By Maureen McEwan
Last Monday, Rosa Di Felice went outside her house with her pots and pans, ready to make noise at 7 p.m. It was time for the nightly recognition of COVID-19 frontline workers.
The longtime Hintonburg resident was then met with a surprise. Her family, friends and neighbours had gathered in a socially-distant celebration for her 90th birthday. After the frontline workers’ appreciation, everyone sang happy birthday (in both English and Italian) to Rosa from their porches, staircases, balconies and cars. Banners and balloons lined both sides of her street.
“I am shaken, completely shaken,” Rosa said about the surprise.
“90 is just a number. So how do I feel? I don’t think for one minute about it,” she said, smiling. “It could be 95, it could be 18. I don’t think about a specific number.”
One of Rosa’s daughters, Cecilia, said the Di Felice family began planning her 90th birthday back in January.
“We had started shopping around for a nice place to hold it, we were going to invite family from out of town and everything like that and, of course, the second everything shut down, all our plans went to waste,” Cecilia said. “But we thought, well you know we can have the big party later but that didn’t do anything for the actual date.”
The family wanted to find a way to celebrate the day while respecting public safety guidelines. When they organized the event on social media, everyone was instructed to wear masks and maintain proper distance.
“The thing about Italians is that we’re not good at social distancing, it’s not our nature! It goes against everything,” Cecilia said, laughing.
Cecilia described her mother as an “extreme extrovert” who has been going “stir-crazy” during the pandemic.
At 90, Rosa normally spends her time volunteering at the Villa Marconi Long Term Care Center, singing in her church choir at St. Anthony’s and practicing Tae-Kwon Do. In her mid-80s, she received her black belt in the martial art.
With her choir, Rosa sings as a contralto. On her birthday, some of her fellow singers sang to her from across the street. Their song of choice was “Va, pensiero” from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco.
“The choir broke into song the second she came out so she was reduced to tears. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her cry like that,” said Cecilia. “So that’s good, I guess we got her!”
Rosa was born on May 18, 1930 in the Abruzzo region of Italy, where her family lived on a small farm and grew olives. It was a tumultuous era — She was born during the Great Depression and endured the hardship of World War II in Italy. After the war, she moved with her husband Gaspar and their young family to Canada.
“She had to uproot herself from everything she knew and come to Canada and she didn’t know anybody here,” Cecilia said. “That adjustment was extremely difficult.”
In Canada, Rosa and Gaspar worked hard to save for their own home. They each managed several part-time jobs while raising three children, daughters Carola and Cecilia and son Carlo. At one point, Rosa worked at the National Arts Centre making costumes. There she met international superstars like Luciano Pavarotti and Rudolf Nureyev. This spring, she’s been using her sewing skills to make masks for community members during the pandemic.
Nearly 30 years ago, the family faced tragedy when Gaspar lost his battle with cancer. Rosa herself is a breast cancer survivor and endured different medical challenges over the years. Nevertheless, Cecilia said her mother never stopped being engaged with her community or developing as a person.
“She’s indomitable, I guess is the word I would use. She does not allow things to prevent her from living. And, I mean, living with a capital ‘L.’”
After 90 years, Rosa echoed a similar sentiment and gave straightforward advice.
“Live your life – Work, enjoy yourself,” Rosa said. “We are not in this world for a long time, especially at this moment.”
“Live a good life.” she added.