Journey of the heart

Blue Grotto. Malta.
Picture: Bonita Grima The West Australian
Photo of Bonita Grima

Restoring long-lost family ties in Malta.

When I was a child growing up in the 80s, “slide night” was always a big deal. The screenings usually took place after a backyard barbie or one of mum’s fancy dinner parties, where dishes like apricot chicken or beef bourguignon from the Women’s Weekly cookbook featured regularly.

Chocolate profiteroles were passed round while dad pulled down the window blind that doubled as a screen and cranked up the projector.

Viewing the travel escapades of this free-spirited version of my parents in the 70s fascinated me; all long hair, bare feet, flares and stripy jumpers. It was always the same old pictures and the same old jokes but somehow I never tired of them.

“Wow! Check out that babe in the hot pants,” dad would shout. “Who’s that hunk?” he would ask, stopping on an image of himself mid karate stance. And on it went. 

But my favourite pictures were from the time they had gone to Malta, the country of my grandfather’s birth, to seek out my father’s family.

My grandfather or “Nannu” and this Maltese connection were a mystery to me. He had died a few years before I was born. Sadly, my father had never really known him either as my grandparents had separated in Sydney when he was just a young child and my grandmother had moved with him to the west coast. Luckily they had found each other again a few years before my grandfather’s death. 

Only having really known the Pilbara, the images stirred something in me and awoke a curiosity. The age, elegance and diversity of the architecture, reflecting a mixture of European and Arabic occupation, the quiet, narrow streets, the turquoise bays, the colourful harbours and marketplace piazzas. I told myself that one day, I too would see these places and people.

In my late 20s, I set about making this trip a reality.

 Having lost contact with the family and with only the street address to go by, it was then that the idea came to me. I would print some of the old slides so that when I turned up on the doorstep of the house that once belonged to my grandfather, I could present them with evidence of my connection.

A few months later as the plane began its descent over Valletta, I had a strange feeling of familiarity for a country I had not yet set foot upon. 

I based myself in the seaside town of Sliema, which was once a quiet fishing village. Waking to the tolling of church bells from Stella Maris soon became a comforting routine, as did my afternoon stroll along the promenade to watch the brightly painted fishing boats or “luzzu” bobbing in the water.

After a few days summoning courage, I caught one of the old Bedford buses to the sleepy village of Qormi. Predominately a Catholic country, these buses were filled with rosary beads and pictures of the Virgin Mary and I found myself praying that what my father had said was true, that the family would still be living at the same address.

Freddie Sammut looked a little wary and hesitant when he answered the door. I pulled out my pictures and explained who I was. Excitedly he shouted something in Maltese and after a brief exchange of words I couldn’t understand, his wife, my dad’s cousin Carrie, rushed to join him. I told them my story as they looked through the pictures of themselves with my parents, before hugging me warmly and welcoming me inside.

It was a bizarre feeling, standing on the threshold of my ancestral home, a place that had housed not only my grandfather but also my great grandmother and countless generations before. I wondered what ghosts still lived and waited for me within these walls.

The following days were spent being introduced to extended family. I was taken on sightseeing trips to amazing places such as the Blue Grotto, a number of sea caves on the southern coast of the island, that are reached by boat.

When the time came to leave I was sad to have to say goodbye and was humbled by the kindness and generosity that had been offered.

The Maltese being the Maltese, phone calls to Australia had already been made to the rest of the family in Sydney. Reunited at last, we were told stories of my grandfather’s life in Sydney and how he worked on the wharves. 

My grandfather’s nephew Sonny and his wife Val presented me with a gold necklace — given to Val by my Nannu, she said she was sure he would want me to have it.

Holding the chain with the little gold crucifix attached, I was delighted to have something personal from my grandfather, something that had rested next to his heart. And in a way it felt as if he were thanking me for seeking him out and reuniting us all again. 

The irony that I had to travel halfway round the world and back to find something so close, was not lost on me. Happy that a little of the fog surrounding my heritage and my grandfather had been had lifted, I realised that this had not only been a journey of distance and time but also a journey of the heart.


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