This past March, my family and I celebrated the one-hundredth birthday of my grandfather, Joseph Caruana. Seeing Joe walk the streets of Maspeth now, you can easily dismiss him as just another resident, but no one lives a century without a few stories to tell.
Born in the middle of World War I on the island nation of Malta, a country that hosted the Apostle Paul himself, my grandfather spent the first thirty years of his life in relative tranquility. Joe lived a happy childhood, and was actually one of the first kids in the town of Birgu, along with his brother and sister, to own a bicycle.
Life dramatically changed with the outbreak of the Second World War. Joe served in defense of his home country, which was then part of the British Empire. Before the end of the war, Malta would become the most bombed country on Earth, with much of the population living literally underground for months at a time. The country's survival was in doubt several times due to starvation, having been cut off by Axis forces. Even now in Joe’s later years he can tell you what it's like to not have food or water and not know when you will get to eat or drink again.
Notably, Joe survived the bombing of the Mosta Cathedral, where two bombs fell in the middle of Mass but failed to explode. He was married to Henriette Caruana in that same church and his wife gave birth to their first son, Manny Caruana, in a nearby stable during an air raid. (Manny is a long time member of the Juniper Park Civic Association.) Joseph actually went AWOL to be present for the birth. Before the end of the war he would also father a daughter, Carmen. Both of Henriette’s brothers were killed during the war. Marriage, death and birth, usually stand-alone events in their own right, were now intrinsically intertwined for Joseph Caruana.
Following the war, Joe immigrated to America. He was in his early thirties. It took two years for him to bring his wife and two children over. Living through interesting times is exciting in retrospect, but can be quite terrifying in the moment. America gradually slowed life down from the hardships of war and the immigrant experience. Joe first moved to Manhattan, then Corona, before raising his children for most of their lives in Rego Park. In America, he had a third child, my father, Larry Caruana. Joe took up being a superintendent for an office building and worked with his hands for the rest of his career.
To give you a sense of who Joe is as a person, I will conclude with a note on his character and the one lingering regret I believe my grandfather has always had.
While shopping at the local supermarket, my grandmother Henrietta playfully said she thought the cashier had an innocent crush on Joe. It was not a serious comment, but for whatever reason, Joe never went to that cashier again if he was not with his wife. This is not to suggest that Joe is a saint. Stubbornness also runs through him. He has a knack for believing he is right regardless of the situation and that trait is carried down throughout his family lineage. But stubbornness can also be a virtue. No one survives war and thrives as an immigrant in a foreign country without an inner resilience.
If Joe has any regrets, I believe it is that he could not make more return visits to Malta during his life. As a child I travelled with him and my parents to my grandfather’s home country. It is easy to forget that he had a life before America – a life before the only family his kids and grandkids have ever known. In some respects Joe was not a young man when he immigrated. He was already in his thirties, had a large extended family, friends and a lifestyle rooted in a culture that ended with the outbreak of war. Some acts are irrevocable. And deciding to move your family across the world is one such act. With no jobs available and a young family to support, there were few good options in late 1940s Malta. And yet out of that act, Joe’s family lived a life of opportunity that would never had existed if he stayed in the country of his birth. If it is not possible to live a century without a few good stories, it is also not possible to live such a life without sacrifice.
Today, Joe resides in Maspeth where he’s been for over thirty years. He has six grandchildren and his eighth great-grandchild will be born this June. He is in remarkably good shape, takes no medication at all and lives on a steady diet of fish, chocolate and wine.