Looking through the glass bell jar

Nanna’s house was like Victory Kitchen. Huge pots and hungry mouths of all ages. Kusksu and imqarrun being passed down the table and the crust of Maltese bread being broken.

I was the first grandchild of 11, and grew up next door to my grandparents, when most of my aunts and uncles still lived there. I remember the hubbub and Mrs Coleiro’s fruit gateaux well. My grandmother was still in her early 40s when I was born so I had her for the best years. When I see her she always reminds me of it, and of how she saved my life when I was five.

I had accidentally swallowed whole a hard sweet my aunt had given me, and got it lodged neatly in my esophagus. Unable to wedge it out with thumps to the back, my grandmother did what First Aid courses strongly advise you not to do. She took a hold of my legs and began to jerk me upside down all the way to the pharmacy.

It worked. I spat the sweet out not far from our house. And like that was added to my grandmother’s long list of crises narrowly averted, recounted at family gatherings in a theatrical Maltese tone that made the stories entertaining no matter how many times you had heard them.

Six children and countless nieces and nephews had come before me, among them my uncle, born with a very strong predilection for mischief. He too had had a choking incident, while playing with a marble in bed, flinging it up into the air and trying to catch it in his mouth.

He was rushed to emergency. Unable to dislodge the obstruction, the doctors were getting ready to wheel him into surgery, when my grandmother squeezed his chest with everything she had and sent the marble spurting across the room.

Barely a year had passed when they were back again. My uncle was playing goalie in a field game of football, and had swerved to catch the ball, slicing his side open against the rusty edge of a drum serving as a goal post.

And then of course came the fishing incident, the worst of them all. He was standing on the rocks at St Paul’s Bay when he jerked the rod back and threw the line out, somehow managing to send the fishhook right through his eyeball.

Luckily, he had missed his iris, and came out of surgery with his eyesight perfectly intact. But you only need to imagine my grandmother opening the door of her house to see that cold metal piercing the bright white of her son’s eye, to understand how this story is received with silent and implicit respect for how she had managed to keep it together.

“In those days, women had to do everything themselves… they had very little support. I never saw my father during the week. By the time he came home I was asleep. Imagine that – feeding all those children, sending them to school, then cleaning the house, then feeding them again, and cleaning. Of course you get nervous. It takes up your whole life. And then all of a sudden the children grow up and leave…” my dad told me, in an effort to explain why Nanna could no longer keep it together, why she had begun acting the way she did.

Very young in her life my grandmother put a full stop on the present, and took a seat in an armchair squarely facing the past.

It crept upon us surreptitiously. She moved from the big house with the fruit trees and birds, to a small apartment block on a quiet street. She became sedentary and hired a carer to cook her food and clean. The voices and smell of food that I grew up with dispersed. She decided that she was too sick to leave the house anymore and started to talk excessively about illnesses and fixate over the news.

At one point she began to pour over the obituaries. My granddad told her off for it occasionally, but my uncles and aunts – either in denial or in an effort to shelter us – seemed to humour it, so we began to accept it as normal. That’s Nanna. That you were unable to talk to her about anything outside of a morbid sphere of topics was just the way things were.

The only happy conversations to be had were about her childhood, and for the next quarter of her life, she would sustain herself on a handful of memories. A favourite was that of her father, a Royal Marine, named Peter. To this day, her chestnut eyes widen and she sits up in bed as she recounts how he used to whistle through the house and sing to her.

He had been orphaned at a very young age after his mother died and his father remarried, but this didn’t seem to have dampened his spirit. He liked his drink, but was a quiet, amiable drunk. In fact, the children loved him because whenever he ran out of booze they were given a couple of pennies to fetch him some more. A peculiar memory – she makes him sound like a character and while from pictures you could see she had inherited his fine features, in temperament she couldn’t have been more different.

Growing up, I thought that all grandmothers were like her, and that all girls would eventually grow into this role. Like my aunts and uncles, I humored her idiosyncrasies. But then I became a woman. I began to look at my grandmother from a very different perspective, and where I had seen a puddle, I suddenly saw a well.

Families are good at curating and preserving stories, like those dank dining rooms in Maltese villages with crystal and silverware, and sofas covered in plastic, reserved exclusively for visitors. I will never know as much about my grandmother’s life as I would like to, or the extent of her struggles.

When I bring up certain subjects that do not span the range of her hand-selected memories, like my grandfather, who passed away a couple of years ago, she looks at me blankly, before passing some blithe remark and returning to a subject of her choosing. I feel it’s genuine too, this murkiness.

Like she really does not know what to think or feel about her marriage. As though that cabinet of emotions had been locked decades ago and there is no telling where the key might be. As though even if there were a sincere attempt to unearth these feelings, it would be futile.

It is from relatives’ slips of conversation, that I have drawn some hazy vignettes. My grandmother, young, bubbly and beautiful, attending typing classes, a building in front of which, she would meet a boy. Her parents were more interested in marrying her off to another – my grandfather, hardworking, taking over a family business. Their wedding day; my grandmother recalls the dancing with excitement, the guests, the food. Their marriage? They seemed content enough for a while, but then by the time the sixth child came along the relationship had soured.

She wanted to leave. They had had some fight over a car he wouldn’t agree to buying her and she had had enough. The children had left the house and why couldn’t she have the car. The long arguments, recalled by the youngest child, interspersed by days in which my grandmother was confined to her bed drugged on prescription medicine.

It was no secret that my grandmother was on kalmanti (tranquillisers). Many other women from that generation were too. It was the fashion back then, I was told. Along with beehive up-dos and boxy jackets, a couple of tablets that could calm the nerves, silence that niggling piece of spirit that could turn out to be such an inconvenience.

I don’t know about the circumstances in which my grandmother approached the doctor and first set off on this dark journey with anti-anxiety medication. I do know, however, that she has spent a larger portion of her life on rather than off the drugs. I also know that she has experienced severe tremors as a consequence of trying to wean herself off them. That her moods shift according to which type of medication she’s on, and that over the last few decades we have observed her become more and more emotionally numb.

Would alternative therapy have paved a different path for her? Has this lifelong dependency on anti-anxiety medication had any impact on her decision to shut the blinds on the present and get trapped in the glass bell jar Plath wrote about, stewing in her own sour air?

Perhaps, she had wanted to take control over her life and couldn’t. Up until 1993, when the Family Bill was passed, the law stipulated that men had full authority over the property, finances and children within a marriage. Their wives neither had a right over the children they bore, nor the money they earned. A sure way to keep women pressed under society’s thumb.

Apart from the social stigma women would have faced deciding to set off on their own, financially most of them would have been ruined. And so, perhaps you stayed because there was no other way out. And if you couldn’t sleep well or had anxiety problems because of it, well then you went to the doctor who would prescribe you a few pills to calm you down.

“Your grandmother is an actress,” my father tells me over the phone. He has just left the nursing home, where my grandmother measures the rest of her days. She has just asked him for more money and given him a poor excuse justifying why she needs it, even though it is hers. He is suspicious; where is all this money going in a nursing home she never leaves?

When I think about International Women’s Day, I think of the women who raised me. Not because their stories are unique. Quite the opposite, because they are unremarkable, in that they are experiences shared by many women.

For a long time, I have found it very difficult to visit my grandmother, a woman who has given me so much. At first, I couldn’t pinpoint why, but now I realise that I don’t see anything natural in her deterioration. I see it clearly as a consequence of the lack of autonomy she has had to deal with on account of her gender.

My grandmother has lived like a child. From the financial and emotional control exerted by her family, to that wielded by her husband, and finally, to that exercised by her doctor and children, after being deemed mentally unfit to make her own decisions, she has had very little say over the choices that have shaped her life.

And the most disturbing thing is that most of us are completely desensitised to the physical, mental and emotional impairment visited upon women like her by the way in which legislation, as well as social norms and institutions such as the Church, worked to keep women pressed down. Today we talk about tackling Gender and Sexual Based Violence. Look over your shoulders and you see a whole generation of textbook cases.

That I have had a different experience to my grandmother, that I am here writing this, an unmarried female in my 30s, who has studied, travelled, worked and started and ended relationships as I have pleased, is thanks to the struggles other women have fought on my behalf.

That women are still being called witches, sluts and being branded as crazy by those in authority, that our most important female journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated, and her gruesome death is yet to be given a token of dignity by an independent public inquiry is testament to the struggle being very much still alive.

And to be silent would not only be betraying those women, it would be legitimising a system that for a long time has made the systemic oppression of women normal, it would be turning our backs on our grandmothers and those who suffered so that we can have the rights many of us take for granted today.

This is a guest post. The identity of the author is being hidden to protect the family mentioned in the article.

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