BY PRISCILLA CONSOLO
As our nation responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple government leaders have expressed concerns about the United States economy. Some have argued that we should abandon the practice of social distancing to avoid economic disaster, even if it means sacrificing the elderly and most vulnerable members of our population. In response, other public officials, including New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, have fired back, insisting that those most at risk to develop severe symptoms from the coronavirus, like Cuomo’s own mother, Matilda, are not simply expendable.
When Governor Cuomo sincerely discussed the importance of protecting the most vulnerable Americans from COVID-19 during his news conference on the morning of March 23rd, he explained how he named the Executive Order after his mother. “Why all of this?” he then asked, referring to the extraordinary measures being taken by the State of New York to curb the spread of the virus. “Because . . . it’s lives. Because it’s grandmothers and grandfathers, and sisters, and brothers.”
It was during this press conference that I sat on the couch with my ninety-three-year-old maternal grandfather, Mario. Notwithstanding his age, he is a man of relatively good health and a proud veteran of World War II. As I looked over to my grandfather sitting four feet away, with terror in his eyes and despair blanked across his face, Cuomo’s words during the news briefing hit home.
My grandfather Mario resides with my parents at his home of sixty-five years, located in the southwestern Brooklyn neighborhood of Gravesend. Because my fiancé is a police officer, I have been staying with my parents for a few weeks now as we all self-isolate during the coronavirus crisis. Like many of our grandparents, Grandpa Mario was born to immigrants, who fled their home country of Italy in search for a better life. My grandfather, who was born in 1927, grew up in New York City during the Great Depression. Countless times, he has recounted stories of the hardships he faced as a child living in extreme poverty and belonging to religious and ethnic groups that were considered inferior. Reflecting on his life, my grandfather recalls the discrimination he faced as a Catholic and as the son of Italian “foreigners,” which led to bullying in school, snarky remarks from bystanders on the streets, and disgusted stares from strangers. His father, who barely spoke any English, often struggled to find work, so money was tight and food was scarce. As a family of eleven, they would often eat potatoes and pasta for dinner because it was inexpensive, he has said. Growing up, Grandpa Mario never owned new clothes or a new pair of shoes, for such items were considered luxuries. During the winter months, they dressed in several layers to keep warm because their tenement apartment did not have heat. And, my grandfather and his eight siblings all had to enter the workforce when they were still children themselves in order to help support their family, and some of his brothers and sisters never finished their educations. Grandpa Mario was one of the lucky ones – he graduated from the eighth grade in spite of holding a part-time job.
After finishing his schooling, my grandfather was trained as a butcher, working in a meat market in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the early 1940s. However, he would not remain at the job for long. Soon, the United States would be attacked at Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather, whose two older brothers were already serving in the American military, felt called to enlist in the United States Navy. By 1943, at the age of only sixteen, he would begin serving on a ship that traveled throughout the South Pacific, fighting in battle against the Axis Powers.
It was only a few months ago that I had a conversation with my grandfather about his time in the armed forces. Like many veterans, he enjoys telling war stories: how he bolted for cover during enemy strikes, how he loaded shells into massive long guns, and how the sound of firing canons was deafening.
After the war ended, my grandfather worked for several years until he saved enough money to open his own business, a butcher shop, in partnership with one of his older brothers. During that time, he met my grandmother, Josephine, whom he still calls his “gem.” The two of them fell in love and married in 1950. Five years after their wedding, my grandfather purchased the home he still currently lives in – although for a fraction of the price it would be sold today. As a beloved father of three, homeowner, and former business owner, my grandfather considers himself tremendously blessed, for he has more than he ever would have imagined as a child — far more than his parents. Despite the lack of materialistic possessions and external laurels, he has achieved the American Dream.
Grandpa Mario, who has been retired for nearly twenty-five years, relishes his Golden Years to the fullest. A person bursting of life, he has led a very active lifestyle, frequenting the community’s senior centers, participating in ballroom dancing lessons, and enjoying meals at his favorite eateries. As his level of activity shows, my grandfather is a social creature, thriving off the energy of others, and is equipped with a positive outlook and calm demeanor that many credit for his longevity.
To now know that his life is literally at risk due to the coronavirus has been deeply distressing to my family. Suddenly, we had to take all possible precautions to try to protect him. We were all limiting our exposure to other people, washing our hands often, and sanitizing commonly touched surfaces. It was no longer about us, but about him. Who was to say that his life wasn’t as valuable as the rest of ours?
As we watched Governor Cuomo’s news conference together, I could see that my grandfather was troubled at the notion being touted by some leaders — that his life, as an elderly person, somehow is less important than others. Surely, his story proves otherwise. Here, sitting next to me, was a man who fought for our country, who willingly gave up so much to protect others — to save our nation, now being told that government leaders may no longer believe in saving him.
Priscilla Consolo is an attorney and lifelong New Yorker.