November 21, 2015

The Secret of Grandma's Sugar Crock

Tony DiNapoli and Maria Carmela
By Cookie Curci
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.
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.
During world war II a government-issued flag imprinted with five blue stars hung in the  front room window of my grandparents old farm house, meant that five of their sons were off fighting in the war. without the boys to work the land the ranch was short handed. grandma and grandpa had to work twice as hard to produce a bountiful fruit crop.
During harvest 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, and worst of all there was the constant worry over whether her five sons would come home safely.
The ranch was a lovely place, especially in the spring when the orchards were white with plum blossoms. During the  summer, while we  harvested the prune crop, Grandma cooked up fine Italian lunches. 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 fruit 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.
Maria Carmela, Tony Curci
and Tony DiNapoli
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-callused 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." 
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. Grandma sat nearby on the porch swing, swaying 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, after church, 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 to an old sugar crock, placing it high on the kitchen shelf. I often asked her what the money in the jar was for, but he would only 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.
Cookie with Maria Carmela's ex-voto
I never did find out what the money in that old 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 paused for a minute 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. I had always thought grandma was saving the money to buy herself some much needed new clothes, but in all those years she never wore a new garment or new shoes, and now I know why.
Her quiet donation of this window had been her way of saying thank you to the Holy Mother Mary for sparing the lives of her beloved five sons.
Through the generations, the family had lost track of the window's existence. Finding it now 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.

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