Remembering the World’s Oldest Person, in the Objects She Left Behind
Emma Morano’s singular achievement in life may have been perseverance. She lived for 117 years, crediting her longevity to raw eggs and her lack of a husband. She died on April 15.
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
VERBANIA, Italy — The last time Emma Morano left her apartment, she was 102 years old. Fame came late in life — after she hit 110. Last year, she was feted as the oldest person on earth. She had fans the world over. The mayor of her Italian town thanked her for putting it on the map.
Ms. Morano, the last person documented as being born in the 1800s, died peacefully on April 15. She was 117 years, 137 days, 16 hours and some minutes old.
The few worldly possessions she left behind, accumulated over the course of more decades than you or I will probably live, didn’t take up much space in the tiny two-room church-owned apartment where she spent the last 27 years of her life.
Those of us consumed by consumerism may have difficulty understanding Ms. Morano.
“We have too many things, too many distractions, too many items offered to us, too many messages, and a person like Emma struggles to emerge,” the Rev. Giuseppe Masseroni, who himself is 91, said at Ms. Morano’s funeral on Monday.
Her “simplicity is sculptural” — and out of step with modernity, he said.
Next to her bed, Ms. Morano had hung photos of her parents and siblings — five sisters and three brothers — along with some religious images. Inside the drawer of her night table was a supermarket-aisle anti-aging cream that she had applied every evening before going to sleep.
For health reasons, Ms. Morano moved as a teenager to Verbania, a small town on Lake Maggiore, in Piedmont. It forms a recurrent backdrop to the photos of a record-worthy lifetime. In 2015, when The New York Times interviewed her, she recalled:
“The doctor told me to change air, and I’m still here.”
Her father, Giovanni, worked in a foundry in Villadossola, a nearby town. Eventually, he went blind. Her mother, Matilde, made slippers by layering fabrics and cutting out a shoe shape. Her family instilled strength of character in Ms. Morano and her siblings.
“All the sisters were determined,” her niece Rosemarie Santoni said.
As a young girl, she would sneak out at night to go dancing with her sisters, her nieces said.This is how Ms. Morano recollected it:
“My sisters and I loved to dance and we’d run away to the dance hall and then our mother would come looking for us with a birch stick.”
The reason for her longevity has long been pondered, and investigated, by researchers and fans. Could the lake’s mild climate be a factor? Or the three raw eggs she ate every day for nearly a century?
Or an unfortunate marriage and separation in 1938 that made her never contemplate marriage again?
“Emma did not put up with the humiliation of being subservient to a man,” Father Masseroni, also known as Don Giuseppe, said at the funeral.
She herself had said:
“I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone.”
She was devout, wearing her rosaries for decades, though she did not wear them recently because her nieces, her principal caretakers, were afraid she might choke on them. She hung the rosaries next to her bed, near a photo of her only child, a son who lived from January to August 1937.
That photograph was buried with her, according to her wishes.
She loved clocks and owned several. “She loved to hear them chime, especially those that sounded like Big Ben” in London, Ms. Santoni said.
Ms. Morano worked until she was 75, proud that she could pay for whatever she owned. After her separation from her husband, she had a bedroom set custom-made by a local furniture maker.
“She always said, ‘I paid for it; I had it made,” Ms. Santoni said.
Ms. Morano hadn’t left her apartment for years, Ms. Santoni said. For a time, she had a cat, Lola. And she briefly tried to raise a pet pigeon and feed other birds, until that caused problems with the neighbors.
She cooked for herself until she was 112, usually pasta to which she added raw ground beef. Until she was 115, she did not have live-in caregivers, and she laid out a place setting for herself at her small kitchen table at every meal.
“She was very house-proud,” said Maria Antonietta Sala, another niece.
When visitors brought children to see Ms. Morano at her previous home, she would put newspapers on the floor so their feet wouldn’t dirty it.
After she reached 110, every sunrise increased her fame. Certificates acknowledging her celebrity multiplied. She was honored by a host of organizations, Italian presidents and schoolchildren. The local gas company even gave her a certificate for being a loyal customer.
She dressed in a varying combination of a housedress and vest or shawl or both for the last years of her life. That’s how most visitors found her. People came to see her from around the world. Some kept in touch. One man, who was blind, came every Christmas and Easter.
A woman who attended Ms. Morano’s funeral told Ms. Sala that she had a file of newspaper clippings on her. On the day of Ms. Morano’s funeral, as her coffin was being lowered into the ground, the woman called out, “Emma, I’m counting on you to give me as long a life as you had!”
Ms. Morano always took care of herself, going regularly to a hairdresser when she still went out in public, and she even fretted that she had to be well groomed because of the pilgrimage of visitors.
She was always polite and patient, Ms. Santoni said, “but after a while, she would turn to me and say in dialect, ‘Are they ever going to leave?’”
Ms. Morano was buried in the local cemetery, in the family tomb.
At the funeral, Verbania’s mayor, Silvia Marchionini, thanked her for making the town famous. “We are enormously grateful,” Ms. Marchionini said.
“We don’t know if it’s true that living on the lake helps you live longer — certainly it’s nice to believe this,” she said. “Verbania thanks you. We are proud.”