NEWTON — Time means nothing to him now.
At age 98, two-time hurricane survivor Marcel La Nasa said he has learned to count blessings as he continues to play his violin and encourage others to appreciate the small victories of life.
“Life is not easy for me,” said La Nasa, lowering his eyes as he uses his hands to explain.
“It started when I was in New Orleans. … When Katrina came, I lost everything. I had nothing no more.”
“Except your violin,” La Nasa’s caretaker, Elizabeth Wolverton, chimes in. “We were able to save his violin.”
Wolverton said she and her husband met La Nasa 15 years ago in Waveland, Miss., after she became his home health nurse.
She said day after day, he would share stories about his life. He’d talk about his Italian lineage, about how his family worked so that one of his uncles at a time could move from Italy into the U.S. to establish themselves for better opportunities.
Wolverton said La Nasa’s mother, who was told by her family that it was “unlady-like” to become a violinist, trained La Nasa to “live her dreams” by investing into his violin skills.
At age 15, Wolverton said La Nasa performed in Carnegie Hall. She said he received a scholarship to perform in Rome before Italian dictator Benito Mussolini at the age of 24.
She said he was also ordered to perform before Adolf Hitler.
“Not sweet, no,” La Nasa adds.
Wolverton said La Nasa was encouraged by old friends to escape Italy before the possibility of being drafted into the Italian Army. She said German soldiers who robbed other passengers on his way to Paris let him flee to the last ship leaving for America, but the ship was full.
“He begged them to let him on, so they got him on there and stowed him away on a lifeboat and for 13 days he rode, staying sick,” Wolverton said.
“When he got back in the port in New York, he said he got off the ship and kissed the ground and said ‘America is the best country in the world. I’ll never leave again.’”
Wolverton said La Nasa built his career in Mississippi through performances and through education, teaching “all the instruments” to high school students in Mississippi before his retirement.
She said his next two brushes with death took place in two hurricanes. The first was Hurricane Camille in 1969, where Wolverton said La Nasa survived inside the attic of his Waveland residence.
The second was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when both La Nasa and the Wolvertons lost homes in Waveland.
Wolverton said she and her husband had, before the storm, placed inside their vehicle La Nasa’s violin – which dates back to the 17th century – while La Nasa was hopeful he could ride out the storm.
His reunion with the violin may have been just as pleasant as the Wolvertons’ agreement to move him into their home in Alabama after the hurricane instead of into a nursing home.
“He was just a blessing to have around, he and two other women who came with us,” Wolverton said.
“He said he prayed to the Lord for a good Christian woman to come along and I showed up on his doorstep. I’m about 70 years old, so he tries to make it easier on me to care for him. His music is good for the soul.”
Wolverton said she and La Nasa sometimes travel to Walmart or to a restaurant, depending on his strength.
They also go to the Newton Senior Center, where resident Pat Knoblach said she loves to hear La Nasa perform.
“I love music,” she said. “He is good.”
La Nasa, who appears to still enjoy the attention of the women, plays attentively.
When asked his age, he counts a year ahead. He says he is 99, though he won’t be until Jan. 7.
He said his passion for the violin came through his parents and because of the challenge to learn.
“It’s different, it’s hard, and a lot of people can’t play it,” he said. “They try but they can’t. So if you have the facility for it, it’s a very adaptive thing.”