John Grima, and Rose Grima-Cataldi

Title

John Grima, and Rose Grima-Cataldi

Description

Marc Sanko interviews Rose Grima-Cataldi and John Grima about life as Maltese-Americans. He also speaks with Rose and John's mother, Mary, who discusses immigrating and raising children in Detroit.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

5/29/2016

Rights

Detroit Historical Society

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

John Grima and Rose Grima-Cataldi

Brief Biography

Rose Grima-Cataldi was born in Malta and came to the United States when she was seven where her brother John was born. Their family settled in Detroit where there was more job opportunity.

Interviewer's Name

Marc Sanko

Interview Place

Chesterfield, Michigan

Date

5/29/2016

Transcriptionist

Marc Sanko

Transcription

Marc: So you Rose were born in Malta?
Rose: Yes, I was.
M: And you John were not?
John: Correct.
M: And how old were you when you came?
R: I was 7.
M: So do you have memories of Malta?
R: I have memories of my grandparents. I have memories of my aunts and uncles. My mother was the oldest, and in fact my one uncle was only twelve years older. He was kind of, I considered him my boyfriend.
J: Uncle Charlie?
R: Yea, I had a crush on my Uncle Charlie if you could believe, still do. He is my favorite. He used to take me to like the carnivals, because you know Malta always had carnivals. And my grandmother, both my grandparents, were very, very loving. Even so when I went back to Malta in ’62-’63. The same type of loving, affectionate, giving, so all of that. Those are warm memories of just a family unit that was very, very close. I remember missing my dad. I was daddy’s little girl, and I remember he wrote to us often. I even have a birthday card upstairs from the year before we came to the US of A. He wrote a little note. That was one thing about my dad, no matter what whether it was a birthday card, Christmas card or just pictures. He always had little notes that he wrote, personal notes no matter what was on them. He called me his little lamb, nutcha in Maltese. So I missed him. I missed him an awful lot. And he was here a year, a little over a year before we were able to come. And as I mentioned before, when he was looking for a place for us to live he did not find any residence or any apartment building that would allow at the time, and this is Corktown, allow children.
J: That he could afford.
R: Well, that he could afford. That’s true. So he had, he wrote to my mother and said for her to have someone that could write in English stating that she was going to leave myself and my brother, Bill, behind. So that was the idea that she was going to come alone. This was an apartment building in Corktown, I couldn’t tell you exactly where it was. So anyway, when my father came to pick us up from the train station, he got us a cab and you know mom was looking around. It was no big deal at the time. But as he approached the apartment building, knowing we would have to sneak in the back way, he did not want her to see the alley so he blindfolded her. And she kept asking why, and he said “Oh it’s going to be so beautiful, just wait, just wait. I want to surprise you.” And he is going like this to us to be quiet (makes a quiet gesture with her hands). You know, garbage cans all over, and I don’t know if there were any rats but it was bad. It was bad. So we snuck up, I don’t even know how we snuck up in the elevator. It was just a big room with those beds that were built in the walls…
M: Murphey Beds?
R: Murphey beds, there you go. And I think we lasted two days before, I mean how do you keep two kids quiet? We did the best we could. And then apparently from what I remember he wound up going to, probably, St. Boniface and talked to the priest, and through that conversation they were able to direct my father to a two family flat, there was a rental unit.
J: The priest was Maltese I believe, might have been Fr. Cefai?
R: Might have been Fr. Cefai, I’m not sure. There was another Maltese priest but Fr. Cefai was the main Maltese priest at the time. So we lived there for a short time. And then, I don’t know how they did it but they wound up being able to scrape some money together. My dad was working two jobs, one of them being a taxi cab driver, and he was almost involved in a hijacking if you want to call it that, or theft, and after that my mother just said “Please don’t do that anymore.”
J: But he did it again.
R: He did it again for a while, but I think he also worked maintenance I think at Hudson’s. That was another job he had, so he had a couple of jobs. But anyway, long story short, they were able to get another two family flat, is that what you call it?
J: Mayberry Grand? Which my mom fell in love with. I don’t know why. Seriously, she just saw that house and said, I have to have that house.
R: So I don’t know, they scraped up the money, the down payment. My mother shoveled coal, she took in laundry. My mother did an awful lot of labor, hard labor. At the time I think we were, not at that house though, oh yes there was! There were people, it was a different ethnic community so were not really welcomed right away. It took time. It took time.
J: It was still an ethnic area, a Polish community.
R: But we were the first, quote, non. So there were some issues there. So I don’t how many years that we lived there before my father and mother were able to sponsor four of her sibling’s, one at a time. You know, gave them shelter, food, help give them jobs. So it was my Aunt Carmen and my three uncles, so little by little they all lived with us. Because you had to have a sponsor in order to come to this country.
School was nothing, just as I said before, it was not the best experience at first. But once I went to Cheney, public school.
J: Detroit Public School.
R: There was special ed, and through special ed by the time, I think it was a year maybe then I was able to read to the kindergarten class. That was another way I could keep my education going, so they had me reading stories in English. And that’s about it, as far as my memories of the neighborhood. Like I said, we were not accepted as well as we would have liked. I think my mother had a different impression of the US of A, because it was like “Oh you’re going to find gold in the streets, it’s going to be easy.” But it was never easy. It was very hard. But she loved it, she loved the home.
J: She loved that house, I mean it was nothing special that house.
M: Do you remember your house in Malta?
R: Not really, not really.
M: I was going to ask if it was a comparable or something?
R: No, I just remember spending a lot of time with my grandparents.
J: Did you live with the grandparents or was it just the three of you, four of you?
R: I don’t remember, truthfully. Because I know Dad had the British Quarters when he and mom were married. But no I don’t remember. I just know we spent so much time with that we probably lived with them. That is funny that you asked, you know I never even thought about that. Where did we live? I never thought about that. No it’s weird what you remember.
J: Sorry we didn’t study for this! [laughter]
R: Then Uncle Charlie almost made us late to catch the boat because he took me to carnival. I remember that, and my mother was so made.
M: Ok so we will do some demographics. What year were you born?
R: 1942
J: ’52.
M: And then as far as your father’s job, you were telling me about that. You want to tell me what he did for work in Malta before he came to the States?
J: This is where mom would kick in.
R: I don’t recall, but he was still with the, in the service of the British Army.
J: I think as soon as he was discharged he was over in the United States pretty quick.
R: But before that, he was going to be, they went to England before that. And mom was very ill [J: Oh that’s right!] Mom was very ill, the climate in England [J: and so was Dad!] Dad was too [J: The climate, they couldn’t live in England]. And that is how he lost his pension [J: Oh that’s right, his military pension because he had to leave.] And there was nothing I think in Malta for him to do. It was only the dockyards that were supplying any type of labor.
M: And where were you born in Malta?
R: Mtarfa.
M: And that is where you all lived I assume?
R: No, in Hamrun. That’s where Nanu and Nana were…
J: Mom’s village was Hamrun.
John’s wife: She was born in a military hospital.
R: In fact, my dad commissioned a painting and it’s in the den, of the military hospital I was born in.
J: He was in the military at the time.
R: Right, right.
M: So your dad was in the military a long time then, more than just World War II.
J: Beyond the war.
M: So you were born in ’42, so that would be the war.
R: And he left for, I’m sure it was ’48 for the States because we came in ’49.
M: So what did he do for the British Army during the war?
R: The medic, he was still a medic, that was his field. Again, we couldn’t figure out where he got his education but it had to be through them.
J: Well, Malta schools. My mom did not complete school, I mean not even close but my dad did.
R: In fact she was actually, what would you call her, kinda of a house keeper where the military men would come have their meals, the British. So she was in service I guess would be the right word, she was in service she helped work in the kitchens, serve them.
J: You know about the Siege of Malta?
M: Yea.
R: What’s that?
J: The Siege of Malta.
R: Oh the Siege, I thought you said seeds.
J: Well that has a lot to do with my mom and dad’s early history.
M: Absolutely it would.
R: In fact my mom and dad were going to go back to Malta in 1977, just before he passed away. Everything was booked, luggage was packed. He wanted to renew their vows because he kept saying he wasn’t sure they if were married. Because at the time they were having their wedding ceremony there were air raids. So they would have to stop the service and go into the shelters and come back out. So it was, “Now did we really get married?”
J: They probably did, did he say “I now pronounce you…?”
R: You know, he kept saying “I’m not quite sure” so that was why they were going to go back. Unfortunately he had a heart attack and that was it, in 1977. So has been a widow since, she was 55. It has been a long haul for her.
M: And when were they married?
R: Let’s see, 1940 I believe, or 41. And she was a daredevil. She constantly says she used to love to run up the rooftops and watch the Spitfires. There were time that she was running away from the Spitfires and jumping into any ditches. In fact we think that’s part of her problem with some of her bones because I think there is a lot of damage.
J: She was wounded, she’s got scars.
R: Very feisty.
J: And she lost friends and family during the bombings.
R: There was one family in particular that she used to stop and visit on her way home from work and for one reason or another she decided not to on that particular day and that house was bombed. And her friends and family passed away. So there is a lot of history.
J: The horrors of war, like most of Europe experienced.
R: All of Europe, right.
M: They certainly weren’t spared no.
R: So anyway, my dad wanted to better himself and there was nothing in Malta, so he took a chance. You were asking who did he know here. And I really don’t know who he knew.
J: I wonder if my uncles were here first.
R: No he was here first, he brought them over.

We took a quick break and went to talk to Rose and John’s mother. She is a very old and frail lady.

Mary: I came and I don’t know what I remember now, because I tell you people over here they didn’t make it easy you know. No one wanted kids in those days. And they give too much trouble to my husband to rent me some place. Finally, he found some place, Porsche St. downtown where people drink and I didn’t know what was going on, they come knock on the door. I don’t know who is out there, in the dark. My husband used to tell, “Don’t you open, never mind don’t you open the door!”
John: Mom, when you lived in Malta, before Dad came over, was it just the four of you living in a home before Dad came to the United States or did you live with your mom and dad?
Mary: I lived with Mom and Dad.
John’s Daughter: And Aunt Rose and Bill?
Mary: Uh-huh. Until…when I get married, the military was supposed to give us marriage quarters. At that time because there was too much trouble with the war, we had war very bad. We had bombs coming like rain, day and night. It was not easy to give me right away, because every single place they [the Axis, German and Italian bombers] put it flat. The marriage quarters we were supposed to have. It was not easy; it was not easy to wait. I wait, and…no I went to London first. I went to Liverpool first, with my husband. He was there before me; he was in the British Army. And he was in there, and after that I took the kids. And the Maltese people give me lots of trouble, because they wanted to send first the people without kids. I had to wait my turn, and my turn I felt like never came in. From there we had the Maltese…British…um what do you call it? Consul man. Left Malta one day, and I couldn’t have the paper to come in. He left one day before, you know, my turn. Because they told me “We are going to send you next week.” The agency of the boats or whatever it is right now. They say, “We will send you next week.” They will send you first to Liverpool, the people without kids. Because over there, it was worse than Malta in Liverpool when I went in there. In fact I thought, “What the heck. I’m here, but in Malta when I need one loaf of bread you go. If you have the money you find it. But over there we didn’t find nothing.”
Rose: So where did we live Mom when we came back from Liverpool?
Mary: When I come back from Liverpool, I have the Malta Consul man he wanted to find a place where he send me before they send for me. And he couldn’t find any place to send me, until the military give me the marriage quarters. Then my mom, my auntie had a home and she was alone. Her daughter got married and she lived upstairs. My aunt, said to my mom and my father “I give her upstairs until the military give her a place.” And she give me the upstairs, so I had my room. One of the rooms was locked in because it belonged to her daughter and all of her stuff was in there. My mother had to fix, she had a small room and she had to make a bathroom in there, because there wasn’t a bathroom someplace else. She make it you know a small room with everything where we could wash our face and stuff. And I went with my Aunt upstairs, because my Aunt was by herself. It was not so bad, for me and the two kids with my Aunt.

Mary: I used to take my two kids to the train station in Detroit, I used to take my kids to the railroad station. I used to go in there with the kids and take Ash Street and I see these very beautiful places everywhere. And I take the kids home through there because they play at the park until dark and then I take the kids and I always see this beautiful home there and my heart goes…
John: Oh Marbury Grand, that’s the house I grew up in.
Mary: And I see that house and I say, “Oh how I wish I could live in that house.”
John: And it was not a house you could automatically afford, but because you said you wanted it, Dad worked something out.
Mary: Yea! And when I see this house was for sale, I waited for your father to come home from work, he was working at night…
John: At Fords at that time?
Mary: He was working nights.
John: Ford Motor Company, where he retired.
Mary: He went to work and I take the car by the station and when it was time to get home, I take the kids home and I always take the same street and when I see the house, the one on the corner…. Oh the chandelier, from Italy, but you see it because all the lights are there from the window. I say “Oh boy how I wish I live there.” Finally, I see one man as I’m coming from the park with the kids and I see this man on this window, taking huge window…winter window, you know in the summer they change windows.
John: Oh windscreens, storm windows!
Mary: This man coming down, old man with the window coming from there, and here I am looking at this man and he look at me and finally he said after he came down…
John: From a ladder I believe?
Mary: Yea, a ladder. That’s a big huge window from upstairs. He said, “Can I help you?”
I said, “I wish you could!”
He said, “Well what is it?”
I said, “I am looking for a house, but I’m sure I can’t afford it because we just came from Malta.” And I had to go to Tunis first with the kids to get me the visa.
Marc: So you had to go to Tunis?
Mary: To Tunis to bring the visa ya, because the American consul left the day before my trip. I had to take the kids with me to Tunis and I went and wait for it and I get it. Then I was waiting for my turn again. They were sending people over here first without the kids.
Rose: Mom, can you go back to Maybury Grand? What did you tell that man?
Mary: Oh yea, sorry about that. I told your father when he came from work and he went to see it for himself. He says, “Man how can we buy that house, we don’t have any more money. The money you had, you went to Tunis for the visa, then you came over here.” But anyway, I said, “Why don’t you go see that man, maybe he is doing something on the window.”
He went, and he liked it.
John: Dad liked it?
Mary: Yea.
John: But you liked it better?
Mary: Yea, oh yea I liked it better. But this man, god bless him wherever he is…
John: It was a two family flat.
Mary: Yea, he was the son of Ford Motor Company. He owned this house. My husband waits for someone to talk to him. He said, if you want to see my father, he owns this house now. He said, this is his son, it belongs to Ford Motor Company. But this house, I’m renting. I’m building and it’s not ready yet for my father. He said, “Anyway its big enough upstairs to have more than one person.” And a day went by when my husband said from outside he give up. He said, “I don’t have the money for that house.”
I said, “Why don’t you go and try it, see what they tell you.
So he went and found the man that owned that house, Ford’s son okay, William, and he took him upstairs to show him the house before I see it. And there, he told him the price, $10,000 for a two family house. $10,000 for that house, it was beautiful. He told him, “If I let you have it, I have to stay with you until his son builds his house for him.” Anyway, he asked how much they want for that house and he said $10,000, two family house.
John: So he stayed in the lower flat, he didn’t stay upstairs with you?
Mary: No he didn’t, his son didn’t let him he said let them have it. He said you come with us. He said you are not going to give us trouble and I’m not gonna give trouble and soon the house will be ready. Anyway we came with $2,000 down, we were without a penny again. But when I saw that house I went bananas! It was the first house of my life, after I marry. I went in there and I had material I bought from Malta that I bring in here and I made curtain all over the house…
Rose: Yea you didn’t tell him, where did you have the money? Did you surprise dad because you saved some money he didn’t know about?
Mary: Well, yea for two thousand dollars, well I always do that. Well anyway, that man he was good to us. He said you don’t have to worry; you give me when you are ready. He said if you don’t have, don’t worry, give it to me later. And you can give me $60 a month until we pay the $10,000 and that house was worth every penny of it.
John: I need to tell you, she uh, there is the main front door that you take stairs up to our flat. The house itself probably when they bought it wasn’t anything special. But the stairway, all wooden, she had it polished. She spent hours polishing the whole thing from the upstairs to the downstairs. It was beautiful, it was slippery. I remember that, it looked like a mansion walking into that house.
Mary: And I had a porch, what do you call it?
John: Uhh, upstairs porch. It was a balcony. You could go sit outside, look down on the world.
Mary: When my husband was at work, I was on the porch. In the corner you had a huge beautiful tree. It was my life and I was so happy in the house. It made me happy and…the man didn’t have to stay with us. I didn’t mind if the old man had to stay for one week or two, ok I didn’t mind, because he have three bedroom and two bath. The downstairs apartment had a whole living space too.
John: The whole downstairs was a flat. Two…three bedrooms.
Mary: That is what goes with the house.
John: My dad, and mom, they were the landlords. They rented it out and from the years I remember we had a Japanese family living downstairs.
Rose: They were in the camps, that family.
John: Internment camps.
Rose: They lost everything.
John: Nice family.
Mary: Then they came and rent the house and stay with us downstairs. We prayed for them because he was in what do you call it? In jail, not in jail. In camps…
Anyway then in that house one time I did something so crazy. I said I want to paint that room, the front room. I paint that room red!
Rose: Bright Red!
John: I think we had one of the better homes on the block, better constructed.
Mary: Not belong to us no, no. There was a woman there that had chandeliers from Italy. Then there was this woman that came with us, she was Japanese, Chinese? No Japanese.
John: Sztsuda. Roy and Marleen.
Mary: And he didn’t work, they took the work away from him and everything. Anyway he said, I’m not saying that I’m not going to give you any money, but I don’t have any money right now. I said it’s ok, I will talk with my husband. They have two kids I remember and he always pay some money. Sometimes he had the full $60 a month I rented for him, sometimes he came for less. Then one time he came to us, he said, “If I had $2,000 I’m gonna have a permit and I can start doing my work for myself.” My husband he looks at me, and he know I was putting some money away to go to Malta one of these days, but I didn’t have any extra money to let them have and then they give it to me back. I said, “Well I don’t have to go to Malta right away, let’s give it to them.” He said he is going to go to work with this man, they have some kind of work between man and him…partnership…and then he said you know he will trust him and give you the money. And he did. $60 a month he rent out there. And with that $60 a month we make the payment on the house. And we pay it very quick, the $10,000. Then you know look for another place because the city wanted to take our house for the freeway.
John: I-96, they finished to the Ambassador Bridge. In 1966, the city bought the whole block, it’s gone. And if you travel on I-96, I don’t know how well you know it. Michigan Avenue and I-96, just west of that two blocks, our house was right on the eastbound lane. So one block north would have been, is the service drive now of the highway, 96.
Let me ask you something, cause I’m curious. Dad, he had to leave the British Army because he couldn’t live in England?
Mary: England yea, because I’m sick.
John: Oh because you were sick?! You couldn’t take the climate?
Mary: Yea, he lost everything my husband for me. He was in Benghazi and Tobruk fighting in those days. And I’m home with my mother, and not my mother, my aunt she took me upstairs I told you until the military give me marriage quarters. I was upstairs and your father was in….
Then the doctor…the climate wasn’t good for me in Liverpool. The doctor told him, “Take me home or you are going to bury this woman here.” Again, my husband lost every penny…
John: Because he left the British Army?
Mary: He lost every penny the army was supposed to give him. And here we are, broke again. But really, God was with me because you know for some reason or another we always put that $10,000 for the rent. The man he told me you know, you don’t have to pay if you don’t have it. Give it to me some other month. And we did anyway, and we paid that house. I don’t know how we paid it but we did, pay the house. Anyway, like I said when I start having things I make all the curtains, I did it myself. I had lace from Malta, green. And then I paint that stupid room red. When my husband was not there. When he came in he told me…oh I used to make him crazy I think…but when he came in he told me, he thinks he is in somebody else’s house. He stayed between the porch and he didn’t want to go in the living room. He shout, “Anyone here?!”
John: He joked around a bit. Dad was a jokester like me. Like I used to be, until life hardened me. I’ve been hardened by life!
Mary: And this is like I said, I was so happy I have a two family flat now. $60 coming from down, make it together. I don’t know how we paid all that money so quick.
John: Well I don’t know how you did it because you never really worked much outside of the home and my dad in his best year made $15- or $20,000 at Ford a year on the assembly line, not the assembly line, at the iron foundry. Retired from Ford. He came here with nothing. He didn’t get anything from the government because he didn’t ask and I don’t think they had programs like that.
Marc: ’48 he came?
John: Yea ’48.
Mary: Your father lost everything from the British Army and I never forgave him for that. Except his friends, the people he was working with him. They felt sorry for him, because he worked with them during those blitz in Liverpool and he was there with them. The people who was working felt sorry for him and collect some money for him from the friends. And give him enough, they told him we don’t have as much as we want to give you, but at least you can live for three months. Because we had to leave to Malta from Liverpool with nothing. Because the government give him nothing. He had to take me to Malta or bury me there.
John’s daughter: So you first went back to Malta before you came here?
Mary: Yea, oh yea. I went with my Aunt in Malta. I didn’t know I was going to leave Malta again and come over here.
Marc: Do you know why your husband came over to Detroit? Did he have family here?
Mary: Because he was in the British Army! Before when he was single, his sister was in Liverpool and in Malta he didn’t find any job. He used to work orderly, in the military. He was a very good nurse, nurse they called him.
John’s daughter: But why did he pick Detroit when he came?
Mary: Because Detroit you could find more jobs.
John: Detroit was one of the places that Maltese people migrated away from Malta. They went to either Detroit, Michigan; Australia, or Canada, or England. And if they came to the States it was generally to Detroit for work.
Mary: Yea for the work, there was supposed to be work.
Marc: So he just heard there was jobs and he came here?
Mary: Yea. And he had a sister in Liverpool and you had have someone to pledge for you.
Marc: So his sister lived here?
Rose: No Liverpool. Dad was the only family member that came to the United States. His sister came later but she had a husband that lived here.
John: My dad had no one when he came here. Maybe a friend, whoever sponsored him.

Search Terms

Detroit, Michigan, Malta, Maltese, immigration,

Citation

“John Grima, and Rose Grima-Cataldi,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 2, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/751.

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