The following post was actually written a few years ago, but I couldn’t think of anyone other than my wife’s grandma–her nona–who has lived a life more personally inspiring to me. I’m posting this again because, while nonni doesn’t suffer from any afflictions other than extreme old age (she’s now 102!), there’s a show on the A&E Network, Born This Way, which chronicles the lives of folks with Down Syndrome. They face life one day at a time like the rest of us, yet often with more joy de vivre than those of us the world terms “normal.” Why is that? How are they able to overcome when starting with the deck seemingly stacked against them? Watch Born This Way every Tuesday night on A&E to find hope, encouragement, and inspiration.
I can think of no living woman stronger than my wife’s grandmother. We call her “Nonni.”
Nonni was born in a poor Sicilian village in the early part of the last century. She was part of a large family, and learned early the value of hard work. Being one of the younger children, she also learned early the sadness of loss: an older sibling was killed in South America (where he had emigrated), and her own father apparently died when she was about ten. Nevertheless, she pressed on, helped her mother provide for the family.
As hard as things were in America during the Great Depression, imagine living, and marrying, in what were arguably third-world conditions during that time. Yet that’s what Nonni did. She met and married her husband, kept animals, and I believe farmed on another’s land, in the middle 1930s.
Somewhere in the midst of that, they started their family. And sometime during that period, Nonni left Catholicism for the Italian Pentecostal church. One did not do that at that time. Though I don’t know with certainty, she may have been labelled apostate–everyone knew there was only one true church (not a slam against our dear Catholic brothers and sisters–it was just the culture of the day). Even her own husband kicked her out of their house.
But she, with love and grace, eventually won him over.
They had another child. And sometime not long after, her husband was conscripted into Il Duce’s army. She did what she had to to provide for their children–including being a wet-nurse for others’ babies. She grew food, made pasta, made clothing, and made do with whatever she was able to make (combined with whatever meager soldier’s salary her husband was able to send home–if any at all).
She went long periods of not knowing whether her husband was still living, or not, but all the while praying for his safety. (While I can conceptualize, I can’t really quite imagine the privations she, and millions of other Europeans, endured during World War II).
Eventually, the war ended, Il Duce was deposed, and Nonni’s husband returned to her. They had another child. They had twins who didn’t survive long after birth.
At nearly forty, she had her first hospital birth–via c-section–of their last child.
When she was forty-one, Nonni and her family sold all their earthly possessions, and headed to America. Initially, she was told that not all of them would be allowed to go. She didn’t accept this answer, instead prayed to God that He would make a way. And He did.
But can you imagine leaving behind all you knew–your culture, your friends–for a strange land where you didn’t even speak the language? Can you imagine reinventing yourself in your forties?
Nonni did it. And through hard work, sacrifice, and faith, did it, and prospered.
In the fullness of time, she saw her children apply that same grit, and faith, and make their way in the United States. Grandchildren, and eventually great-grandchildren, were born.
But it hasn’t all been wine and roses; no, she has seen innumerable friends and family members pass on from here to the hereafter. She has buried a husband, and two of her children. Yet her faith remains strong.
You see, it is because of her faith that I am here to write this today. Because she, at some time in the thirties, “found Jesus,” and told her family about Him, that I heard from her granddaughter. And believed. And subsequently married that granddaughter. Yes, God could have raised up someone else to tell me the “Good News,” but He didn’t–He started with a poor Sicilian woman in a place not many in the world have heard of.
Because of Him, Nonni is my spiritual ancestor. I will be forever grateful for her. I also owe her a word of thanks for the svelte figure I’m rockin’ these days–because she taught my wife how to cook! 😉
Though Nonni is now old and frail in body, she is sharp of mind and undiminished in spirit. And still tells all who will listen about Jesus, and what He has done for her.
Nonni: a stronger woman who can find?
Who has been a “Nonni” in your life?
Who inspires you?