Remembering “Big Nonna”

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For the past two months, I have been writing about how we need to talk to our older relatives and learn everything you can, because once they leave us, their memories of those who are long gone will no longer be accessible to us.

That happened on Nov. 3 when our family matriarch, Mary Purpura, finally succumbed to old age just short of 101 years old.

Technically, she was my grandfather’s kid sister. In reality, she was “Big Nonna,” grandmother to practically everyone whose lives she touched, including me.

Why “Big Nonna”? Well, she was mother of 11 children and 23 grandchildren. Then there were the 27 great-grandchildren who already had their own regular Nonnas, so great-grandma became “Big Nonna.” Then there are the 10 great-great-grandchildren. And just a few months ago, baby Giulietta was born, the first great-great-great-grandchild. And beyond that are the step-grandchildren whose single or divorced parent ended up bringing their children along to join this huge menagerie! They are as much “grandchildren” as the blood relatives. Nobody likes to talk about “half-” this or “step-” that. Once you’re in our family, you’re in.

Big Nonna, Aunt Mary, was the strongest person I ever met. Everyone goes through difficult times in life, but when I think of the tragedy she went through, I don’t know how she carried on. She survived three of her grown children, and the premature passing of three of her grown grandchildren. She saw five of her daughters become widows. The topper of it all is that the family home burned down Christmas week of 1979, and the shock of this event caused the deaths of her father-in-law and 42-year-old son-in-law that same week.

If you only know these tragedies, you would think her life was nothing but torment. But the good times far outweighed the bad, despite how much “bad” there was.

The traditional Sunday family meal was a part of our lives for many years. The family was much too big to fit around a large table, so we found room anywhere we could, sitting on the edge of couches, outside on the porch (even in winter), on lawn chairs in the back yard, with a plate full of pasta, meatballs, and whatever else people brought that day. Big Nonna moved out to McHenry in the 1980s, but that did not stop the south-siders and the family from the old “Grand and Ogden” area from heading up to McHenry every Sunday.

We would get together for the children’s birthdays, graduations, communions, baptisms and confirmations, and again, we had to squeeze in wherever we could find room. These parties were at other family homes depending on whose event it was, but we all made it. When we went home, we had a sore throat from projecting our voices in order to be heard! Imagine all those grown adults shouting at the football games on TV and the kids running everywhere!

Despite all the tough times, we were never depressed or morose remembering those who had recently left us. We had a good cry at the wake and funeral, and the next Sunday, we went on. It doesn’t mean we forgot them. It means we looked to the future more than the past.

I have always enjoyed the looks of shock when I describe the family to my friends, or colleagues at work, who have no idea what it’s like to be in a large loving Italian family, and this family in particular. The shock comes from describing the family structure. Example: Mary’s brother Joe (born in 1898) had a son in 1925 who is still alive. Her sister Connie had a son in 1926 who is also still alive. Both are almost 97 years of age. My co-workers are astonished “wait a minute, your aunt has two nephews who are 96?” Yes, and several more in their 80s and 90s. Her youngest child and first grandchild were born only a couple of months apart. And to have a great-great-great granddaughter (yes, that’s three greats!) is beyond most people’s comprehension. To put this in context, the LAST of my great-great-great-grandparents died 62 years before I was born.

I have a cousin who is a great-grandma at 58. Her daughter is a grandma at 38 and has a two year old daughter as well!

People don’t comprehend in the 2020s how families could have 8-12 children, born over 20 years apart. Now in our family, they have two children born 18-20 years apart! Just the idea of having a baby at 40 makes some of my co-workers shudder….

So I get some jollies out of watching their jaws drop to the floor when I describe all this, as though it is second nature (which it is).

I wish I could invite my friends and colleagues to one of our family get-togethers, so they could really see what we are like. One friend worked as a DJ at Big Nonna’s 100th birthday so he got an inside glimpse. But that was at a hall, so it was a little more formal and not a true taste of what we are like at someone’s house.

I spent as many of those parties and Sundays at the table where Nonna held court, Part of it, I grant, was that is was a comfortable place to sit and eat! But most of it was to hear her tell stories. She didn’t just sit there and start “So when I was ten years old …” You had to ask her something that would get her remembering.

I remember in 2002 when the 1930 US Census was released to the public. I found Nonna and her parents and siblings. She was 8 years old at the time. I printed out the pages with all her neighbors, and a few from around the blocks near where she lived. She was reading the names on this cold government document and started to cry, remembering people who lived nearby seven decades earlier. She told a story about each family.

She was a very happy woman who she loved a good cry. Every Mother’s Day, and also on her birthday, the kitchen table would announce to the entire house that Nonna wants to read her cards, and the house would get quiet for the first time that day. She would read these Hallmark loving sentiments and cry for each one. We learned early on not to buy her a wacky card with jokes in it. She wanted to read the card saying how much she was loved, and many of us wrote a note in the card expressing the same thing, perhaps less eloquently. But she loved every second of this ritual and we knew how much it meant to her.

Christmas Eve is coming soon, as I write this. Some of the family will be in the kitchen preparing the seven fishes, and many other dishes. The adults will be in groups of 6 to 8 people, talking about whatever is going on. The kids will be running crazy in anticipation of “Santa’s” visit with their gifts.

And there will be an empty chair at the kitchen table.

Rest in Peace Big Nonna.


About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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