Getting “adopted” by old people in Italy was unexpected yet a nice welcome. The place I’m renting for the purposes of taking residency, a requirement for citizenship via Jure Soli, is owned by a lovely elderly couple. I don’t mind paying the rent early each month, because they are pensioners so I’m certain that my contribution is appreciated. Indeed, a large part of the Italian population is comprised of older folks and my neighborhood reflects that statistic.
Some of my readers are already acquainted with my sweet elderly neighbor Tonina who often sends me walking up the street to pick her up a loaf of bread. I’d only been here for about a week when the emergency services carried her husband down the stairs to the hospital. After that horrid occurrence, I noticed her standing in the corridor, a door –length from my door as she went up to me weeping while explaining that they took her husband away because he was not eating or drinking. And she kept saying “perdonami” and I kept replying that there was no need to say that. She tells me often that she’s glad I’m here and that I am young, too. Well. I don’t agree with the latter part of that, but I refuse to argue with my elders!
Tonina needs a lot of hugs, which serve to comfort and reassure her and she loves to take your hand in hers and hold it for a minute…. They did bring her husband back, but with oxygen which is usually not a very good sign. I’ve learned in the course of life here, that she has a lot of relatives, most of which I’ve met and that she loves to complain about her son’s lazy, good-for-nothing girlfriend! Another son, a man named Maurizio gave me “heart eyes” the first time I met him and he said “come stai” and took my hand, which as most of you know is the familiar form of greeting, so for me this was a bit odd. Perhaps I’m too formal with my Salve…or Buon Giorno that is often replied to with an amicable “Ciao” as if to say, why so formal?
If Tonina needs to tell me something and I’m outside she gets my attention by standing in the window and then buzzing me into the building. But one day I saw her in the window and noticed that part of her face was bloody and quite bruised. Hiding my worry, I rushed to check on her. She explained that she’d lost her balance, “io perso equilibiro” and I asked her if the doctor had come? In Italy, a doctor will come to your house. No, no doctor… she explained and she’d not been to the hospital, but one of her relatives had come over. This was distressing for me, but things got worse. Tonina’s beloved husband died 26 February, 2022 about a week after her fall. I noticed that all the windows were shut that same afternoon as I made my way back to the building with groceries in tow. Tonina caught me by the arm as I opened my door, telling me what had happened. I said “no, oh nooooOOooooooooo” and held her for a while… rubbing the back of her head as she put her head on my shoulder collapsing into a sort of nothingness…utterly consumed by grief and tears. It was terrible. The relatives were all dressed in black and I asked her where he was, her husband, and she said they took him. There was a tall young man there in his finest dress yet most of it in black and he was crying so I hugged him and offered the usual condolences, “mi dispiace tantissimo….”Then another lady appeared and I asked her if she was a sister, and she said no, just a relative and I offered the condolences and hugged her. They were all dressed in the finest dress but in black. Even Tonina was dressed up and in black: I’ve never seen her in anything other than a pair of very thick, light blue pajamas. Finally, her relatives tried to get her to come down the stairs, arms under hers, but she would not budge. Tonina kept looking at me saying “but I don’t have a mascherina….I can’t go without a mascherina…” so I grabbed a box of mascherine from inside my door and handed those to her relatives and another to Tonina. With the mascherina on they were able to coax Tonina down the stairs ferreting her away to see her husband for the very, very last time.
The moments that I’ve shared here are not happy ones. But they are a part of life. And as beautiful as living in Italy is, not all of it is a waltz through a sunny flower patch on top of a mountain overlooking a medieval village on one side, with the sea on the other while you drink a glass of wine.
I recall when I lived in the south of Italy that everywhere you’d see the women, usually three abreast, arm in arm, all in black. Some remain in black, till the end of their days in this all too short of a life. Mirrors are covered as well. So when I saw that Tonina’s relatives and Tonina herself were all dressed in black, in really fine clothes, I was not surprised. If you grew up Italian you were always told to have something in black in the closet, just in case someone perished.
Eventually, the comune will paste a large white papered manifesto in black lettering proclaiming the death of Tonina’s husband. As I walk by these manifestos I look away…. I look away but I do so as if the very gesture itself could bring the ominous black-lettered names back to life. A silent invocation to make death stop; forever. For all of us.