He lived a life of adventure spanning two continents. She falls in love with a World War II fighter pilot, barely escapes Europe ahead of Benito Mussolini’s fascists, ground steel for the American war effort, and advocates for her disabled daughter in a much less enlightened time. She was, his daughter said, someone who didn’t make a habit of giving up.
And then this month, at the age of 105, Primetta Giacopini’s life the way it had started – ended in a pandemic.
“I think my mother would have been taller” if she hadn’t contracted COVID, said her 61-year-old daughter, Doreen Giacopini. “She was a fighter. Her life was tough and her attitude was always … Basically, all Americans who weren’t around for World War II were basically spoiled.”
Primetta Giacopini’s mother, Pasquina Fei, died in Connecticut of the flu in 1918 at the age of 25. That flu pandemic killed nearly 675,000 Americans – the death toll from the 2020-21 coronavirus pandemic this month.
Primetta was 2 years old when her mother died. Her father, a laborer, did not want to raise Primetta or her younger sister, Alice. He sent Alice back to her ancestral homeland, Italy, and handed the Primata to an Italian foster family, which then relocated to Italy in 1929.
“The way Mom talked about it, she didn’t want to raise those kids alone, and men didn’t do that at the time,” Doreen recalled. “That’s ridiculous to me.”
Primetta supported himself by working as a tailor. Raven-haired with black eyes and sharp features, she eventually falls in love with an Italian fighter pilot named Vittorio Andriani.
“I didn’t see him very much because he was always fighting somewhere,” he told the Golden Gate Wing, a military aviation club in Oakland, California, in 2008.
Italy entered World War II in June 1940. Local police warned Primata to leave because Mussolini wanted to drive American citizens out of the country. Primetta refused. Several weeks later, the state police asked her to get out, warning her that she might end up in a concentration camp.
In June 1941, Andriani was missing in action; Primetta later learned that he had crashed and died near Malta. While he was missing, she joined a group of strangers who were leaving Italy on a train to Portugal.
“In Spain, after 2-3 years, one can see the traces of the atrocities of the past,” the primata wrote in a letter to a friend in the middle of its flight. “On the Spanish border Port Bou, not a single house is left standing; everything was destroyed because the city is an important train transit point that brings supplies to the enemy ‘Reds’ … I have seen so much destruction that I have had enough.” The day after tomorrow, I board the ship, and I am sure that everything will be fine. ”
In Lisbon she boarded a steamer bound for the United States. She returned to Torrington, bought a Chevrolet sedan for $500 and took a job at a General Motors plant in Bristol grinding steel to cover ball bearings for the war effort. She met her husband, Umbert “Bert” Giacopini, at work. They remained married until his death in 2002.
Primata gave birth to Doreen in 1960 and received devastating news: The baby was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn’t fully develop. For the first 50 years of her life, Doreen needed crutches to walk. Concerned that Doreen would slip away during Connecticut’s winters, the family moved to San Jose in 1975.
“My people were born long ago,” she said. “His attitude about disability, and my mother’s attitude about disability, was it lucky I was smart and got a good job that I really liked because maybe I wouldn’t get married or have kids. He didn’t take parenting classes.”
But the primata was “pushing,” Doreen said, and never stopped fighting for her.
She once convinced school officials to move accelerated classes from the third floor of Doreen’s school to the first floor so that Doreen could attend. During the springs in Connecticut, she demanded that the city’s cleaners clean their street with salt and sand so that Doreen would not slip.
This year, during a visit on September 9, Doreen noticed her mother was coughing. She knew that her mother’s caregiver was feeling ill after her husband returned from a wedding in Idaho. All three had been vaccinated. But as she left, Doreen speculated that her mother had contracted COVID-19.
“I made sure we said ‘I love you.'” She said, ‘See you later, Crocodile.’ I think we both said ‘After a while, Crocodile,'” Doreen said. “That was the last time I saw her.”
Two days later, Primetta was in the emergency room. Her oxygen levels dropped steadily over the next six days, until nurses had to put on an oxygen mask on her.
Doreen said she became confused and fought them so hard that she had to faint. Chest X-rays tell the story: Pneumonia. Faced with the decision to put the primata on a ventilator — “they said no one over 80 makes it off the ventilator,” Doreen said — she decided to remove her mother’s oxygen.
Primetta died two days later, on 16 September. She was 105 years old.
“Her heart was so strong that she survived for more than 24 hours after the oxygen was taken out,” Doreen said. “I am full of mebs, what should I have done with the ventilator. . . (But) it broke through to three vaccinated people.”
She continued: “I keep reminding myself that she was 105. We always talk… my grandmother and mother, the only thing that could have killed them was a worldwide pandemic.”