As a fiction author, people often ask me where the inspiration for my stories comes from. I love to write about women who struggle, who overcome adversity through grace, whose lives are transformed by an encounter with the living God—imperfect people on a journey to being made perfect by Christ, though their circumstances may not change. The characters in my books, so far, have come from my imagination. But one day I will write the compelling story of one such person who was very real in my life—my Nonna.
My maternal grandmother Pierina, celebrating in heaven, has been with Jesus for fifty-seven years. She was a true survivor—a woman who experienced being left behind when, as a young bride, her husband sailed for America seeking a better life for his family. After his leaving, she gave birth for the first time, and then endured a tragic mishap in which her beautiful firstborn infant was severely burned. She travelled across the sea to an unknown place with only her scarred daughter at her side. In her new home she faced a life of religious persecution, as well as long-term personal illness. Yet she was a woman whose devotion to the Lord never wavered.
One of the joys of my life is visiting the little northern Italian village, nestled among olive groves high up in the Apennine Mountains, where my maternal grandparents were born, grew up, and married before emigrating to America. A short lane connects their two families’ farmhouses. In between them stands a small, now-abandoned vine-clad house of ancient, mellowed stone where my grandparents lived as newlyweds. How full my heart felt as I first walked over that threshold! I pictured them as a young couple in the first blush of matrimony, with all their hopes and dreams…before their brave, separate journey across a wide ocean to a strange land where all was unknown. Within those aged walls, did they speak of their fears as they prepared to leave their homeland, certain they’d never see their parents again? What kind of courage did that require? What words did they use to comfort and reassure one another? I wondered. I could see, in my mind’s eye, my grandmother stirring a pot of freshly handmade pasta as my grandfather stoked the fire—their last meal together before parting. I could even hear the crackling of the firewood, smell the slight woodsmoke…
But life for my grandmother would be much different than that idyllic picture. After stepping on American soil at Ellis Island in 1923, she would make her way, pioneer-like, to the Chicago area, joining her husband and settling in among extended family. A mother of three daughters, life during the Great Depression would be difficult. She would be invited to a prayer meeting in the home of a friend, where she would be introduced to a new spiritual reality, discovering a life she’d never thought possible, through a dynamic, personal relationship with Christ. The joy of the Lord she would know would come at a great price: being ostracized by her family of a different faith. She humbly poured out her love on them and on my unbelieving grandfather, even though her prayer time would have to be done behind the locked bathroom door, her devoted study of God’s word secretly enjoyed in the coal cellar, threatened when her Bible was burned repeatedly, her church attendance in clandestine fashion. A medical mistake meant she would suffer physically for the rest of her life. Yet—yet—she knew the inexplicable peace of God, and was a bold witness and shining example of a godly woman who clung to her faith despite great adversity. She shared what little she had, feeding homeless strangers as she told them how much Jesus loved them.
Years later, after becoming a widow, she lived with my family until her death. My early childhood memories of Nonna are colored with hearing her fervent prayers for the least and the lost during her daily devotion time—always in Italian, always out loud, now—and her singing worship choruses in that lovely language. These images remain with me, along with a few rustic artifacts, which I was delighted to bring back with me from my visits to that little stone house on the family farm in Italy. Now I treasure and display them in my own home, because they connect me with that place and time. My grandmother’s Italian Bible sits on my desk. But what I treasure most is my rich spiritual heritage from Nonna, the first Christ-follower in my lineage. I envision her now, in heaven singing with the angels…
Come bello camminare/con Gesu, nostro signore...
“How beautiful to walk with Jesus, our Savior…”
There was much that was not beautiful in Nonna’s life, but her profound joy despite her circumstances continues to inspire me. I have come to realize that, here at my keyboard, she is a part of everything I write. My desire to tell the redemption story in my books is a fruit of her legacy in me. Perhaps, because of what she endured, I am more deeply touched by the plight of the countless women across the globe who live in fear and bondage. Perhaps, by God's grace, as I strive to make known their plight, as I work to expand the feminine voice with my words, Nonna's soft voice, in her small circle of influence, can become louder and larger in me. The strength of her walk lets me know that I can be strong, her courage shows me I can be bold. How she lived encourages me to try to live in that same kind of faithfulness to God through the struggles of my life, reflecting the love of Jesus, to give like He gave, to be a woman of the Word even when it’s challenging. To relentlessly pursue a godliness that will spill over into my writing, telling the beauty of walking with Jesus, even when life is hard.