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When the neighborhood “Nonna” dies, mourning is just not the same

Pasqualina Lucchetti, known as "Nonna" to all in her deeply Italian neighborhood in Newton, died at the age of 90 on Wednesday.
Pasqualina Lucchetti, known as "Nonna" to all in her deeply Italian neighborhood in Newton, died at the age of 90 on Wednesday.

In the deeply Italian Newton neighborhood known as “The Lake," where funerals for elders traditionally draw hundreds, mourning a woman who was a “Nonna” to all was muted Saturday by COVID-19.

For decades Pasqualina Lucchetti would walk down the block on Saturdays to get her hair done and pick up fresh bread — no matter what the weather was. But on this Saturday, plans for a procession of cars to honor her had to be canceled, according to family and community members.

Lucchetti was 90 when she died Wednesday of COVID-19 after being infected in a nursing home, according to her son, Newton’s fire chief, Gino Lucchetti.

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“Everybody called her Nonna,” said Joanne Pellegrini, 71, sister-in-law of the fire chief and an organizer of the planned procession, using the Italian word for grandmother.

When Pellegrini heard the news about Lucchetti’s death, she began going through her phone book, beginning with the letter “A," just as members of her community had always done when an elder passed.

The number of people who wanted to participate quickly ballooned.

By Friday, worried about too large a crowd forming outside the fire chief’s house, Pelligrini began the laborious and painful process of canceling it, going through her phone book again, again beginning with the letter “A,” she said in a phone interview Saturday.

“Even though it would be about respect, it could be a bad thing,” Pellegrini said, in consideration of the spread of COVID-19. “We had people coming from I don’t know where.”

Normally, crowds would turn out to show respect to an older generation — 2,000 people came to Pellegrini’s mother’s funeral, she said. There would be a dayslong wake, a funeral procession, the placing of flowers on the casket. Then, a big Italian meal to reminisce, to share pictures, and embrace.

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But on Good Friday, Lucchetti was buried with just 11 family members in masks joining the undertaker, a week after being diagnosed with the virus, her son said in a phone interview. While there was no ceremony, firefighters lined sections of the route to the cemetery to honor her.

Lucchetti was among a dwindling number of the Italian immigrants who made “The Lake” what it was, an older generation that helped carry on the traditions of the old country.

Born in 1930, in Fontana Liri, Italy, a little town southeast of Rome, Lucchetti lived for decades in Nonantum, raising a family of four, then caring for 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, according to a relative, Eddie Gourdeau-Pellegrini, who posted a remembrance on the neighborhood’s Facebook group.

“She was your typically Italian grandmother, mother, aunt, neighbor,” said Franco Battista, 50, Lucchetti’s grandnephew. “She was always there for everybody else, very family-oriented,” he said.

According to Teresa Gentile Sauro, 68, the self-described “godmother” of the Lake, Lucchetti was one of the last matriarchs of Nonantum. Of the older generation, there are fewer than 20 remaining, said Sauro, a longtime neighbor.

She remembered Lucchetti in the thick of the neighborhood’s traditions. A video from 1998 showed Lucchetti at the front of the annual St. Mary of Carmen Society parade, which is scheduled for July and is in jeopardy for the first time in 86 years, due to the virus.

“So many people in this community in our Lake area, all people of the ‘festa’ and they’re all gone,” Sauro said. “You watch the video and your heart is breaking. This will be a hard Easter for all of us.”

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Lucchetti, whose first name meant “child of Easter,” used to host a big family lunch in the backyard for the holiday, whipping up the traditional ciambelle — “like a Jewish bagel, with aniseed” — frittatas, and Easter breads, she said.

Her food was one of the things Lucchetti was known for. “When you went to the house you were going to be fed,” remembered Chuck Proia, a Newton firefighter who grew up in the neighborhood.

“I know her sauce was something that the chief talked about a whole lot,” he said with a laugh. “The only sauce that he would eat was his mother’s.”

But her significance to the community was so much broader than that, said Proia, who organizes the annual St. Mary of Carmen Society Festival.

“It’s one less person that can help keeping those traditions going, one less person that has that connection to the past," he said in a phone interview.

She was a pillar of the community with houses so close together, as the joke went, you would ask for someone to pass the salt at dinner and a neighbor would pass it through the window, he said. The neighborhood is so tight knit — it even has its own slang.

“We’re used to coming together as a community, celebrating lives, celebrating family,” he said. “We all were always there to bring food to the family, taking care of what needed to be taken care of in time of need.

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“Right now you can’t do that and it’s cruel.”

In an interview in the late 1990s, posted on the neighborhood’s Facebook page, Lucchetti was asked about how the neighborhood’s Italian community should be remembered in the future if it ever fades.

“It should be remembered very good,” she said in a pronounced Italian accent, as she sat at a kitchen table and looked hard at her teenage interviewer.

“If it be a change, we’ll be missed.”


Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com.