On Thursday, HWB’s beloved mum and my dear mother-in-law, Carmen, passed away peacefully at home after a long battle with cancer. We are grieving.
A few years ago I took the opportunity to record some oral history with Carmen, and she spoke happily about her early years. I treasure this record, and what I write now comes from her own telling of her story.
Carmen was born to Aida and William Vassalo in Rabat, Malta, in 1934. She was the youngest of six siblings, and part of a large and lively extended family who embraced the Maltese passions of laughter, great food and fun times.
Though Carmen was only six when World War II broke out she vividly recalled blackouts, the wailing of sirens and midnight dashes to bomb shelters. As Malta’s ports were blockaded and convoy’s bombarded, food began to run out. Carmen remembered a time when her mother received special ration cards from her RAF squadron commander uncle and commandeered a karrotzin (horse and cart) and dodged bombs to retrieve food for her family from the other side of the island.
At seven, Carmen became a boarder at St Dorothy’s Convent in Mdina, as was the tradition for the girls in her family. Later, her sister Marie became a nun within the Dorothean order there. Carmen fondly recalled hiding illicit feasts in the dormitory with her friends when they heard the distinctive rattling of the nuns’ rosary beads as they approached to inspect their supposedly sleeping charges.
Carmen was sixteen, going on seventeen, when she met a dashing young man called Godfrey Dingli at a thé dansant at the Phonecia Hotel. Sporting a red dress with a white sailor collar, Carmen accepted Godfrey’s invitation to dance despite the fact that she was interested in another boy at the time. After the dance, Carmen proved elusive, but Godfrey was persistent. “I said no, and no, and no, but he kept phoning,” she said.
True love drives a man to desperate measures. Godfrey resorted to stalking Carmen and discovered that she attended Rabat Cathedral to confess her sins. “So then one fine day I approached the priest, asking him to convince her that I’m a good boy. Truly!” Godfrey assured me.
It took Godfrey eight months before Carmen said yes to their first date. They went on swimming expeditions and to see films and when Carmen turned nineteen they married.
Family is central to Maltese life, and Carmen and Godfrey didn’t waste any time in creating one of their own. By the time Carmen was in her late twenties they had been blessed with five children – Mariella, Raphael, Peter, Martin (HWB) and Anna. Her husband and children were forever the abiding core of Carmen’s life.
And it was for the future of her children that Carmen endured the biggest challenge of her life – migrating to Australia. By the mid-seventies, the political climate in Malta had become fraught under the regime of socialist Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff. For many old families like the Dinglis and Vassalos associated with former British rule, life became difficult. The Dingli’s decided their children would have a brighter future and more opportunities in the antipodes.
Following a forty-day sea journey, the family settled in Melbourne and set about discovering their new home. Carmen started a business making knitted garments and later took up catering, a role where she could utilise her remarkable culinary skills and in which she remained busy and active right into her seventies. After some initial culture shock the children flourished, and Carmen became more and more proud of their achievements.
Travel was an lasting passion for both Carmen and Godfrey. They returned to Malta many times, and enjoyed extended holidays in Europe and South America. They also made one more big move – to Canberra – in their sixties to be closer to their grandchildren.
Carmen liked to laugh. A lot. And she loved cooking. But most of all she loved having a houseful of her children and grandchildren and cooking up massive feasts of Maltese delights. Her hospitality was boundless.
Carmen was seventy when I met her and I fell in love with her (and the rest of the Dinglis) as well as with HWB. She made me so welcome and was unstintingly generous with her time, advice and cooking classes. Under her experienced eye I mastered the art of pastizzi and torta tal mamurat, though I have never yet quite succeeded in achieving the exquisite fluffiness she imparted to her choux pastry.
Carmen was deeply faithful and her spirituality illuminated her daily life. Not long after she was diagnosed with her final illness I had the opportunity to whisk her away for a silent retreat with the Benedictine nuns of The Abbey at Jamberoo. We grew very close during our shared days of quiet reflection and participation in the liturgy – a gift for which I shall always be grateful.
The last few weeks have been very difficult for all of the family as we’ve striven to honour Carmen’s wish to remain and be cared for in her own home. Carmen’s passing has rightly absorbed our lives and, as you may understand, caused my recent radio silence on this blog. I hope to do better in coming weeks.
Carmen was keenly interested in my writing adventures, but sadly was too unwell to finish reading my draft manuscript. I know she’s up in heaven somewhere cheering me on and when it’s published she will be clapping, and beaming and saying Prosit! (congratulations).
Forever in our hearts and sorely, sorely missed …