Saving History - Remembering Nicolena "Lil" Abate

I often talk about the past of the Italian American Community of Northeast Ohio and the work that I do within the community and at the Western Reserve Historical Society to assure that it is preserved in the Italian American Collection. The history of the community, though represented through “things” in the collection, is really about the people who are and were a part of the community.

When we lose a community member, we lose their memories and experiences. And the community forever changes from their absence. As a reminder that the past is about people, my next two columns will focus on recent losses in the Italian American Community. Preserving the stories of individuals is just as important as preserving the material items they leave behind. I hope that learning a bit about their lives will give you a deeper understanding of the character of Italian Americans and the special ways people affect those around them.

Nicolena T. "Lil" Palumbo Abate (1925-2018) was the daughter of Italian immigrants Nicholas and Jennie Palumbo and grew up on Burnside Ave. in the Italian neighborhood of Collinwood. She had two younger sisters, Theresa and Josephine. Lil married Joseph F. Abate, from Cleveland’s Little Italy, in 1946 and together they had four children, Joseph, Donald, Sharon, and Celeste. She was a grandmother and great-grandmother to eight. Lil’s granddaughter, Lindsey Fischer, wrote this remembrance of her.

She was called Lil, but if you knew her, then you knew she was anything but – though physically she had always been tiny, her presence filled every room she entered. She was the beating heart of our family.

Lil was born June 29th, 1925 in Cleveland. Her family was originally from the Campobasso province of Italy, as her father came from the town of Gildone and her mother from Ferrazzano. Even though she never lived in Italy, she was always involved in the Cleveland Italian community. From being a Collinwood Railroader to living in Little Italy with her husband, Joseph Abate, she never forgot her heritage and she made sure her family never forgot either. She was the queen of pizzelle and always ensured we celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes. No wedding was complete without the tarantella and her sauce and meatball recipes were held sacred. She was proud of being Italian; she passed down those cultural traditions to her children and her grandchildren.

Italians are known for their loquaciousness and Nicolena was no exception. She was a born story-teller and held the records of our family history within her spoken tales. You could always hear her voice spinning across the room, laughing and exchanging stories with her sisters, Theresa and Josephine, and with anyone who would sit and listen. She would speak of my grandfather’s adventures as a radio operator during WWII, her own work at General Electric, how she sewed her own wedding dress, how my grandfather declared she was the girl he would marry on the same day they met, and scores of stories about the people who came before us and shaped our family. 

My grandmother did more than just talk, though, – she was an ever-moving force of nature. She loved to travel with my grandfather and especially enjoyed visiting Cedar Point every summer. And, she was well-known for her passion for dancing. This was the secret to my grandma’s and grandpa’s long and happy marriage. They would go to the Palace Theater in downtown Cleveland to listen to the bands and would dance to their favorite song “What A Wonderful World.” We would marvel at how she savored life like we savored ever bite of her made-from-scratch manicotti.

When she passed, you could tell how great she truly was because of the enormity of the void she left behind and the number of lives she touched with her kindness. There was even one woman who attended her wake after only meeting Nicolena twice – that was the power of my grandmother’s spirit.

My grandmother was the laughing, speaking, dancing center of any family event. Through her words, she held our family together and kept alive the legends of past generations. And, whenever we share her stories now, we hear her voice speaking with us and feel her spirit more alive than ever.