Fifi Torbay is the matriarch of a wonderful and well-known Armidale family. Fifi tells us her inspirational story about surviving through adversity and working hard to make a great life for her children.
>Did you grow up in a large family?
In my family I’ve got three brothers and mum. My father died when I was very young.
> How did you come to live in Australia?
I grew up in an orphanage in Lebanon in Tripoli that belonged to the Catholic church. They take the kids that have no parents, but there were only girls. There were no boys involved. And then I met Peter. It just happened, I met him on holiday. He left from here, because he was living here. He came [to Australia] when he was little. He went for a holiday [to Lebanon] and we met. We saw each other, that’s all. We never even spoke. Then, three weeks later we were married.
> Tell us about your children?
I had just turned 18 when Joe was born, that’s the oldest son. And then in 10 years we had six children. That’s 10 years between them all, from the baby to the oldest. I had no problem with them because I really didn’t know very much myself. I had just turned 18 when the oldest son was born and I was just naive and didn’t know very much. I was very poor with the language so I just started raising them and nobody even told me how to look after them. I had never seen a baby before I saw my own. In the school they don’t let you read books or anything apart from prayers and things like that, you’re just not allowed. So I didn’t know very much at all. I have three boys and three girls. One daughter, Jenny, lives in New Zealand, she’s got three children of her own. She did get married in Armidale, she married a New Zealander. Joe the oldest son, he lives in Sydney. And the rest are all here. Mary, Norma, George and Richard, they’re all here. We’ve got 15 grandchildren and we’ve got two great-grandchildren.
> What makes you proud of your children and grandchildren?
I’m proud of them because they really achieved a lot. When we raised them we were so naive, I didn’t really have help from anyone. I didn’t know that people could help you. You know, people go and see the clinic, and they help you learn how to look after the baby. But nobody ever told me that I could. So it just happened. There’s natural things that you go through. I put them straight on the bottle, and no allergy, no rash, no nothing. I never had to worry about anything with them. And when they grew up, I never had to say to them “don’t stay out” or “don’t drink” or “don’t smoke” or “don’t mix with any bad people”. I used to make sure that all the time they were home. Whenever we went and bought businesses we made sure that the kids lived in the same building. So even though we worked seven days we always made sure that the kids came first, I had to see the kids all the time. They never gave us any problems. When they got older my husband and I said “listen, you can see anyone you want to see but you don’t go to their house. If your friend wants to come, he’s welcome to come to our house”. And I used to bake biscuits and things for the kids, and they were happy. They would never object, never took a cigarette or a drink or caused me any problem. And they achieved everything, they were fantastic. Now the grandchildren are coming the same way, and I’m really so proud of them. Because my children were bought up that way and they’re bringing their kids up that way. You need to make sure that the family always eats together. That’s number one, it doesn’t matter how busy they are. Usually at tea time or even weekends, you’re always going to say, ‘Today is the family day, and make sure everyone comes’ and there’s no problem between them. We’ve got three sons-in-law, and I say, “They’re all like your own sons, no different”. I’m proud of my daughters-in-law and my sons-in-law, because I think of them as my own children because they’re really good to me.
> What has been the biggest reward for being a mother?
Watching the children. Our kids would do anything for us. I really enjoy watching them achieve what they go for. And I say to them, “If you want to do it, you will do it”. I never knew very much and I did whatever I thought was right.
> What traditions have you passed on to the women in your family?
Cooking for the family, taking care of them, having your house open for the grandchildren. You say to them, “This is your security, it’s here. You’re always welcome. You don’t have to call me, you’re always welcome to come”. I never hide anything from them, they know everything that’s in the house. The grandchildren are all teenagers and they are wonderful kids. I think God had a lot to do with it.
I’m trying to pass on the cooking to the children. Mary’s boy, Jason, he loves cooking. Because my daughter went to New Zealand, and her husband loves Lebanese food, and she couldn’t have anything there, I gave her a cooking book and she’s doing marvelously well.
> We hear you’re running cooking classes at Kitchen Addiction?
Yes, I’m just going to start. Everybody kept telling me ‘Please, please’ so I said ‘Alright’. They’re already booked out. It’s Lebanese food because that’s what they want. Tabouleh, hommus, chicken and rice, things like this.
> Can you tell us the story about the Sudanese refugee?
I helped to deliver her baby! This woman was a refugee from Sudan to Egypt and she can speak Arabic. There was no-one here to understand Arabic and explain to the doctor and the hospital. No-one could help her. There was quite a few men but no women and she didn’t want men to be helping her. So they asked me, but of course I have the shop and I had very little time. But I did say, it’s no problem, I’ll help them. She was a beautiful woman. She delivered a little boy. She had said, ‘If I have a girl I’m going to call her Fifi’. She called her boy Peter.
I was there in the hospital with the midwife, and when he was born I held her hand and I kept telling her what the midwife was saying, like “The baby’s coming”. She was so nervous, her blood pressure was high when I got there. They came and got me in the middle of the night. You know a funny thing, in the night time I do have a glass of red wine. I was having a glass of red wine and the phone rang. They said, “I need you to go the hospital right now”. And I said, “Now?”. It was after 12 o’clock! But I walked in and straight away she felt great. And I was praying while the delivery was going on and I think she felt very comfortable. When she said “I’m going to call the baby Fifi” I said, “You’re having a boy”. She said, “How do you know” and I said “I know”. The midwife said “Oh, that’s old-fashioned”, but she did have a boy! I saw her the other day. As soon as she saw me she opened her arms and hugged me. They are beautiful people, they just needed a hand. And I know how she feels. It was a great thing to do and it was my pleasure.
> What’s the most important piece of advice you could give to other mothers?
You might work hard and you might sacrifice a lot. Women do sacrifice a lot. But it’s rewarding. When the kids grow up they will never leave you. Now our kids are all married, and they are all almost grandparents themselves. But not a day goes by when they don’t ring me and say “Mum, I’m going to this… I’ll be home …”and yet they’ve got their own family, they don’t have to do that. But they do, because that’s how they grew up. And it’s a beautiful example for their children. Any time of day I know where every child is, even though they don’t live at home. It’s very important for every mother and father to know where all their kids are at all times. You need to know who they’re running around with. And that’s the advice I give.
> How does your family celebrate Mother’s Day?
Well they all come to the house here, of course. And they always say to me, “Mum, it’s Mother’s Day, you’re not supposed to be cooking!” But I enjoy seeing my kids and their kids and their husbands and everybody here. I’m really blessed. It doesn’t matter how hard I work, I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing the family together and happy and spending time together. That’s very important. For the family to keep in touch.
> What’s the secret to your long and successful marriage?
What can I tell you? You have to be patient. Women go through a lot, but you can’t just get up and go. You’ve got to think of your children. Life was never meant to be easy, I mean you’ve got to give and take in life. I know some women go through hard times, and men for that matter. It’s not always one-sided. We were blessed. I carry a lot, but I’d do it again. For my children I’d do anything. They are very important to me.
> Thank you Fifi.