Josephine Bugeja

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Josephine Apap Bugeja, born in 1923, was the mother of Michael Bugeja, journalist and Iowa State University professor. Josephine was a powerful intellect. But she experienced insurmountable personal tragedies as so many immigrant heroines did, arriving in boatloads at Ellis Island earlier in this century. At age 3 Josephine Apap left Marsa, Malta for New York harbor, sailing with four brothers to settle eventually in Lyndhurst, N.J. She quickly established herself as one of the brightest pupils at Lincoln School on Ridge Road, about two miles from Rutherford where the great poet William Carlos Williams practiced medicine.

In the eighth grade Josephine’s mother died, forcing her to drop out of school. Her beloved English teacher gave her two gifts: a blue spiral notebook with some of the teacher’s favorite poems hand-copied inside along with a first edition "Best Loved Poems of the American People," a 1936 Grove book whose reprints are still sold in bookstores everywhere.

Josephine then returned to her father and brothers to cook, clean, and generally dedicate her life to their well-being. Josephine would soon face another tragedy. She would marry young and lose her first husband, Louis Pfaff, in World War II. Soon after, she married Michael Carl Bugeja, 10 years her senior, who had walked her to Lincoln School when she attended there. She then experienced what many immigrants on the East Coast did, due to inferior hospital care--suffering three stillborns before giving birth to Michael and Loretta.

However, despite all these hardships, Josephine once confided her most enduring pain was the end of her education in middle school. Dr. Bugeja remembers his mother at bedtime when he was a boy. Josephine did not tuck him in reading from the Bible; instead, she carried her notebook or her anthology depending on what she wanted to read that night, her long blue-black Maltese hair spilling over the wool night coat that swept in behind her like a cape. By now the pages of the notebook needed paste-on re-enforcement stickers and the anthology’s book’s cover was as frayed as worn denim. At the time, Dr. Bugeja thought, "This is how children go to sleep in America, by the meter and melodies of Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe."

It is no coincidence that Michael Bugeja would go on to earn a Ph.D. in English with Ben Jonson as his major figure; publish hundreds of poems in such magazines as Harper’s Poetry and Kenyon Review; and win a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Josephine’s intelligence was passed to Dr. Bugeja, his son Shane Bugeja, and his niece Cheryl Digney. Shane and Cheryl remember Josephine as a loving American grandmother without realizing how much she knew, how creative she was, and how far she would have come in life if only she had the benefit of education.

As such, this not only has earned Josephine Apap Bugeja a place in the plaza of heroines, but also a place in every woman’s heart who has been deprived of her birthright of knowledge.

--From her loving son, Dr. Michael Bugeja Feb. 28, 2008.