professional. At irregular intervals there may be a sweet exchange of words with her husband and very often I can still see a clear twinkle in her eyes. She is obviously still madly in love with the man. And she is still faithful to their first promise never to sleep quarrelled.
Mama Maria has remained the casual person she always was. She retained that stance even when her husband was President of Malta and she was everybody's nanna.
Now she enjoys a rather quiet life with her husband and looks at life as a gift of God to be enjoyed and experienced to the full. She looks back at her public time as a period where she was graced with the possibility of giving and sharing.
Perhaps that is why Mama Maria can truly be said to be 90 years young. That is why I love her dearly.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us