A WWII Memory: Grandma’s Five Sons Come Safely Home From the War
Through the years, I’ve discovered bits and pieces of the past that when put all together, make up my extraordinary grandmother Maria Carmela Curci-Dinapoli. I knew that she came to this country as a young immigrant from Italy and married my grandfather Antonio Curci in 1910.
A few years later, she was widowed with three children. I had heard family stories of how Grandma had struggled to find work, to pay her debts and to keep her family together during those difficult years. In all of these stories, one fact remained prominent- Grandma’s deep religious devotion guided her through each problem and task. It was that same devotion that gave her strength to complete the long journey from an orphanage in Tricarico, Italy to the shores of New York harbor, through the interrogation process at Ellis Island and on to California. It was with that same devotion and unwavering belief that she raised her family and built a new life for herself in America. It’s what sustained her all those years.
But it was only recently that I would discover yet another missing piece to Grandma’s past that would help me know her just that much better. My memories of Grandma begin on an Almaden ranch in the heart of California’s prune country during W.W.II. By then, she had married her second husband, Grandpa Tony Dinapoli, and had settled into rural ranch life, raising a family of seven boys and one girl.
World War II had recently been declared. On the surface, there appeared to be little change in Grandma’s ranch. Grandpa worked the fields and orchards every day, just as he had done before and grandma tended to the chores and harvesting as usual. But in fact, there had been a big change in the old homestead. The ranch was now without the manpower of their five youngest sons, who were now on active military duty somewhere in the Pacific. Both Grandpa and Grandma would have to work twice as hard now to compensate for the absence of their five strong sons.
During World War II, a government issued flag, imprinted with five blue stars, hung in the front window of my grandparents’ old farm house. It meant that five of their sons were off fighting in the war. If one of these flags was imprinted with a gold star, it meant the husband or son of that family had paid the full measure of devotion to his country.
Without the boys to work the land, the ranch was shorthanded. Grandma worked doubly hard now to harvest a bountiful fruit crop. During that time, every member of the family pitched in to help, including grand kids like myself. Even so, it was a difficult time for Grandma: rationing was in effect, there was little money for luxuries, and worst of all there was the constant worry over whether her five sons would come home safely to her. The old ranch was a lovely place, especially in the spring when the orchards were white with plum blossoms and the song of the meadowlarks filled the fields and rolling hills of the surrounding valley. It was this beautiful ranch and returning to grandma and grandpa that their five sons had focused on all during the war years.
In the summertime, while the rest of the family harvested the prune crop, Grandma was in the kitchen cooking up delicious fine Italian dinners. We would all sit on blankets spread out on the orchard ground, enjoying not just the wonderful food, but also the satisfaction of being a part of such an important family effort.
To encourage the ripe fruit to fall, Grandpa used a long wooden pole with an iron hook at the top to catch a branch and shake the prunes loose from the trees. Then the rest of us would crawl along, wearing knee pads that grandma had sewn into our overalls and gather the plums into metal buckets. We dumped the buckets of plums into long wooden trays, where the purple little plums were soon sun-dried into rich, brown prunes. After a long, hard day I would walk hand-in-hand with Grandpa through the orchards while he surveyed what had been accomplished that day.
I’d enjoy eating fresh plums off the trees, licking the sweet stickiness from my fingertips. On each of these walks, Grandpa would stoop down and pick up a handful of soil, letting it sift slowly and lovingly through his strong work-calloused hands. Then with pride and conviction he would invariably say: “If you take good care of the land, the land will take good care of you.” It was this respect and belief in the soil that helped to bolster his generation. As dark came on the ranch, we’d all gather together on the cool, quiet verandah of the front porch.
Grandpa would settle comfortably into his rocker,under the dim glow of a flickering moth-covered light bulb, and there he’d read the latest war news in his newspaper, trying to track the whereabouts of his five young sons. Grandma always sat nearby on the porch swing, swaying back and forth and saying her perpetual rosary. The quiet squeak of grandma’s swing and the low mumbling of her prayers could be heard long into the night. The stillness of the quiet ranch house painfully reflected the absence of the five robust young men. This was the hardest part of the day for Grandma; the silence of the empty house was a painful reminder that her sons were far, far away, fighting for their country. On Sunday morning Grandma was back out on the porch, again, repeating her rosary before going into the kitchen to start cooking. Then she and grandpa sat at the kitchen table, counting out ration slips for the week ahead and what little cash there was to pay the bills.
Once they were finished, Grandma always took a portion of her money and put it in the sugar crock, placing it high on the kitchen shelf. I often asked her what the money in the jar was for. She would simply say, “A very special favor.”
Well, the war finally ended, and all five of Grandma’s sons came home remarkably safe and sound. After a while, Grandma and Grandpa retired, and the family farm became part of a modern expressway. I never did find out what the money in the sugar crock was for … until a week or so before last Christmas. Completely on impulse, perhaps feeling the wonder of the Christmas season and the need to connect with its spiritual significance, I stopped at a little church I just happened to be driving past. I’d never been inside before, and as I entered the church through the side door, I was stunned to come face to face with the most glorious stained- glass window I’d ever seen. I stopped to examine the intricate beauty of the window more closely.
The magnificent stained-glass depicted the Holy Mother and child. Like an exquisite jewel, it reflected the glory of the very first Christmas. As I studied every detail of its fine workmanship, I found, to my utter amazement, a small plaque at the base of the window that read, “For a favor received – donated in 1945 by Maria Carmela Curci-Dinapoli.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was reading Grandma’s very words! Every day. as Grandma had said her prayers for her soldier-sons, she’d also put whatever money she could scrape together into her sacred sugar crock to pay for the window.
Her quiet donation of this window had been her way of saying thank you to God for sparing the lives of her beloved five sons. The original church in which the window was placed had long ago been torn down. Through the generations, the family had lost track of its existence. Finding this window at Christmas time, more than half a century later, not only brought back a flood of precious memories, but also it made me a believer in small but beautiful miracles.