I flew to Italy three years ago looking for my great-grandmother’s life story. Her name was Elvira Rigotti, née Stofella. While I knew the facts of her life — when she was born, when she moved to America, when she died — I didn’t know anything about the person who filled out the days in between. I thought that seeing where Elvira came from, walking where she walked and breathing where she breathed, would teach me more. I returned home with a little bit of flesh on what had been a skeleton.
Now, I feel closer to understanding her life than ever. She died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
Last week, I dug out my copy of Elvira’s death certificate. “Influenza,” written in cursive under “cause of death,” shouted across those 102 years. The “I” is capitalized. Every letter should have been. The 1918 pandemic killed 675,000 Americans and 25 to 50 million people worldwide.
As I held the death certificate, I felt its weight of sadness. My Grandma Rae was at Elvira’s bedside when she died. My great aunt, whom I called Aunt Vee, filled out the form, writing out the facts of her mother’s death. Words are misspelled. A few facts appear to be wrong. The certificate is gut-wrenching and clinical, real and ephemeral, sobering and startling.
That death certificate also reintroduced me to Grandma Rae and Aunt Vee. I’ve long admired them for surviving their tough childhoods. They could have fallen apart after they filed that certificate. But they persevered through an unprecedented time in modern history.
I didn’t understand how hard it was. I have a faint inkling now.
It’s amazing how we know things now. My great-grandmother’s story came to me via technology in a dizzying number of forms. A relative scanned, copied, and mailed Elvira’s death certificate. I used a search engine to find her birth record. At a centuries-old cemetery in Italy, I used a digital map on an outdoor touchscreen kiosk to look for family graves. I used GPS to navigate narrow roads in the Italian Alps to find Elvira’s village, whose population is in double digits. My brother’s DNA test sprinkled salt into a simmering soup.
Elvira Stofella was born in what is now northern Italy in 1863, on the 25th of either October or November. She fell in love with a bricklayer named Giovanni Rigotti, and they married January 8, 1890, when she was 26 and he was 28. She gave birth to their first child, Enrico, on June 3, 1891.
“Princess” was the only description I have ever heard of her. The origin of it is murky: I heard it from my aunt, who heard it from my grandma. There’s a hint that maybe Elvira’s family was wealthy back home, but that’s just a guess.
I picture Elvira as beautiful and regal, snuggling young Enrico throughout the long trip across the Atlantic.
In the summer of 1893, Elvira, Enrico, and 499 other souls boarded the Red Star Line’s Westernland in Antwerp, Belgium, bound for America. I picture Elvira as beautiful and regal, snuggling young Enrico throughout the long trip. She was eager, I’m sure, to see Giovanni again; he had journeyed across the Atlantic two years earlier and taken a job in a Pennsylvania mine. I wonder if she understood what Pennsylvania was, or if she just thought “AMERICA!” and dreamed big dreams.
The ship arrived in New York City on July 5, 1893, and the princess lived a hard life here.
Enrico died as a boy; I don’t know how or when. Giovanni died of a heart attack at 48 on Sept. 19, 1909. Elvira was pregnant with their ninth child. She named the baby John — an Americanization that Giovanni had adopted for himself. Young John died three days before Christmas in 1910. That left Elvira a widow who had buried two sons by the time she was 47, one year younger than I am today.
In 1918, an influenza pandemic — known as Spanish flu because Spanish newspapers were among the first to report it — ripped through Pennsylvania, the United States, and the world. The flu killed an estimated 60,000 Pennsylvanians, including 12,000 in Philadelphia alone, after the city held a war-bonds parade on Sept. 28, 1918, and the flu jumped from one reveler to the next.
I discovered these numbers as shelter-in-place orders were being issued across the U.S. The more I read about the 1918 influenza pandemic, the madder I got. When I saw pictures of Florida beaches during Spring Break, full of people whose defiance was matched only by their selfishness, some of my anger landed on them. I reserved some of my fury for Philadelphians 102 years ago, too, even if they didn’t deserve it.
In October, the flu arrived in small-town Brockway, Pennsylvania, and at a boardinghouse there run by 54-year-old Elvira Rigotti. Who brought in the disease? Was it someone from the parade? Probably not; it’s 267 miles from Philly to Brockway. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Someone who should have stayed home didn’t, and Elvira Rigotti, née Stofella, fell ill on October 20. She died at 1:30 a.m. on October 28, 1918.
To die of the Spanish flu was to drown in fluid inside your own chest. In her last hours, Elvira’s every breath would have been like sucking on a sponge. Grandma Rae, 15 at the time, told my aunts and uncles that she was by Elvira’s side for those final, desperate moments. Grandma Rae and Aunt Vee got the flu, too; all seven of Elvira’s living kids did, according to family accounts. They all survived.
For the rest of her life, Aunt Vee — short for Elvira, like her mom — lived as if she was trying to cram as much life into hers as she could, in case she died young, like her parents. She worked as a newspaper reporter, moved into business, traveled the world, and climbed a mountain, “when women didn’t do that,” as the family story goes. Grandma Rae assumed the role of Rigotti family matriarch, taking care of those around her, hosting most family gatherings.
She pitched wiffleball to my brothers and me into her 80s. One day I hit a pitch square on the nose. I absolutely smeared that thing. It whistled through the air and smacked into her thigh. To whatever extent it hurt, she never let on. She simply said she was done playing and walked into her house. When I told my mom about it, she said it proved how tough Grandma Rae was.
I don’t think the Spanish flu made Aunt Vee adventurous and Grandma Rae industrious. I think they were already like that, and Elvira’s death refined and amplified those characteristics, and added perseverance.
The technology that connected me to my great-grandmother’s history also keeps me connected in the here and now. Every day, I call and text and email and use video chat apps to check in on people far and wide. Those new ways to reach people have shrunk the world. They help unseal the suffocating isolation of staying home as the coronavirus spreads.
I’ve been in regular contact with a man in Italy named Costantino Rigon. While chasing Elvira, I caught him. I randomly hollered hello to him on a tiny street in a tiny northern Italian village and was utterly shocked to discover he’s my distant cousin. He, Elvira, and I share a long-ago ancestor.
Rigon lives in a town called Rovereto, and he was on lockdown weeks before the orders started in America. I can hear his Italian accent as he sends me Facebook messages in English, writing that he is healthy. He seems in good spirits. He was stunned when I sent him a picture of an empty shelf where toilet paper should be. The streets in Italy are empty, he told me, but the shelves are full.
The more we write each other, the more I think about my great-grandmother. Elvira left a large family behind in Italy. Did she send urgent letters checking on them as influenza ravaged the world, like I have with Costantino during the coronavirus pandemic?
She would have been dead before the letters got there.
One day last week I asked Costantino how to say “cousin” in Italian.
“Cugino,” he wrote back.
“Pronounced koo-geen-oh?” I asked.
He responded with a laughing emoji. Then he made a recording of himself saying “cugino” and sent it to me. As I played his recording, I thought about trying to explain that interaction to Elvira. Surely she would have laughed in disbelief.
I wonder what her laugh sounded like. I have a good guess, because I heard Aunt Vee and Grandma Rae laugh constantly.