Have I ever told you about Uncle Lino?
He’s the brother of my grandfather, Nannu Fons - we used to call him Nannu Doc because he was a doctor - but that’s a whole other story. Today I want to tell you about Uncle Lino, well, actually I really want to tell you about his house. But first a little bit about him.
Uncle Lino is a bishop, most people call him Nuncio Gerada but we’ve always called him Uncle Lino (his real name is Emmanuele, but that just complicates things). He was born on the 18th May 1920. This might not mean anything to you, but to a Catholic Bishop it meant a lot – he shared his date of birth with Pope John Paul II – and never failed to remind us.
My father always said that his grandfather (Uncle Lino’s father) simply lined up his sons and said to them, “you’re going to be a doctor, priest, chemist etc…” as that’s what they did because that’s how things were in those days. So as you might have guessed Uncle Lino is the son who stood under his father’s pointing finger as his father bellowed “PRIEST” on that life-defining day. And so he became a priest. And since diligence, impatience and high desires run thick through all Geradas’ blood, my Uncle Lino went on to become an Archbishop and eventually Papal Nuncio (kind of like being the Pope’s Ambassador).
Uncle Lino was Nuncio in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 70s, Pakistan in the 80s and Ireland in the 90s (during his time in Ireland he collected all the Funday Times newspapers for us). I wish I’d appreciated it before he got dementia, but I didn’t, so I don’t know all the stories that you are probably eagerly awaiting. I’m sorry.
For most of my life I have only ever seen Uncle Lino on Christmas Eve. Our whole family would gather at his house every year on that night; my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, their cousins, husbands, wives, children and grandchildren and their boyfriends and fiancés. The whole extended Gerada family at its loudest, standing around Uncle Lino’s house in Zejtun. There would always be copious amounts of alcohol and cold sausage rolls and other party food aplenty. And our parents would all get very drunk and embarrassing. At midnight, with half the family drunk (including Uncle Lino) we would have a mass in the little chapel and some poor male cousin would have to go through the humiliation of being alter boy whilst the rest of us tried to make him laugh. Everybody was either drunk or on a sugar high; the Christmas midnight mass was always very, very entertaining.
How can I possibly describe his house to you? I wish I could take you there with me, ideally both of us eight years old. The whole house like another world, some sort of magical adventure playground that you entered through a typical Maltese front door, its secrets unknown to the rest of the village. You’d expect to find doors to parallel universes and books that uncovered the secrets of life amongst all the strange treasures from far away countries and the videotapes (yes videotapes… the videotapes are amazing, they’re all labelled like the videos in that Korean restaurant on Store Street, except the labels are typed out with a typewriter).
I guess I can tell you now (because now the house is locked and barred and empty) that you didn’t need to ring the doorbell to enter this world, the keys to the locked antiporta were always hidden behind the outer wooden door, which was always left open. All you had to do was step in from the street, reach blindly for the keys behind the huge doors and you were in…
There was a room that one only ever walked through to get somewhere else, nothing in it invited a child (or adult, as I discovered upon growing-up) to stop or sit down. We all knew, without being told, that we shouldn’t - nobody even dared to hide in it during our highly competitive hide and seek games (now this is strange because it would have made the best hiding place of all).
The room was green. Perhaps nothing in it was green but it definitely had a green feeling about it, it was green. You went in through thick, heavy velvet curtains that stopped all light from entering it. It always gave me the sensation of going indoors at noon in the summer, except your eyes never adjusted to the light as they do on such a day, because there simply wasn’t enough in there.
Occasionally you caught a glimpse of an enormous pair of elephant tusks towering above a huge mahogany desk. And once I even saw a wooden bible holder on the desk, upon which sat a replica of the Book of Kells - as far as I know it was handmade, complete with gold leaf capital letters, by some Irish monks for Uncle Lino to mark the end of his being Archbishop of Ireland (I visited Uncle Lino in Ireland when I was eleven, he lived in a huge monastery with an Alsatian called Murphy).
As teenagers we played a new kind of hide and seek, we found that the kitchen was the best place to hide frightened boyfriends. Under the pretence of heating up sausage rolls and mini-quiches we had our own little party, balancing wine glasses on the 70s style furniture and leaning on the ancient well opening, away from our embarrassing family.
Our hiding place was soon found out, when, typically, the mothers and aunts came in for food supplies as soon as we broke the rhythm of trays leaving the kitchen.
The informal backdrop of the kitchen (and perhaps the wine too) suddenly made mingling with mothers and aunts less daunting for the boyfriends, and more acceptable to us. They too found a piece of furniture to lean on and joined in the conversation.
Slowly more family members entered in search of food - for at this point we’d completely forgotten that to keep our cover we should occasionally distribute food - until the dining room was left empty if not for Auntie Maria and Uncle Lino, the two family members who couldn’t get off their chairs unaided. And so that year, when the majority of us were teenagers, in a strange turn of events we all happily mingled in the kitchen (a room which we’d hardly ever been into before) forgetting the sole purpose of being there, whilst Auntie Maria and Uncle Lino fell asleep in their dining chairs, wondering where the sausage rolls were (probably getting burnt in the oven).
The videos covered the walls. There must have been hundreds. And it’s funny because the room was so small and full of antiquities, but every shelf, table, cupboard, surface, even the hole in the wall, was crammed with videos. And every video had been meticulously labeled with a typewriter and little labels, every single one was exactly like the next, God alone knows who did it, surely not Uncle Lino - he was the most impatient person I’d ever met (besides every other member of the family). And where did he get them all from? The selection was so random; Rocky 2 stood next to The Snowman which was in the corner with Pretty Woman, although I’m probably lying because I don’t really remember, all I remember is loads of clean, white labels.
Two huge zebra-skin covered bongos towered above you as you entered the house. I don’t think I have ever felt as old as the day when I entered the house and found that I was taller than the bongos.
They fascinated me. I have no idea why because in retrospect they were quite ugly. But I suppose it wasn’t them, but what they represented that fascinated me. To me they were a clue to what Uncle Lino did when he wasn’t being Uncle Lino – when he was Nuncio Gerada, of which we almost knew nothing. They were a little reminder that he was traveling around the world the rest of the time (when he wasn’t sitting in the dining room with Auntie Maria complaining about how stupid our generation was).
The most exciting moment of our Christmas Eve party was when Uncle Lino handed out presents to all four generations of the family. We all stood in the hallway, eagerly (and apprehensively - because you really never knew what to expect and whether you were going to be capable of holding a straight face) awaiting our name to be called out. Sure enough, every year, Uncle Lino never failed to outdo himself in both randomness and originality. And we loved it.
There was nothing better than being given something completely unexpected - whether you liked the present or not didn’t matter, this was all about excitement - the unpredictable gift.
I guess most of the gifts were little objects that he’d collected over the years, probably presents he’d received from all over the world, things that were slowly breaking his shelves, hiding his walls, closing him in, things he couldn’t get rid of, but perhaps could pass on to his family. But it wasn’t only the exotic qualities of these presents that made them so unique, it was his personal touch. The choice of what to give to whom. It was another clue to this man that we knew so little about, and also perhaps a clue to what he thought of us. A copper money box for Andrea, a book about tortoises for Hannah, an engraved sickle for Pierre, a tea set for Julian…what did they mean?