The Tragic life of Erminia Imbriano From the Spanish Flu to Covid-19

My paternal grandmother, Erminia Imbriano, has always been a mystery to me. She is my namesake and I’ve always been curious about her especially since I knew very little about her. She died very young, shortly after getting married and having two children, my father Guglielmo and my aunt Filomena. When my father spoke of her, he remembered her as if he were describing a dream sequence in a Federico Fellini film. He was six years old when she passed and he recalled a shadow, a surreal outline of a woman without distinct characteristics; he had trouble remembering her image. To this day, I’ve never even been able to find her photograph.

Erminia was born in 1906 in Sant’Angelo Dei Lombardi in the Avellino province. I knew she lost her entire family and married my grandfather, Antonio Gioino. She relocated to Lioni where she lived the rest of her life.

My journey began in 2019 before I knew that the infamous virus, Covid-19, would ravage the US. We have 4% of the world’s population with 25% of Covid-19 cases. The New York and New Jersey areas were hit the hardest in March of 2020. We were confined to our homes in mid- March and not being able to go about daily life, I finally decided to continue digging into my grandmother’s background. I became aware of the website Antenati through a message board on Antenati guided me in finding the story of my grandmother’s short life. It was more tragic and heart-wrenching than I could ever have imagined.

In the beginning of my research efforts, I found so much joy and happiness with the first few records I discovered. I found Erminia Imbriano’s birth record which documented her parent’s names; I never heard them before. Her father, Francescoantonio and her mother Angela Venezia who were my great-grandparents. Knowing their names, I searched for records of other children born in Sant’Angelo in that time period. I found records of four other daughters; they were my grandmother’s sisters. I was overtaken with joy on a late night in 2019 knowing that my grandmother had a large family who loved her.

My happiness turned to sadness and sorrow as I continued to search through Antenati records. I found that in November of 1918, when Erminia was 12 years old she lost her entire immediate family. The records sadly document that her mother, Angela Venezia (age 42) died first. Then came her sister, Felicia (age 22), then Maria Michela (age 18), then Filomena (age 10), then Ernestina (age 14). The last person to pass was my great grandfather Francescoantonio Imbriano (age 45). It’s as if he waited until everyone was taken care of before he passed himself. In total, twelve people from the Imbriano family died in November 1918 in the small mountain town of Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi. I am still searching to identify the remaining Imbriano family and how they were related to my grandmother.

In 2019, the term “Covid-19” did not exist. I began to research pandemics that occurred in that same period and narrowed it down to two options- the Spanish Flu or the malaria pandemic. I suspected that it was the Spanish Flu because malaria was mostly present on the coastlines of Italy. The province of Avellino is located in the mountainous regions of central Italy. My father always mentioned that mosquitos were rarely seen in Avellino, unlike the mosquitoes that he experienced in Montevideo, Uruguay and in later the US. It was more probable that it was the Spanish Flu since it was brought back by soldiers of WWI without therapeutic measures available. I also knew that quinine was used to treat malaria. My father passed away in 2004 and any information he was able to share with me was forever lost. In April of 2019, my 96-year-old uncle fell ill and I visited him and my aunt Filomena (Erminia’s daughter) in the hospital. I shared with my aunt what I had discovered using Antenati records. She was very surprised and moved that I was able to find such dated information. I told her I was still searching for the reason my grandmother died so young. To my surprise and shock, she reluctantly whispered “La Spagnola” when no one was looking and revealed the long-held family secret. La Spagnola is the Italian translation for the Spanish Flu. I had an awakening of sorts and thought about the time period that both my father and aunt lived through. In 1918, the Spanish Flu was met with suspicion and panic. It was viewed as the Black Death and a great plague inflicted on whole families, small towns, an entire country and the world. People must have looked to explain their helpless predicament based on the their deeply ingrained religious culture. Catholicism has a way of identifying sins and perhaps it was considered a great punishment inflicted on a whole family. Those beliefs were sure to have impacted my father and aunt into the 1940s as they were coming of age. My aunt is 94 years old, and I believe these beliefs are still ingrained in her consciousness. I understood perfectly why she never told anyone this secret. I did not know there was another secret she would later reveal.

My grandfather, Antonio Gioino and grandmother Erminia were married in 1921. The Antenati marriage record indicates that Erminia was 16 years old, when in fact she was 15. The family story is that she had great wealth as she had inherited all of her family’s assets at a young age. In 1921, her family was fearful that she could be kidnapped and decided that the best option for her safety would be to get married. She married my grandfather and moved from S’Angelo Dei Lombardi to Lioni and her dowry included the purchase of one of the best homes in the center of town. A beautiful home with great rooms, a grand staircase and a stained -glass skylight window. She was chauffeured to Lioni in a beautiful car and she was so young that many of the neighbors thought she was part of the bridal party instead of being the bride. I do not understand why I was never able to find a picture of her. It is very likely pictures of her wedding were taken since she had the financial means.

Ritratto di Guglielmo Gioino

Having lost all of her family at age 12 and moving to another town must have been very frightening to her, but what was about to transpire was truly tragic. Her first daughter, Filomena was born in 1926, followed by her son Guglielmo (my father) in 1928. I look very much like my father in physical appearance, but also in personality traits such as my love for school, history and science. In 1933, her third child, Angiola was born, but she died when she was a few months old in May 1933. I never knew the existence of this child. Filomena looks very much like my grandfather Antonio and I can guess that my father looked just like my grandmother. She became very ill and was hospitalized in Naples for a period of time. My father told me that when she came back home to Lioni, she was confined to her bedroom and he could see his mother by looking through a keyhole. He was not allowed in the bedroom to be near her. I can’t imagine what it would feel like not to be able to hold your own children or not to be held by your mother. On August 10, 1934 she lost her battle with “a terrible illness”. Her death has always been a mystery. I discussed my findings with my Aunt Filomena, and she was finally willing to tell me why she died. She whispered out of the side of her mouth the cause of her death: “Tuberculosis”. The last family secret about Erminia Imbriano had been revealed to me almost 90 years after her death; a death which must have carried such negative stigma and shame in her time. Now it signifies, bravery, strength, endurance, courage and sacrifice to me.

I never knew or understood how negatively the Spanish Flu impacted my grandmother’s life and how lucky I am to be alive in the age of Covid-19. I have not found a photograph of her, but I have a clue, or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, that when I look in the mirror, I see my grandmother, Erminia Imbriano.

The descendants of Antonio Gioino and Erminia Imbriano currently reside in New Jersey, USA. There are currently nineteen descendants.