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Tags: Community & relationships Flourish Community connectedness Real Wellbeing storytelling

“Living long is wonderful, it’s a gift. I’m lucky. I’m 88 and I can still sing and drive. It’s good to be alive.”—Antonino Emmi.

Key points

  • Antonino Emmi remembers the terror of his village being bombarded by American and British aircraft during World War II. He considers himself lucky to be alive after buildings were destroyed and people were injured.
  • In 1960, he boarded a ship by himself to begin a new life. After a month-long boat trip marred by seasickness, Antonino sailed into Australia and was floored by the beautiful sight of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
  • Antonino receives support to remain living in his own home through the Commonwealth Home Support Programme, with services delivered by Australian Unity.

Antonino Emmi says he was born “just yesterday”. Like many other people who have lived a long life, he feels like his 88 years have passed in the blink of an eye. 

Born in 1933 in a small Sicilian village called Linguaglossa, he grew up in the shadow of Mount Etna. For Antonino’s family, money was tight, schooling was humble and food was limited to the essentials. Despite the hardships, music was a bright spot in his childhood.

“I always liked music. I sang in church and my brother was in a band, so music was always on my mind,” Antonino says.  

Antonino Emmi

Buying a piano accordion was a huge moment for him. After paying it off in instalments, there wasn’t much money left to pay for lessons, but he persevered.

When he was a teenager, he learned cabinet-making by hand without using modern machinery. This trade was his ticket out of the tiny village he was raised in.

“After the war, people started moving again. My brother had gone to Rome to work. When I was 18, he found me a job in a furniture factory in Rome. It felt like I’d won the lottery. Rome was a very powerful experience for me,” Antonino says, adding that this is where he honed his skills in antique reproduction furniture-making.   

A boom in post-war migration meant that many young Italians were looking to start new lives in far-flung places. After a period of compulsory military service, he joined the hundreds of thousands of other young Italians who migrated to Australia.

“I’d always wanted to come to Australia because Australia had sent money to repair my village. I thought, ‘this country is very good’,” he says.

“It was unbelievable. When I saw the Harbour Bridge, it was like a dream,” Antonino says.

Antonino Emmi

He stayed with his cousin in Merrylands and within days he found a job as a cabinet-maker, despite speaking minimal English. In the years that followed, he met his wife, had two sons, bought a house in Condell Park in southwest Sydney and opened a furniture store which he ran for more than two decades. 

He also found time for music. He sang in the Club Marconi choir and when he hit mid-life, he began dedicating more time to performing. 

“After I got divorced, I was a free man. I could do anything I wanted! No one could boss me around,” he says, with a cheeky laugh.

After meeting a talented piano-accordion player, they performed as a duo for almost 10 years, playing Italian, Spanish and English songs at the Bankstown Sports Club restaurant, as well as entertaining at retirement villages and weddings, birthdays and other celebrations.

“This was the best time of my life,” Antonino remembers.  

He also produced a series of CDs of his music, with the last one named La Vita è Bella which translates to ‘life is beautiful’.  

Although he no longer performs at the sports club, he still sings at home, turning up the amplifier to belt out his favourite Dean Martin and Elvis Presley tunes. The lyrics are still embedded in his brain after all these years. 

At 88 years of age, Antonino’s body has experienced a fair bit of wear and tear. A machinery accident resulted in loss of movement in his left hand, and he’s also had major spinal surgery. 

Antonino Emmi

“I’ve got two bolts in my spine. I’ve had a knee and a hip replacement. I’m like a robot!” he jokes.  

For the past few years, Antonino has received support through the Commonwealth Home Support Programme, with services delivered by Australian Unity. This has enabled him to remain living independently in his home in Yagoona, Sydney. 

“Sometimes I can’t walk very far because my leg is in pain. I can’t bend down anymore, I have someone come to clean the house. They’re really good people, just wonderful people,” Antonino says. 

When asked about the secret to living a long life, he attributes his longevity to good genes. His oldest brother (who still lives in Rome) will be 100 in May, his other brother is in his 90s and his sister passed away at the age of 97. Astonishingly, he didn’t see his sister for almost half a century after she migrated to Argentina when he was young. 

“After 48 years I went to visit her in Argentina. Imagine what it meant to me! After a very long time, it was incredible to see her,” Antonino says.

Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.