Coronavirus in Italy, Part 2: Death, Age, and Identity

“These are our great elderly who are dying. That they should go like this, it’s deeply unjust.” [1]

According to statista.com, as of last night there are now almost 60,000 reported cases of Covid-19 in Italy.  74% of those infected are over the age of 50. Read that again. Let that sink in. Almost three-fourths are age 51 or older. 36% are over the age of 70.

“These are our great elderly who are dying.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, there’s a new coronavirus hashtag trending: #BoomerRemover. Young people are making light of people 55 and over dying. Another post I read said, “Well at least this will help our Social Security!”

I can only hang my head.

In the States, we hide our elderly. We are embarrassed by them. We’re embarrassed for them. That they should have the great misfortune of growing old, and before that, looking old, well, that’s… so sad. We are a nation of Dorian Grays. We don’t want to be reminded of aging. We equate aging with death. We avoid it. We run the other way. We put the aged in homes. Others, in better shape, are encouraged to enjoy retirement communities. Keep them together, the thinking goes, and they’re better off, among their peers. With professionals to care for them, in case something should happen, call us only in an emergency.

Age has everything to do with our national identity, both in Italy and in the United States. Americans are young. Our concept of beauty is the innocent child, the pubescent girl, stripped of hips and pubic hair, with pouty lips and an unbrushed mane. But in Italy, a nation of adults, children are pretty and woman are beautiful. It is the adult woman that is idealized: her beautiful curves, full breasts, thick legs, a little paunch in her belly. Bikinis are not just for “perfect” bodies, they are for every body, thick and thin, large and small, young and old. Age is beautiful. The best things in Italy are old. The art, the music, the literature. The churches, the buildings, the ruins. Life is built upon the long lives of others. The beauty of the past is the beauty of the present. Age connects us to the future; it is the reward of more to come.

In the States, we tear down buildings regularly. In Italy, they repurpose. They embrace their past with pride. Structures stand empty and crumbling between others housing families and shops. Layers exposed underneath modern facades are part of their charm. The colors come from the weathering of time: shades of brown, shades of the sun. The streets are still cobbled from centuries past. Greek temples are now churches. The Coliseum and the ancient city still stand in the very center of Rome.

Independence is intrinsic to the American identity. It’s the heart of our origin story and a rite of passage for the young. Autonomy. Freedom! We crossed an ocean to be on our own and waged two long wars in our new home to fight being told what we could or could not do. 400 years later and we’re still distancing from our parental figureheads as quickly as we can. We start our own lives, we move out, we move away. Until rather recently, for over 100 years, the average age for leaving our parent’s home was twenty.[2] Some of us see our folks regularly, but whether that’s once a week or a few times a year, varies.

But in Italy, children live with their parents, on average, into their thirties.[3] And when they move out, they still live close by, maybe even in the same building. Parents are consulted in everything, Mamma is always present and Nonna is a matriarch: the head of the family, the center of Italian life.

Mom. I have an entire chapter in my book focused on Mom. She is, quite literally, our very first home. Her influence on our young lives forever shapes our experience of home as adults. Both the good and the bad. In the States, Mom isn’t always the center of the family, the nurturer, the keeper of the hearth. That ideal was popularized in Leave it to Beaver and even on Rosanne, but the truth is more complicated. As a nation of adolescents, we don’t always embrace the mother archetype. We focus on ourselves over our kids. Our careers over our family. The love is still there, only the focus is different. Think Cher in Mermaids. Or Harry Chapin’s classic song, Cat’s in the Cradle. We care, but… Let’s face it: we don’t value our teachers or our childcare workers. We pay them next to nothing, barely livable salaries, and we don’t fund our schools. Our children die in mass shootings and guns are the second leading cause of death among American kids[4] but we don’t change gun laws because the rights of an adult to own firearms is a higher priority than children’s lives.

But in Italy, family always comes first. The children, the parents, the grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. Family is the center of Italian life. Last week in New Jersey, coronavirus struck an Italian American family, killing four, including 73-year-old Grace Fusco, mother of 11, grandmother of 27. The New York Times reporter writes, “The virus’s devastating toll on a single family is considered as rare as it is perplexing.”[5] Not perplexing at all. Not to an Italian. This nonna’s large family joined her every Sunday for dinner. I can see it all now. So many hugs and kisses, hugs and more kisses, hands held, and hands patted on cheeks. The passing of platters, up and down the table and round and round again, all while talking, loud conversations and laughter, hands meeting hands, hands touching everything, bellies being filled, and hearts expanding. I can hear them, their voices still ringing. (Italians, as you know, can be loud.) But now, everything is silent. There is only mourning.

This is the great fear in Italy. Quarantining alone is antithetical to the Italian way of life. There is no alone. People my age and younger worry. “If I get it, okay, but what about my parents? Mia famiglia, miei genitori…

In Italia, i genitori are revered. They are the keepers of tradition. The wise ones. The soul of the country. The heart and hearth of every family. Nothing comes above family, except God. The family is synonymous with Italian identity. What is home? I ask Italians. And always the same response, always: it’s Mamma. Madre. Home is wherever Mom is. And what if Mamma dies? Then home is where the rest of the family is, rooted in the soil like the olive trees. There will always be more elders, more aunts, more uncles, to ground a person to place. But they are meant to pass only after we ourselves have aged. And if they die too soon, prematurely, what is this nation to do?

With the elders at risk in Italy, all are at risk. I nonni are Italy’s past, present, and future. With each one that dies, a part of Italy dies. A piece of the Italian soul goes with them.

Italians are staying home. For themselves, their families, their country.

Please, America, do the same.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/coronavirus-obituaries-bergamo-italy/2020/03/16/6c342f02-66c7-11ea-b199-3a9799c54512_story.html

[2] https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/prc/_files/pdf/workingpapers/00-01-01.pdf

[3] https://www.boredpanda.com/young-adults-moving-from-parents-age-data/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

[4] https://www.thetrace.org/2019/08/children-teens-gun-deaths-data/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/nyregion/new-jersey-family-coronavirus.html

4 Comments on “Coronavirus in Italy, Part 2: Death, Age, and Identity

  1. Thank you, Jan!
    Thank you for sharing your view on my country.
    Being an Italian, I can say that you got the exact focus. And yes, since the beginning of emergency, all my worries are not for my daughter, who has so full chances to go over without even distinguishing it from an ordinary flu. My worries are for my parents, especially my father, who according to the experts is the perfect target victim for the virus, because of other pathologies (he has all the ones considered to be lethal when coronavirus is added).
    And yes, I leave very close to them and I am visiting them every day. Nowadays I am taking care of buying goods for them, and quarreling with anyone who can put them in risk because of inaccuracy or stupidity.
    Besides, I agree with you also when you depict the Italian attitude towards “elder” things and people.
    In the end of last millennium, a friend of mine, coming from an European eastern country, shared with me the feeling that Rome -my city- raised into her soul: she said that here she could breath the death.
    Well, obviously it was not a compliment, but empathizing a young girl coming from a very new democracy, it’s easy to understand what she meant.
    Here nothing or no one from the past can be easily overrun.
    It is supposed to stay forever, until the end of the world.
    We live the present with an eye on the past.
    Seldom there is a view on the future.
    Love to all humans in these hard days!
    I have hope for a more emphatic world, after.

    Liked by 2 people

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