by Carmen J. Semler
As long as we live, there is still time to say “thank you.”
“I wish for you that when you grow up you will return to Malta and visit the good Sisters at the orphanage.” Those were the words my father repeated to me during his worst of times. I knew what he meant by “the good Sisters” and how important it was for him that I come face to face with them again, perhaps to thank them for their kindness of so many years before.
Growing up, my father, Carmel Aquilina, would tell me of my early history; that I was born in the small Mediterranean country of Malta, sixty miles south of Sicily. I knew that my mother died when I was twenty months old. I knew of the struggles and heartache my father had experienced as he waited to take us to America. His decision meant he could escape haunting memories of war, the death of four of his children, and above all else, the death of his beloved wife. As he made preparations for us to immigrate to America, he asked the Sisters at an orphanage if they could find room in their hearts and home to care for my five-year-old brother and me. My father needed time to grieve, alone. The Sisters knew my parents because my mother, I learned later, had visited the orphanage periodically with donations of clothing for the children. With open arms the Sisters welcomed us, and in 1950 the orphanage became our loving home.
My father would often tell me about the kindness of the Sisters. He would speak of his visits and how I would cry each time he would leave me—and how it broke his heart. I had recently lost my mother, and each time he left me, he knew I felt I was losing him as well. Sadly, he and the Sisters decided that it would be best if I did not see my father. Though he knew it was the right decision, my father wanted to see me—even if I could not see him.
He and the Sisters came up with a plan: at a certain time each day, I would be taken out to a small courtyard to play with a ball. On the other side of the orphanage wall, there was a tree whose branches directly overlooked the courtyard. Each day, knowing the time that the Sisters would bring me out to the courtyard, my father would climb up the tree and sit on the nearest branch, looking down at me, watching.
A year later, our immigration papers were ready. We crossed the Atlantic during one of the worst hurricane seasons on record, but arrived safely in America. My father could not have foreseen how difficult it would be for him to build a new life. Unable to find work, with very little money, barely able to speak English, and with two small children, he knew he needed assistance once again. He turned for help to a children’s home just outside Detroit, Michigan. There, he told himself, we would be well taken care of until we could be together again. My father continued to struggle. With few resources and fewer acquaintances, he was never able to provide the means for a life that included the three of us. Unfortunately, my brother and I would spend the rest of our childhood being passed from one foster home to another.
Yet I stayed connected to my father all those years. Like the tree that overlooked the orphanage wall, I felt his presence with me always. It was on our visits together that he would tell me of my mother and of his love for his homeland—and how he wished I could see Malta again and locate “the good Sisters.”
My father had long been deceased by the time my husband and I planned our trip during a summer sabbatical. I would bring old photos with me, the most precious being a picture of my mother’s gravesite. I had no idea where the orphanage was or if it still existed, but I was determined to try to find it. My journey began when our plane landed at the airport in Valetta, Malta’s capital. As I slowly stepped off the plane and felt my feet touch the ground, a feeling of comfort and sadness enveloped me. A country that had been so far away from me physically and emotionally was now within my view. I was at long last home, though a stranger. And through me, it was as though I was bringing my father home.
I was born not in a hospital but at home with a midwife, as was the custom of many families at that time. The address I had repeated growing up was “9 Lampuka Street, Paola, Malta”—the place of my birth. So that would be my first destination.
Navigating the streets of Malta was easy—old green buses were everywhere. It was just a matter of getting on one of them, calling out your destination and somehow arriving where you had set out to go. As we entered Paola, we were surprised at how quickly we located Lampuka Street. We walked along the narrow sidewalk past a row of flat-topped houses, then a garage-type door, then front doors until we came to the end of the street. Between the addresses of 11 and 7 Lampuka Street was a garage door. There was no doorbell to ring and no answer to our knocking. I stood for a long moment on the small sidewalk, savoring the reality of where I was, and stared at the door. Whatever it had become, it was still my family home of so many years before—the place of my birth, and the place where my father believed he could no longer bear to be.
I remember my father telling me that we had lived next door to my mother’s cousin, and I wondered briefly if any members of that family still lived there. At 7 Lampuka Street I knocked softly, nervous and unsure of what I would say if anyone answered. The door quickly opened and a middle-aged woman stood smiling, as if I was expected. Hoping she understood English, I quickly explained that we were visiting from America, and that I had been born in the house next door but had immigrated to America with my father and brother many years before.
I asked if she could tell me if anyone by the last name of Farrugia still lived in the home (I explained that Farrugia was my mother’s maiden name and that my mother’s cousin once lived at that address). In a burst of excitement, the woman exclaimed that she was Doris Farrugia and that she lived there with her husband Joey and his mother. We were invited into their home whereupon she hurriedly went to another room and began speaking to someone in Maltese. Within minutes an elderly woman appeared in the small living room, smiling at me as though she knew me. What she saw in me was my resemblance to my mother whom she had known until the day she had died.
Speaking Maltese and beckoning for Doris to translate for her, she explained to me that her husband, now deceased, was my mother’s cousin and that she remembered my family well, especially my mother. I was told stories about my parents and our life at 9 Lampuka Street, that my mother had been a gifted seamstress who made elaborate costumes for church festas and Malta’s Carnival, and that she was a good mother with a sense of humor but a worrisome nature.
It was a beautiful afternoon, one that connected me to my past more than any other time in my life. Knowing that I was sitting across from a woman who once sat in that very room talking with my mother filled me with awe. I would be blessed with that memory forever.
We eagerly accepted Doris and Joey’s gracious offer to give us a tour of some of Malta’s landmarks. They showed us rocky beaches and beautiful churches, such as St. Mary’s in the small town of Mosta. It’s known for its spectacular dome, which a bomb fell through in 1942, sliding across the floor without exploding. Many who were present at the time felt it was a miracle.
As the day was ending, I asked if Doris and Joey knew of an orphanage near Paola. I explained that my brother and I had lived with Sisters in an orphanage right after my mother had died, and I hoped I could see it again. To my astonishment they recalled that there was once an orphanage outside of Paola many years before, but were unsure of its exact location.
Joey drove us to the area. Suddenly I was aware of a feeling of familiarity as we passed by a large stone wall. Asking if he would stop the car, I rushed out and walked toward a large wooden door near the wall. I motioned to my husband to follow behind me. There was no sign or address marking the building; all I knew was that I wanted to go to it. I turned excitedly to my husband, “I think this is it…the orphanage.”
“I’ll videotape you knocking on the door,” he said, “and then we better go.”
As I knocked on the door, to my surprise, it swung open. It was unlocked. I looked back and proclaimed, “I’m going in.”
“You better not,” my husband said, but I ignored him. I wanted to know what this mysterious place was and why I was so inclined to be there.
The door opened onto a large marble floor entryway. I could see no one, so I walked in farther. Suddenly a woman with a mop in her hand appeared from around the corner, looking at me frantically and speaking loudly to me in Maltese, as if to scold me. All at once I realized I was trespassing, and perhaps this was a private residence. Before I could gesture an apology for my intrusion, I could hear Joey and Doris walking quickly toward me on the marble floor. Together they began talking to the lady in Maltese, pointing to me, explaining something to her, hoping she would understand.
She raised her hand and said, “Wait.” Joey and Doris explained to me that she was so startled to see me because it was her responsibility to make sure the door was always bolted. She could not understand how a person could be standing there looking around, for she never left the large door unlocked. They had told her that I was from America but had lived at an orphanage when I was a baby and that I was searching for that orphanage. Joey asked if this was an orphanage and she said that it was not. Disappointed, I began to wonder why I had been so drawn to that wooden door, and why it opened.
Within a few minutes the woman returned, bringing with her a small, frail, elderly nun. I wondered if I had walked into a convent or religious retirement home. The woman was busily talking to the Sister and pointing towards me. At last Joey began to speak, repeating his explanation as to why I was there, and apologizing for our intrusion. As he spoke, the elderly Sister studied my face, nodding slowly, not in agreement with Joey, but for a reason only she knew.
Then a look of joy came over her as she proceeded to put her hands on each side of my face. Her eyes telling me something, while her voice repeated, “One time I was your mother.” Looking to Joey for help in understanding what she meant, it was apparent that it was unclear to him as well. Her broken English, trailing thoughts intertwined with Maltese made me feel that she was simply being kind to a visiting American who was searching for something she could not help me find.
Continuing to look up at me, wanting me to understand, yet recognizing that I did not, the elderly Sister took my arm and said, “Come.” Together we walked as she led me out to a courtyard. When we came to a stop, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and pointed to a wall.
“Look,” she said. On the other side of the wall was an old tree rising above it. I felt a deepening sense of recognition. “When you were here, I was your mother. I took good care of you,” the good Sister said. “I put you in this courtyard every day so that your father could see you. He would climb up that tree and sit on that branch and watch you play. Your father loved you very much. Never forget how much your father loved you.”
I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, for this was my beloved orphanage, a place that had once been my refuge, my home, a place where my father knew we would be loved. I could only look at her and at the tree whose branches allowed my father a haven to watch, and whisper the words he had wished for me to say to her: “Thank you.” For the love and care you gave me so long ago, for the compassion you showed my father, and for the peace you have brought to my heart.
Carmen J. Semler lives in Mountain View, California with her husband and two cats. She has a recently married son who is a musician. Carmen retired from working in marketing for Apple Computer’s Video Production group and is pursuing a college degree in psychology. This is the first essay she has written for publication.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.