Liberata Vella is a 90-year-old mother of eight from Mġarr who always was, and still is, an avid reader. Graziella Chetcuti finds out more about her life.

I gaze at the old woman in front of me as she sits in her back garden overlooking Manikata valley, the afternoon sun bouncing off her white hair and white glasses to match.

Liberata Vella, a 90-year-old mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, has lived, suffered, loved and grieved. But, as her name suggests, she embodies a free and joyful spirit.

She is certainly not the kind of person you’d pity over what you imagined were old bones and feeble limbs. Rather, she is the type that inspires you with her strength and resilience.

With her great-grandson Lukas during one of her daily reading sessions.With her great-grandson Lukas during one of her daily reading sessions.

Liberata was born into a farming fami­ly in Mġarr, the third oldest of eight children, of whom only three are still going strong. Her childhood memories are vivid and include being surrounded by pigs, sheep and donkeys.

Her fondest recollections, however, are of a more rarefied type. She rolls the years back gently to primary school: “I used to love reading books while grazing sheep. God forbid I missed one day of school. I cried my heart out whenever I did,” she recalls as time melts away like ice in the midday sun.

I soon learn that Liberata was a top student. She won a school prize every year, and one time, even two.

“I once read two poems in front of the entire school. One was named Il-Kewkba (The Star) and the other was about the war. I used to tell them this, see…”

Right then, she shuts her eyes and starts reciting the poems, word for word, as if she were there on stage. I am awed by her sharp memory and sublime performance. She chuckles as I applaud her at the end and proclaim: “And the winner is… Vassallo Liberata!”.

The litheness in those words are a clear echo of her young spirit. As she grew older she mulled becoming a teacher, yet destiny decreed otherwise. “At that time, World War II broke out, and because I was poor I had to set my dream aside.”

At 18 she got married and went to live in a cave in Manikata. Her husband used to travel a lot as a soldier and Liberata admits it was not easy raising eight children, though she always got a helping hand from her husband’s family.

“I remember sowing beans in the morning and giving birth in the evening.”

Liberata lost her husband when she was 58 but the heartbreak did not stop there – she suffered the death of one of her granddaughters and that of one of her sons a few years ago.

I remember sowing beans in the morning and giving birth in the evening

“She’s one in a million, a genuine soul whose life was full of sacrifices, yet she has managed to keep her smile,” says her daughter Theresa.

What was the war like for her? “Oh goodness me, we were terrified,” Liberata says promptly, as the horrors inflicted on the island come to her mind.

“We used to hide among the clover and wrap it around us, so that the planes wouldn’t see us. I remember watching a plane drop a bomb right in the middle of a litter of pigs, just a few metres away from me.”

Did tilling the fields help at a time of food shortage? “We still suffered hunger… sometimes we would only eat one tomato, an onion and just a few breadcrumbs.”

She remembers the time families received some relief – in the form of coupons distributed by the government and which people exchanged for cloth – and how excited she was about her new dress in the colour she likes best, blue.

“I also wore a blue dress for my wedding day, as no white fabric was available at the time,” she says as she shows me her wedding photo.

Liberata turns out to be a woman of many talents. She knows how to sew and how to embroider using cross-stitch and embroidery, but due to arthritis she cannot practise these pastimes anymore. Being the tenacious person that she is, Liberata decided to do what she loves best and start reading again.

“She doesn’t read books, she eats them,” laughs Theresa who, conveniently for Liberata, is a librarian.

She tells me how her mother pours herself into the pages, throughout the day and late into the night, until her eyes have to shut. To keep up with her mother’s voracious appetite for books, Theresa is continuously borrowing and buying her new ones of all genres, which surprisingly include horror and young adult fiction.

As I speak to Theresa, Liberata pulls her walker up and down the patio to stretch her legs, and with her sweet voice: “It’s night time!” A polite indication that it’s time to wrap things up.

What’s the secret to living a long life, I ask her as a last question. She raises her head as if searching for something or someone in the heavens above and says: “First God, because without Him we would be nothing.”

“And reading,” she adds with a smile.

Some say time is a thief who steals everything you have, but for Liberata, time is a blessing that she continues to embrace each and every day.