FROM FOREIGNER TO FIRST LADY OF THE MALTESE CANADIANS.
Sitting in her sun room, feet up and drinking an orange pekoe tea. Ellen DeGeneres is heard in the background while she awaits the arrival of her husband, Anthony and two grandsons coming home from catholic school. She’s been cooking all day, something she’s quite proud of. The Monte Carlo pulls into the driveway as two bristling young boys jump out of the car to run and greet her.
This is Vincensa Vella, and this is how I will always remember the woman I love as my Nanna.
Call her Vinny for short, or simply, Censa - she’s always hated her full name. She was born in the harbour town of Msida on the small island of Malta during the Second World War. Censa's mother ran a restaurant where she spent most of her childhood along with three older siblings.
In 1967 she immigrated to Canada. Malta is part of the Commonwealth and Britain was sponsoring people to go and live in Canada. When I pick on her for coming off the boat, she is always quick to fight back:
"No! Your Nannu is the one who came on the boat. I came on the plane."
There was a small community of Maltese people when she arrived, most of them immigrating for trades work and what was known to be “a better life” in Canada. Her brother already immigrated and began working as an auto body mechanic. It wasn’t until later that he decided to return to Malta, leaving his wife, Margaret behind with three kids. Of the few immigrants who stayed, some left Canada to return back to Malta.
Censa moved into the family house on Lorne Avenue, immediately taking residency in the upper level of her relative’s home. At age 21, she had her first son, James. She then decided to briefly visit Malta where she gave birth to my father, Jesmond in 1966. “I missed home a lot while living in Canada,” she tells me. “I had friends over here but most of my family and the people I have always known growing up were over there. It was hard, but I stuck it out. I’m tough.”
In 1977, Anthony and Vincensa tied the knot at the London courthouse. An ice cream honeymoon was to follow and they moved on with their lives, bringing Joseph into the picture in 1968.
If there was one thing Censa knew well, it was keeping everything spotless. Her sister in-law had been working at the London District Catholic School Board as a custodian, so this seemed like quite the natural fit. Censa was interviewed for the positon and remained a custodian well into and through the 1980s. If it wasn’t enough for the interviewer to walk into her house and notice the cleanliness in a house surrounded by males, “[she] would have ate her hat.” Cleaning was in her blood and her outstanding reputation is what kept our family gainfully employed by the school board for years to come, leading into the present day with my father and uncle.
In 1973, they proudly purchased their first and only house in a sprawling South London suburb - the home I grew up in. The majority of Maltese peoples remained in East London but they always remained connected to their friends and ethnic identity.
Whether through Maltese members or their Italian, Portuguese and Hindi counterparts establishing in the area, they found solace in their community.
With a team of founding members, they built a banquet hall in 1988, ran weddings and hosted local events throughout the years as a means of celebration and communal awareness.
From Christmas parties to St. Patrick's Day dinner and dances, the club became a hubbub of activity and enjoyment. Anthony, the founding President, and Vincensa, the founding First Lady. Their position was established and although years of office came and went, they still hold the same position to this day.
One of the customs that they were keen on keeping was the traditional Maltese dancing. Everyone from the community would be involved and they even entered into competitions where they won numerous times for reproducing our heritage overseas. Both of my uncles and father were actively involved throughout the years and it was only a matter of time before I would be involved in the daily operations of helping to run the institution.
However, they weren't always happy years. When being at the top you can certainly expect opposition from those who envy the status and power that follow. Our family would receive threats from anonymous senders in the mail throughout their leading years at the cultural association. The messages would be composed of cut-out letters from magazine and newspaper clippings as a means of austerity and invisibility. This worked well because the opposition always remained unknown. My grandfather would condemn these cowardly acts of aggression, assuring his family of the meaninglessness that carried this hate. To have fought back only meant lowering ourselves to their audacity. This is but one of the reasons I have come to hate anonymity.
The best revenge for Censa has always been laughter. When she originally applied for her Canadian Citizenship with my father, she was asked who passes the bills in government. Her response: “Well, my Tony. He pays the bills.” She was then asked about our famous potato crop province (P.E.I.): “Oh, I buy mine from the A&P.” She was told to go back and study. The best one by far is when girls starting coming around the house. She bought S.O.S. Scrubbing Pads for my mother and Zia, “because, you know, you’re growing women’s.”
"Living well is our best revenge."
Whether it’s lasagna for dinner or chicken cacciatore, she makes sure no one leaves hungry or unfed. She also makes sure no one leaves without a laugh. “Life’s too short too be miserable, mela,” always finding the opportunity to throw in some Maltese quip for exaggeration. “You never know what’s going to happen, he.” You’re right, Nanna. We never have and we truly never will. But if there is one thing I know for sure, it is that my love for you will always continue as one of the women who not only raised me, but cultured me and gave me a heritage I will always be proud of.
Publisher: Fifth Year Undergraduate, I/S: History & English
When he’s not frolicking around Toronto or trying to take over the world, you can usually find him swapping paint colors for his condo or picking out new outfits and man purses for his future Pomeranian, Efron.