27 January 2023

Griffith's yoga guru and aged-care worker solves her mysterious origin story

| Oliver Jacques
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yoga teacher

Carmela Naseby Pennisi at Riverina Yoga Studio. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Carmela Naseby Pennisi is known in Griffith for providing aged care with flair, having a black belt in karate and her dynamic yoga teaching.

But for all her achievements, there was one mystery that bugged her until she was almost 30.

“When I was a little girl, I noticed my birth certificate said I was born in Blacktown,” she said.

“It seemed suspicious because I grew up in Griffith and my parents were from here. I remember asking my mum about it and she said she had to go there because of complications with the pregnancy. I thought it was a bit strange but I never asked questions, I let it go. I was probably too young to understand the truth behind it.”

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It wasn’t until many years later that Carmela solved the Blacktown mystery. A close friend whispered a long-held family secret in her ear just before she was about to board a plane to go overseas. She was adopted.

“The web of lies people leave always catches up with them in the end,” she said.

“My adoptive parents loved me to death, they smothered me with affection … but I always felt a bit different. What was most upsetting is that everyone knew but me.”

Old photo of little girl

Carmela as a child with an inset of her two sons, Henry and James, when they were young. Photo: Supplied.

Carmela quickly contacted the NSW child protection authorities to find out the identity of her birth parents, whom she had never met.

She managed to track down her birth mother, who lived in Blacktown, meeting her to find out what happened.

While adoption in Australia is now both discouraged and “open”, meaning children need to be told everything about their origin, things were markedly different in the early 1970s.

“I found out about my mum, Wendy … she’d had a child out of wedlock [in 1970], it was really taboo,” Carmela said.

”There was no support [for single mums]. She was very honest … she felt she was not strong enough to raise a child. It would’ve been hard for her, but I was adopted out to an Italian couple from Griffith.

“Back then, you weren’t even allowed to see the child, they just took them away from you.”

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Carmela also connected with her long-lost biological sister, Lynelle, who also resided in Blacktown.

“We met in a park. She had her little son with her and I had my two boys. We hit it off straight away. For two people who have never seen each other, we are so similar. She is into yoga, she had a finance background and she had the same wild, really big hair.”

sisters embracing

Carmela and her long-lost sister, Lynelle. Photo: Supplied.

Raised on a citrus farm by strict parents, Carmela wasn’t allowed to go to university. After school, she landed a job in a bank, working in finance for many years before discovering her true calling.

“I’d been doing yoga since I was 21. I eventually did a diploma in teaching it. I did a volunteer class at Pioneer Lodge [aged care facility] once a week, when they were opening up the Settlers Unit. They asked me if I wanted a job as the activities coordinator.”

She quickly gained a reputation for her flamboyant and dedicated care.

“I do a walking safari, trivia, games and even dancing. I spend time with each person, everyone has a different thing they like to do.”

Carmela took special care of Griffith’s oldest person, Berta Johnstone, who died on 4 January aged 106.

“She liked me to do her hair, apply lipstick and do her make-up every morning.”

Berta’s daughter-in-law Cecilia singled out Carmela for praise just after Berta’s death: “She was just wonderful, she made Nanna up so beautiful for so long.”

mother and daughter

Carmela after being reunited with her birth mum, Wendy. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

After introducing yoga to centenarians, Carmela now offers her own popular class – open to all – every Friday at 9:30 am at the Riverina Yoga Studio. Her classes can be booked via her studio’s Facebook page.

To top it all off, she’s now a martial arts ace too.

“I started doing karate in 2013, when my sons were doing it. I grew up loving the show Monkey Magic, so I thought I’d give it a go. I’ve competed a lot, I’ve won a national championship and I got my black belt in 2021.

“It really teaches you about life, you’ve got to sit in the fear. The waiting is the hardest part, but once you get on the mat, the fear goes.”

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