My Nonni From Abruzzo – Lily Lapenna

The characteristics historically used to define the Abruzzesi are ‘forte e gentile’ (strong & kind), a description first penned by the C19th Italian journalist Primo Levi. But this defining blend of strength & kindness exists to this day, and the reach of its charm exceeds well beyond the borders of Abruzzo, a testament to how far & wide the people of Abruzzo have travelled the world to provide for their families.

In this, the first of a new series, put together with the help of journalist Raffaella Cartledge, we take a look at the Nonni (grandparents) through the eyes of their grandchildren whose futures they helped to determine.

Lily Lapenna MBE grew up in Italy, London and the US. Her mother’s parents were from Abruzzo and her father is half Abruzzese. She is the founder of the social enterprise, MyBnk which empowers young people to take charge of their future by teaching them how to handle their money and to set up their own enterprises. Since 2007, it has helped over 175,000 young people in more than 800 UK schools and youth organisations, and now works internationally in countries such as Italy, Turkey and Uganda.

Peppino and Lea Marcozzi, Teramo

Nonno Peppino, my mother’s dad was born in 1920 in Teramo. His wife Nonna Lea, was born in 1923 and was originally from Penne, in the province of Pescara.

Nonno Peppino was a lawyer. From the start of his career, he decided to use his skills as a lawyer to support those less fortunate. He mostly worked pro bono and he was driven by such a strong sense of social responsibility. His clients were farmers who had issues with their land-owner, or ‘paesano’ who suffered from mental or physical health conditions.

I learned about his huge social impact from people who came to visit us. He never bragged about what he did.

We became close friends with everyone in the community. He welcomed refugees from Albania who came to Abruzzo after the war, accompanying them on their first steps in rebuilding their lives in Abruzzo.  By using his strong network he was able to help find them homes and jobs.

Both my Nonni became friends with the first Africans merchants who sold goods on the beach in Giulianova. Nonna Lea often invited Ali to our family table. Ali would tell us about his life in Senegal, and every year he would show us pictures of his family. He ignited my curiosity about Africa and it is no coincidence that years later in my early 20s I went to volunteer in Africa and it is where my social work started.

Every Sunday Nonna Lea would take us to visit an elderly disabled lady.   We would spend whole afternoons there. As children, we dreaded the idea of another visit, but Nonna would tell us stories and get us to share them with the old lady and despite her rude manners, we never skipped our visits. Nonna taught me the importance of learning from old people and the true unshakable commitment to their care, even when they seem ungrateful. Nonna often talked about “il valore di un sorriso” (the value of a smile) and it has a contagious power. She had the most beautiful smile.

In their house we felt a sense of joy: Nonno always had funny stories and ‘barzellette’ (jokes) to tell. I laughed so hard and felt that complete sense of happiness that only Grandparents can bring.

Nonno Peppino used to hang out daily with a young ‘paesano’ (country boy) who was disabled and who had learning difficulties. They became good friends and when Nonno passed away, he came to our house and cried uncontrollably, saying he had lost his best friend. My Aunt Daniella said from that day on she would be his best friend, which she is to this day, so Nonno’s legacy lives on…

As per Italian tradition, the day Nonno Peppino passed away, we opened the house for two days. The casket was kept open at home. Hundreds of people knocked at our door to say their last good-bye to Nonno. Farmers came from villages that we did not even know existed, they told us their story of how Peppino had changed their lives for the better.

Nonno is my moral compass. When I don’t know how to respond to one of life’s challenges, to make my decision easier, I simply ask myself how would he have reacted?

If you have an inspiring Nonni story and would like to help us bring ‘forte e gentile’ up-to-date, please do email us with your story.

Sam Dunham
Author: Sam Dunham

Sam is a very lucky midlife 'mamma' to A who is 12 and juggles her work as a self-employed freelance SEO food and travel copywriter and EFL teacher. She is the founder of the Life In Abruzzo Cultural Association, co-founder of Let's Blog Abruzzo. she is the founder of the 'English in the Woods' initiative, teaching English outdoors in a forest style school.

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Mona Paglia Selburn
18 November 2017 10:40

Thank you for this article. My family is from OPI.

Life in Abruzzo
18 November 2017 10:43

Russell Griffiths If you could ask that would be amazing and a brilliant way to help illustrate the influence of the region and its people.

Cindy Pego
18 November 2017 11:56

I Miei Nonni e Mia Mama are from Giulianova. I loved it there when I visited 2 years ago❤️❤️

Anna Pace Atchick
18 November 2017 12:49

Wonderful article! Looking forward to the next! My paternal grandparents were from Pratola Peligna. My father was born there as well. They emigrated to the US in 1949. The best part of my childhood is having my Nonni in it and seeing them every day. Their home was the safest, most loving place I knew. The joy, the comfort of food, the laughter were incomparable. Hearing all the stories of Pratola, and their life there, the family left behind, compari and amici, and the reasons why they left, was the cornerstone of my Abruzzese identity. When I first visited, it was not strange at all and was so familiar from the stories I had heard. Even the dialect was a comforting echo of them. I miss my Nonni every day!!

Life in Abruzzo
18 November 2017 16:48

Anna I think you could elaborate a little more and we include your story, what do you think?

Richard Barbetta
18 November 2017 13:11

thanks for the article, my grandfather was from Ripa Teatina

Barbara Wanat
18 November 2017 14:33

My Grandparents from Turrivalignani.

Mary DiPietro Johnson
18 November 2017 14:19

Thank you for the charming article. My Italian grandparents (Tossicia and Isola de Gran Sasso) both died when my father was quite young so I do not have these memories. But I am noticing so many common traits of people from Abruzzo. Strong and kind, seems to hold true.

Life in Abruzzo
18 November 2017 16:47

That’s done the road from my village! Yes those 2 common traits give a richness to the region which is very refreshing in today’s climate

Sandra Fiaccarini
18 November 2017 15:08

Bellissimo racconto!
Grazie per avere condiviso i tuoi ricordi con tutti noi!❤️

Christina Yocca
18 November 2017 17:05

My grandparents were from Calascio. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. They did not tell me many stories from Italy, but stories of their life on a farm in America before settling in a Pennsylvania mining town.

Angie Tomasetti Barrile
18 November 2017 17:56

Wow…this touched my heart…I’ve always been very proud of my Abruzzese heritage, but this raised it a few notches. Why? Because it not only describes my grandparents, who were born and lived in an area in Teramo, but what astounded me was I felt like I was reading about my Dad! My grandparents came to America in 1913/1914. My Dad was born in 1927, an American born citizen, but the heritage of Abruzzo was woven in his soul. My Dad passed away in 1995 at the too young age of 68. To this day, 22 years after his passing, people still tell my sister and me memories of his endless kindness and generosity. Stories that had he chosen to,we would’ve heard, had he been one to boast. But he was so far from that, the complete opposite. I’m in awe.

Gina Di Tirro
18 November 2017 18:42

Lovely article, my grandparents were from Sulmona, miss you Nonni and Papa Joe.

Toni Palmisano
18 November 2017 19:12

Beautiful article! My grandpa came to America from Pescara when he was a young man. He was the most resourceful and generous person I’ve known. He brought his chitarra with him and as a kid, I would love to sit and watch the pasta being made. The food was amazing. He hosted huge dinners at his house for all holidays with family from Abruzzo attending. I wasn’t lucky enough to have memories from living in Abruzzo, but was lucky enough to have so many great memories with grandpa and family in America.

Hang On To The Vine
18 November 2017 21:52

Good people all around. Great project.

Sonia Simmons-Geery
22 November 2017 16:33

Does the tradition still continue today of having deceased family members in casket at home for people to pay their respect? Or, has it changed to having the deceased loved one shown at a funeral home?

15 June 2023 03:12

For an Italian-American New Yorker whose whole ancestry derives from Chieti, Abbruzo; this website is magnificent.My paternal and maternal grandparents and my father who came to American in 1924. I am forever proud of the faith, customs, traditions and food of my ancestry: PAPA & CANNARSA.

And in my view, Chieti is the most charming city in Italy.

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