November 14, 2015

It Took a Tough Woman to Make a Tender Home

Maria Carmela with her son Tony Curci
and his step father Tony DiNapoli
By Cookie Curci
Our Santa Clara Valley is known the world over as Silicon Valley, where high-tech companies spring up overnight and blossom and grow to unbelievable heights.
But long before the computer companies began to grow, the Santa Clara Valley was known for something else—fruit. Thousands of acres of fruit trees flourished and the valley was the nation's leading grower of prunes, apricots, walnuts and cherries; and it was in the shade of these trees that my own family flourished.
My grandmother Maria Carmela came to this area from the town of Tricarico, Italy. The daughter of a tight-knit Italian family, she and her siblings came to America after her parents had both died of influenza. Rather than face life in the town orphanage, the children pooled their money and boarded a ship for America. Maria Carmela dreamed of starting her own family, having her own children to love and care for in the same way that she had felt loved. Her dreams of the family she would soon start kept her going on the long sea voyage from Italy, through the processing center at Ellis Island, and as she traveled by train across her strange new country to California.
Days after arriving on these shores, she stepped off the train at the Southern Pacific depot in San Jose, and into her new life.
A prearranged marriage awaited her. Although she and her intended husband, Antonio Curci, had never before laid eyes on one another, when they finally did meet it was love at first sight. The newlyweds settled into the poorer section of town, in a roomy wood-frame house that struck Maria as a palace. So many wonderful rooms—she and Antonio could fill them with children!
The few years after their marriage passed quickly—two children arrived and Maria and Antonio both proudly received their American citizenship papers. But their happiness together was not meant to last. While working on the railroad lines, Antonio contracted pneumonia. Only 32 years old, the strapping young man couldn't believe that a mere chest cold could have such dire consequences.
When he died, Maria sat in shock next to his coffin in their living room, her belly swollen with their third child. Well-meaning friends and relatives sat down next to her, anxious to help her in her grief. Each one had the same suggestion: "Why don't you give Rosie and Rocco to me for a while? Just until your life settles down." 
Or, more frightening still: "Maria, you can't manage with all of these children and no money. You will have to send the two older children to an orphanage."
But without Antonio, her children were all she had left. She had no money, no insurance, no job and a large pile of bills. But she had the children she'd so longed for and wanted, and one more on the way. She would survive.
The Santa Clara Valley's main industry was fruit-growing, harvesting, packing and shipping fruit all over the world. Large packing plants and canneries employed thousands of people; surely there would be a job for her, too. But my grandmother soon learned that despite the appearance of abundance, jobs were scarce. All over the valley, men were working double shifts to support large families. It was only natural, in the thinking of the time, that they received preferential treatment over women. Wherever Maria went, the answer was always the same for a woman: "No work available."
With her savings depleted, her children suffering from influenza and the loan officer from the bank due to evict her any day, she made one last attempt to find work at a canning plant near her home. She'd been turned away dozens of times before, but on this day she knew that it was her last chance to save her children, her last chance to keep them all together as a family.
Carefully closing the door of her beloved American house behind her, she set out down the road to the Del Monte cannery with a new resolve, a prayer in her heart and her rosary beads in her hand.
That day, a brand-new foreman was on the job. Maria told him of her plight and he took sympathy. Antonio DiNapoli saw the bright spark of determination in her eyes, and he found her a place in his line of cannery workers.
Cannery work was laborious and tiring. In the winter, an icy chill crept in through the cracks and crevices of the old brick building. In the summer, workers sweltered from the noisy machinery's steam and heat. But Maria worked on. She earned five cents for every bucket of tomatoes she peeled, but it was enough to pay her debts, feed her three children and keep her family together.
The new foreman, a widower with six children, was moved by Maria's determination and motherly loyalty. In time their friendship grew into love and they married. More children arrived, bringing the total between them to 11. Tony and Maria purchased a fruit orchard in Almaden, and raised their big family and grew prolific crops of prunes in the rich soil of the valley.
Throughout her life, Grandma Maria Carmela Curci-DiNapoli held on tightly to the dream she'd sought as a young girl arriving in America. With faith and tenacity, she hung on tightly to her children as well. She worked to make her dream a reality for herself, her children and her grandchildren.

Contact Cookie Curci at