This interview is with one of my first sources of inspiration, my 91 year old Grandmother (whom I call Snugs). She has always encouraged me to be grateful, to be caring of others and to be in life with resilience. In this interview, I ask her about what it’s like to be old, her views on marriage, coping with hard times, and what was most meaningful to her in her philanthropic work with Mother Theresa.
Full name: Lilian Miceli Farrugia
Date of birth: 16/12/1924
Place of birth: Floriana, Malta
Current location: Ta’ Xbiex, Malta
E: What is it like to be 91 years old?
L: Okay, let’s begin… Physically, of course I have my limitations. I can no longer jump up and run around like I used to, which is a nuisance. I see very little. I hear very little, but I have my hearing aide, and I’m okay so long as people aren’t talking altogether, otherwise I’m lost! More recently, my hip became very painful and at my age there’s not much I can do about it, so my walking is restricted… But it’s okay.
E: So physically, there are a lot of challenges.
L: Yes! But I accept them because of my age.
E: And what about being 91 on a social level?
L:It’s different because my life was one of entertaining people. It was a very full social life because of my husband’s career. We entertained a lot and we were entertained by others. We were always on the go, so much so that I had to have help with the children. Now, life is different. I couldn’t keep up with that sort of life anymore. Now I have much more time for thinking, for praying – I pray much more than I used to. I still have a few friends left. Some have gone into a home, some to a better world, but I keep up with the ones I can and we go out for lunch occasionally. I try to keep up with my family as much as possible. They’re helpful with me; giving me lifts to any family get-together.
E: So life hasn’t stopped, it’s changed.
L: Yes, it’s changed. I try to keep up with what’s happening in the world. I’m very lucky because I have a grandson who’s an IT-wizard. He’s set up my computer in such a way that if I highlight the text, an app reads it out to me. In fact, I have a similar set-up on my iPad that also reads Italian.
E: You’ve always been interested in what’s happening in the world…
L: Yes, always interested. If I give up, I’m afraid my mind will go. I’m lucky that at my age, I think – I don’t know what other people will think of me – I can still reason things out.
E: Looking back on your life, was there an age or decade that you really enjoyed? If you could go back to any stage of life, which would you choose?
L: Although, I was a very shy person, I did enjoy the social time of my life. I met so many people from all over the world.
E: So that was a real fun time?
L: Yes, very social, and I loved entertaining. One of my daughters says I have OCD, because I give great attention to detail…I enjoy it!
E: Did you go through an age/decade that was particularly trying or challenging?
L: Doesn’t everybody? There were times when life was difficult and I felt desperate, but I’m not one to talk to my friends about it, so I used to go through it by myself.
E: What helped you in those times?
L: Honestly, a confessor helped me a lot. It gave me courage to go on. I prayed and I had a great friend in Mother Theresa. We never discussed the situations but I always felt that somehow she knew what I was going through. She was always very kind to me, very supportive. She made me Chairman of her Co-workers, then Chairman of her International Youth Co-workers. I think the fact that I was always busy, kept me sane.
E: Being busy in projects that gave you a sense of purpose?
L: Yes, sometimes I say my work was a form of escapism.
E: Your life was quite busy and now that it’s slowed down, you mentioned that you have more time to pray and reflect. Do you feel that you are more in touch with God at this age than you were before?
L: Yes, I have more time now. Also, I’m a Dame of the Knights of Malta and I’m also a member in Obedience. This means that I took a promise to be more spiritual. That gives me direction, I look up and read spiritual texts. I think more about it.
E: It’s like you actually set an intention to become more spiritual.
L: Yes, I did.
E: How many years were you married for?
L: For 46 years.
E: Could you describe your marriage in a sentence?
L: (She smiles) Fun, with some difficulty. Do you like that?
E: (I laugh) Sure. Any words of advice for newly-weds?
L: Someone has to give in. If it’s a tit-for-tat situation all along, it’s hell. Who should give in? I don’t know, but I imagine it’s usually the stronger one who gives in because they see that life has to go on. In our days we married for life, so we had to compromise somehow and I always found the best way was to not answer back, even if I was very angry. The best thing for me was to say nothing, move away and calm down.
E: What first attracted you to voluntary work?
L: I think it was people – I love people. When I was in Albania, a man named Robert asked me what my profession was and I said, “I don’t have a profession.” He asked, “Then what are you doing here?” And I said, “We’re trying to help.” He asked, “Why?” I said, “I love people.”
E: I know you’ve worked on many projects, but is there one that was particularly special to you?
L: Yes, SOS Albania. The school is still there, so is the clinic, and the Maltese are still teaching there. They’re also setting up another school, so the Maltese are still very much involved.
E: So it’s meaningful to you because it’s still going on?
L: Yes, it didn’t fizzle out. A lot of projects fizzle out, but this is still going. Although, in 1997, following the collapse of a pyramid scheme, all our projects were destroyed during a huge riot. Everything was broken. So then we asked ourselves, “What do we do?” We decided to go and start again.
E: Having worked closely with Mother Theresa, what is the main message that you learnt from her?
L: Mother Theresa had a very specific message which was, “Love others as Jesus loves you.” Also, “See Jesus in every person you meet.” She meant that there’s good in every person. No one is totally bad and no one is totally good. She used to recount a story of a French volunteer in India, who was prancing with joy along the corridor. Mother Theresa stopped her, and said, “What’s making you so happy?” She said, “Mother, I’ve seen Jesus all day.” What she meant was she managed to see goodness in every person she attended to, and that gave Mother Theresa great happiness.
E: So, Mother Theresa felt we were all connected, like one human family and that we should take care of each other?
L: Yes, that was her message.
E: So if you could be with Mother Theresa right now, what would you say to her?
L: I’d say hi! (Laughs) I’m sure she’s in a happier place now, laughing at us…laughing at our unkindness to each other. Well, she wouldn’t be very pleased about that.
E: Did injustice frustrate her?
L: Absolutely. She often mentioned a conference she went to where there were lots of officials walking into the conference, while totally ignoring a man lying on the stairs dying of hunger. When she went to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, there was a celebration dinner planned for her, and she asked that it not happen so that she could send the money to those who needed it. Also, Oslo had just legalised abortion, which Mother Theresa was very upset about, and during her acceptance speech, she said, “It is surprising how a rich country like this cannot afford to feed nor educate one more child. If you can’t keep your children, send them to me.”
E: One morning you woke up having lost sight in one of your eyes completely. This was a very sudden change for you. I’m curious to know how it affected you and how you coped.
L: Luckily, I still had the other eye which was better than it is now. Obviously, I went to the doctor to see if he could do anything about it, but he couldn’t. So I just had to accept it and carry on.
E: It’s not easy though.
L: It’s not easy, but can you sit down and mope? No, you have to carry on. I think life is all about your reaction to any incident that happens. No life is easy. It’s your reaction that counts.
E: So now, would you say you’re used to being mostly blind?
L: To be honest, I still worry sometimes that I’ll lose my sight completely. But in the meantime, I manage with what I can. If it remains as it is, I can cope.
E: So, it’s not something that has become “the norm”. I mean, you remember what it was like to have sight…
L: Of course.
E: So it’s not like this is normal now, it’s just what it is.
L: No, no, it’s never normal. You just have to accept it. It’s useless fighting it. I accept it and that makes life easier.
E: If you could ask God any question, what would you ask him?
L: (She thinks for a while, then exhales) Yes, let me see how to put it… I would ask him to make me worthy of being accepted by him into heaven. I want to be ready when he calls me, and I want to be worthy of being accepted by him.
E: So is the question: How do I become worthy?
L: I don’t feel I am worthy… There’s always room for improvement. So the request would be, to make me worthy of his love and forgiveness.
E: What is your main motto in life?
L: Easy. Live by the day. Yesterday’s passed. Tomorrow may never come. Today is fun. Yes?
E: (Laughs) Yes. Is there a message you’d like to leave us with before we close the interview?
L: Yes… It’s so important for young people – even before they decide what career path they want to follow – to do some voluntary work. Any work, but really helping others. It changes your life when you see how others live. We take things for granted and act like things are owed to us, and they’re not. We don’t realise there are people who have nothing. It’s important to be aware of this reality.
Thanks for reading,