Real Life

Two families, one promise

How a kind deed eased a mother’s heartbreak.

The image of a dark-haired Italian girl kneeling to put flowers in a jam jar at her baby daughter’s grave will stay with Liz Lawrence until her dying day.

While this beautiful gesture was made by someone Liz didn’t even know, it led to a solemn vow that has now been honoured for 40 years – and forged a bond between two families living 18,000km apart. “Out of grief, something beautiful happened,” says Liz, 66, a retired teacher from Auckland.

Her poignant story of heartache and happiness began in Nerviano, Italy. Liz was holidaying in the picturesque town for three months with her then-husband, an older Italian named Mimmo Punturiero, and their two children Davide and Susanna.

“I had a premonition something bad would happen in Italy,” recalls Liz. “We never should have gone.”

Indeed, just a few weeks into their holiday, little Susanna came down with a fatal bout of gastroenteritis. Within a matter of days, the “beautiful, merry little girl” had passed away.

“When the doctors came to tell me my baby was dead, my heart turned to ice. I just felt cold. My heart ached – I can still recall the feeling,” Liz says.

Liz was buried in Nerviano’s graveyard, with a lock of her mother’s hair and her bunny soft toy from back home in New Zealand. During the eight weeks that followed, Liz visited her daughter’s grave every day, knowing she would soon have to return to Kiwi shores.

“Leaving Susanna was unthinkable – it was like leaving a part of me buried in Nerviano,” she says. “But I had Davide to think about and a life I had to try to rebuild back in New Zealand.”

Liz married her Italian husband Mimmo at 18.

On her last visit to the cemetery, Liz came upon a young girl carefully placing lily of the valley flowers at her daughter’s grave. The girl – an 11-year-old local named Nadia – told Liz that in spring, children from the village put wildflowers on the graves of dead children.

“It touched my heart. I thought it was beautiful. On impulse, I said to her, ‘I am going back to New Zealand and I don’t know if I will ever come back. Will you visit my daughter, give her a kiss and maybe flowers?’”

The young girl solemnly promised Liz she would, and the grieving Kiwi mum thought that would be the last of the matter. However, twelve years later, Liz (now remarried with two more sons, Ben and Sam) received a letter from Nadia in the post.

The letter read, “Do you remember me? I am Nadia, the girl who made the promise at your daughter’s grave. I have visited your daughter every week. I have just been married and have taken Susanna my wedding bouquet because she will never have her own.”

Touched by Nadia’s “incredible loyalty”, Liz wrote back and the pair formed a very special friendship, with Nadia even naming her own baby daughter Susanna. Finally, in 1997, Liz, her second husband Bevan and their sons visited Nadia and baby Susanna in Nerviano. It was the first time Liz had returned to Italy in 21 years. “It was like finally meeting my best friend,” Liz smiles. “It was very emotional.”

And earlier this year, Nadia called Liz, who now has five grandchildren, to ask if her daughter Susanna Carofiglio, 26, could live with them for a year to experience Kiwi life.

Pictured: Susanna’s grave (right) and the “beautiful, merry little girl” as a baby (right).

She said, “I have been looking after your daughter’s grave for nearly 40 years. Now it’s your turn to look after my daughter.” Liz’s answer was, “Of course.”

Wrapping her arms around Susanna, 26, who arrived in January, Liz tells, “My daughter is Nadia’s daughter and hers is mine.”

Adding that Nadia still visits the grave every week, Liz smiles, “There is a link between our families that cannot be broken. It is a promise kept for 40 years and a link of faithfulness.”

Liz with her second husband Bevan and Italian Susanna.

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