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Connections | Magazine

A taste of my Italian family’s grace and humor in the time of coronavirus

“The wine is finishing," says my uncle, laughing, "there’s too many of us in the house!”

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When my immigrant parents started seeing news flashes about the coronavirus outbreak in their home country of Italy, they panicked. My father, a landscaper, had (luckily) just returned to the Boston area from his annual winter-long trip to visit his 81-year-old father and five siblings in Pompei. He began spending hours on WhatsApp trying to learn how their lives were being transformed.

Italy was the first country in Europe to get hit hard, with the number of deaths still climbing. Thousands of miles away in Boston, I was feeling useless. I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandfather and many aunts, uncles, and cousins. For these working-class relatives in the small towns of southern Italy, the outbreak panic reaches beyond the virus — they’re worried about paying their bills. Working from home isn’t much of an option with their tourism-based service industry jobs. With the rampant spread of fear and travel bans, sources of income have shriveled, another blow to the long-floundering economy that drove my father to emigrate in the ’90s.

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Living in a very different setting, I felt guiltily isolated from the crisis. Growing up, I’d always felt detached from my overseas family while home in Massachusetts. After summer or Christmas trips, my Italian skills felt rusty, and I’d get busy with schoolwork; there was always an excuse to not reach out. We were all living our own lives — we’d pick up where we left off during my next vacation, I assumed.

This unprecedented crisis has put all that into perspective. Our expectations to get together this summer for my sister’s wedding seem shaky. Moments of drinking homemade wine around squished dinner tables, of dancing together until 4 a.m. at the disco, of sharing coffees and pastries at the local cafe — they couldn’t be maintained over FaceTime.

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It’s hard to imagine my effervescent relatives stuck at home. My grandfather has respiratory problems, and my cousins, like many there, have smoked cigarettes for years. How well could they combat the virus?

In early March, I opened WhatsApp to reconnect personally for the first time since January. I tapped into our giant group message and found my thumbs stumbling over keyboard clicks. It felt impossible to bring up the issue plaguing their lives.

At first, their responses only worsened my concern. One cousin, a bartender who hasn’t worked for weeks, was quarantined alone and worrying about the long-term economic effects that will linger once the virus calms down. “Without tourism, Italy will die,” he says. An aunt says they only leave their homes once a week to go to the grocery store, and they must go alone, wearing masks and gloves and staying one meter away from employees and other customers. Police are constantly on the streets asking people why they’re out of their houses, prepared to fine anyone without a legitimate excuse.

But even with his respiratory problems, my grandfather remains in good spirits. When he had a slight fever recently, a doctor came to the house to make sure it wasn’t COVID-19. “I would eat the virus,” my grandfather says, claiming the cure for it is “onions, garlic, and wine!” They are all staying home, sharing meals and spending time together. The downside? “The wine is finishing, there’s too many of us in the house!” says my uncle, laughing.

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These moments of virtual chatting, making jokes, and reconnecting amidst the chaos felt healing. They seemed necessary to evoke a temporary peace, a tiny spark of optimism. To illustrate a time of normalcy that will inevitably return.

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Monica Petrucci is a senior at Emerson College. Send comments to connections@globe.com.