Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Special Lady

I write this post in honor of a very special lady who would have been 110 years old today were she still alive.  On February 10, 1903, Antonia Longo was born in the small town of Torre Faro, just outside of Messina in Sicily.  I am not sure what life in southern Italy was like back then, but I am told that Messina used to be a thriving city, certainly well positioned as a major seaport on the strait that bears its name.  That was before 1908, when a major earthquake leveled the city which, though since rebuilt, is nothing like its former self.

The earthquake had to have a lasting impression on Antonia, as it left her trapped in the rubble for a few days before help arrived.  I wonder how formative that traumatic experience must have been to her, as it seemed to set the tone for the many things through which she would have to persevere later in life.

She was around seventeen years old when she married Nicola Ruello who, born in 1886, was practically twice her age at the time.  Their marriage soon produced two children:  Joe was born in 1922 and Rose in 1927.   Nicola was not home much, as he often traveled to the United States in search of better opportunities, sending money home to his family.  This was not uncommon, and women like Antonia were often referred to as “American widows”. On one of his trips home in 1929, Nicola and Antonia conceived a third child, Angela.  They may not have known that Angela was on her way when Nicola departed again on a very ill timed trip to the United States.

Antonia's three children, circa 1931, left to right, Joe, Angela and Rose. 

The stock market had just crashed.  The U.S. and much of the world were entering into the Great Depression.  Between the prolonged economic downturn and the subsequent hostilities of World War II, it would be sixteen years before Nicola and Antonia would see each other again, and sixteen years before Angela would meet her father for the first time.  During that time, Antonia endured even greater trials without the support of a husband.  In 1933, Rose became very ill and, due to a misdiagnosis, ended up dying in her mother’s arms at the tender age of six.  Antonia also lost her mother and her mother-in-law within a short span of time.  A few years later, her son Joe—now a young man--managed to join his father in the United States, only to end up serving in the U.S. army.  To add to her many other woes, Antonia now had to worry about her oldest son being in harm’s way. 

Aided only by a support network of extended family, Antonia was left to raise Angela by herself.  Above and beyond the relative poverty of southern Italy, they had to endure the shortages and rationing caused by the war.  As the war heated up around the Strait of Messina, Antonia, Angela and the extended family had to flee their homes up into the mountainous countryside.  Once it was clear that the Allies were in control of the area and had routed the Germans, they returned home, only to find it bombed, the second time in Antonia’s life that her home was leveled.  With no other choice but to carry on, Antonia and Angela persevered past the end of the war until 1946, when they were finally able to join the rest of their family in America.

As if to crown and reward Antonia for her faith and perseverance, the reunion in America produced yet a fourth child.  Born to Nicola and Antonia in their later years, Lillian was all the more precious to them, and they lovingly referred to her  as "a figghiola" (the little girl), even after she became an adult.

Antonia Longo Ruello is one of my heroes.  She was also my grandmother (and Angela was my mom).  Her perseverance and faithfulness through adversity have always been an inspiration to me.  She was also a very godly woman, and I have no doubt that her faithfulness and perseverance were the fruit of a genuine faith in the Savior.

In the Apostles’ Creed there is a reference to believing in “the communion of saints”, the idea that there is a mystical union among all  the saints of the church, both living and dead.  While Protestants and Catholics may have different ideas as to exactly what that means, I am feeling a special closeness to my Nonna Antonia today.  This is partly because  I loved her dearly and continue to be inspired by her, but also because I had the privilege of sharing a birthday with her, and today she would be exactly twice my age.    

Celebrating a birthday with my nonna.
Buon compleanno, Nonna.  Ti voglio tanto bene.