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Bice – the woman behind Nerik Mizzi

Much has been written about Nerik Mizzi, the only Maltese prime minister to die in office, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his death. And it was right and fitting.

I never met the great man in my young days but had seen him several times in Valletta. I also recall the day my father took me along to take part in a sort of marcia sulla Valletta when the Nationalist leader returned from exile in 1945.

My friends and I looked up to Mizzi as the statesman who could bring the country out of the prevailing colonial lethargy to lead us towards the enjoyment of our dignity as Maltese in charge of our destinies and cultivating all that we had inherited through our European culture, mainly through Italy.

Our hopes were sky-high when he became prime minister on September 20, 1950.

In the early 1960s, one of the British colonial administrators who had been responsible for Mizzi’s exile told Nerik’s son, Dun Fortunat, that Malta would have achieved independence in the 1950s had Mizzi not passed away. History can often be cruel.

I did not know Nerik Mizzi; on the other hand I also came to sort of know him.

Richard Bisazza, a teacher of Italian at the Lyceum in the 1940s and 1950s, and in some way related to the Mizzi family, once told me that Dun Fortunat was: “Enrico riveduto e corretto.”

I was extremely fortunate to have practically lived and collaborated with Dun Fortunat ever since I was in my first year at University, and then, for a very long span, at the Social Action Movement. All I have read in the past days about Nerik looks like a photocopy of what I lived through the years with his son, a dear friend who exercised a great influence on my life.

A clear-cut vision; a perspective that from today’s reality seeks to construct the future; resistance in the certainty of beliefs and ideas that are carefully thought out and well considered, even if not understood by many, total dedication to a mission of national dimensions tempered with the reality of circumstances that leads to the final choice of an action that had to be fitting to the needs of the moment.

Probably the greatest example of this attitude was Mizzi’s stance when became prime minister of a minority government in 1950. It was an exercise in the rare gift of prudence, another characteristic of his son.

But rather than writing about Nerik and Dun Fortunat I wish to write on Bice, Nerik’s wife and Dun Fortunat’s mother. She was a woman of steel on a par with the two of them, who had much to do with what they achieved for our nation.

She was born in 1899 and passed away on February 22th 1985.

I came to know her in the 1950s and 1960s. In order to avoid having to commute between Valletta and St Paul’s Bay in the hot summer afternoons, I used to have lunch at her home up to three times a week, especially during the summer months when my family used to live at St Paul’s Bay.

It was a period when time management was very important for Bice. Her life circumstances gave her little time to spare. Up to midday she was taken up with giving piano lessons. Then, at half-past noon, she would go down to the kitchen. After lunch she would have a little rest and then go back to her piano lessons.

When I was going to have lunch at her place I would ring her up as early as I could in the morning. And I made it a point to be punctual... actually, to be a bit early.

Between 12 and 12.30 p.m. she would go on playing the piano, and I would, whenever I found the time, arrive a bit early to enjoy the mastery of her performance, her fingers flitting over the keyboard interpreting classical pieces of the great masters, and especially of her favourite, Chopin.

The piano had been her constant companion from childhood. After all, she was the daughter of Paolino Vassallo, the greatest Maltese composer of his age.

She began to study the violin and the piano under his direction, but there came a moment, she used to tell me, when he thought that she would have to make a choice. That was to be the piano, although she still nourished a love for the violin.

Bice gave her first concert of classical music at the Manoel Theatre when she was only eight years old, and was given a standing ovation. She gave other concerts, till marriage to Nerik determined otherwise.

Actually it determined her future life too, as she had to resort to giving piano lessons, especially after Mizzi’s death. He died penniless; and it took some time for the government to give her a pension.

After the morning lessons and the half-an-hour solo performance, she would go down to the kitchen. As soon as she stopped I would open and close the door knob as if I had just arrived.

One day I told her, and she promptly suggested that I should go up to her study, which I never did, preferring not to interrupt her. Dun Fortunat rarely arrived on time.

At table we would engage in conversation which at times I would direct at her past experiences and especially at the difficult times she had gone through: the dark memories of the war years; Nerik interned at Fort St Salvatore, Kordin and St Agatha’s in Rabat, and then exiled to Uganda; she and her son at Rabat, going through the streets facing verbal insults and being pelted with potato peelings and eggshells; talking to Nerik in the presence of a guard; and finally, the illegal deportation order and the perilous journey on a rickety vessel to Africa.

Sometimes a letter would arrive, censored.

These memories brought out her strong character. She had an inflexible determination never to divert her husband’s attention from his mission at the service of the nation. She used to recall the time when he sent her a telegram to inform her that he was in Sicily.

It was one of the so many occasions of his absent-mindedness described by Giovanni Bonello in his recent features in The Sunday Times, but it was no less a sign that political commitment came first.

Possibly, the ultimate example of absent-mindedness came on the day of Nerik and Bice’s wedding. In the evening he went to his mother’s and not to his home, only to be reminded that in the morning he had got married.

Bice maintained a very similar relationship with her son, dedicated to his priestly and social calling at a time of Malta and Gozo’s greatest post-war challenges (I mention Gozo specifically because Dun Fortunat was, and is, a great admirer of the Gozitans and their island) – all at the cost of her having to renounce her career.

In the late 1960s she had the opportunity to give a number of concerts abroad, in Austria if I remember correctly; Charles Arrigo was involved in the arrangements. She took some time to decide, and finally decided to decline the invitation.

She “could not” leave her son on his own for a fortnight. Not because there was no way of finding someone to look to his needs for a fortnight, but because it could interfere with his mission.

For all her strong will, Bice was a very simple woman who could communicate with people of any age or status. A heart of gold for whom I had the honour to read the tribute at her funera, penned by a great musician and friend of hers, Fr Albert Borg, of the Augustinian Order.

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