Lives Lost: A century of learning, bookended by pandemic
In her 80s, Phyllis Antonetz moved to a new state, quickly settling in and volunteering at a school. In her 90s, she was living on her own, keeping a busy calendar of classes and outings. In her 100s, still primly dressed and manicured, she held court as she made the rounds in her nursing home.
Her grandchildren proclaimed her the Greatest of All Time and speculated she might last forever, this force of nature whose life stretched so long that it was bookended by two great pandemics.
“Mom loved the story of her life,” says her youngest daughter, Alexa Mullady. “She felt blessed.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series on people around the world who have died from the coronavirus.
Born during World War I to Italian immigrants in New York, the former Phyllis Pirro grew up in Little Italy to parents with no formal education who wanted something different for their three children.
“To go to college,” says her oldest daughter Ria Battaglia, “was to them the American dream.”
She went to New York University and built a career at Macy’s, where she climbed the ranks to become a special events coordinator, making Thanksgiving Day Parade duties among her biggest. It also is where Battaglia believes she first met an operations manager named Alexander Antonetz.
Romance blossomed and they secretly passed notes to one another at the Herald Square landmark. They were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral — her in a hand-beaded gown of Alencon lace, him in a morning coat with striped pants and an ascot — and were feted in a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria.
When children came, the new mother put her career aside and made the home a hive of learning.
She jotted thoughts and interesting facts in notebooks and on index cards and would grow excited by the way a writer turned a phrase or assembled a sentence or used alliteration.
Volumes of great artists amassed on the coffee table and she devoured biographies. When her girls pelted questions, she took them to the library or had them write to the newspaper. The weeks before Christmas came with elaborate lessons every year, with each day bringing instruction of a new state capital or European country, say, complete with color-coded stars indicating the girls’ performance.
“Mom was always teaching,” Mullady says.
She was 55 when she earned a master’s in education and began teaching elementary school on Long Island. Battaglia says it wasn’t easy for her father to accept that she didn’t want to be a housewife anymore. But when graduation came, he gave her a briefcase and her eyes welled with tears.
“You have no idea what this means,” she said of a gift she saw as acceptance of her decision.
The schoolchildren adored her and, decades later, the occasional wedding invitation would arrive for a woman whose first-grade lessons stuck with her students for a lifetime.
When her husband died, she charged on. She took classes in everything from genealogy to foreign languages, keeping a quick wit all the while. Mullady remembered once seeing an Italian textbook at her mother’s place and learning it was for another class at the senior center.
“Do they know you speak fluent Italian?” she asked.
“They don’t need to know that,” was the reply.
She spent her final years at a nursing home in Fairfield, Connecticut. She still prayed, still found joy in the visit of a grandchild or great-grandchild, still seemed much younger than she was in tailored pants and silky blouses, up to the very end when she died of the coronavirus at 103 on April 17.
Her family thinks of the things she witnessed in her long lifetime, seeing the Depression unfold as a child, volunteering as a nurse’s aide during World War II, watching John F. Kennedy’s funeral in a darkened room. Most of all, though, they think of all the knowledge she gave and absorbed.
“She never stopped learning,” Battaglia says.
Matt Sedensky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or, on Twitter, at @sedensky.