The way my mother met my father is the stuff of family legend.
It was during the war (World War Two, for you precisionists). Mom worked in a city government office in Naples even though she was just a teenager and had been taken out of school before graduating by her father (not an uncommon experience for Italian girls of that era, whose parents often saw education as wholly superfluous in females).
The Germans had taken great pains to blow up all the bridges in Naples to make American use of the port more difficult. The Americans spanned the river with a narrow military bridge that consisted basically of two gutters in which a driver could line up his wheels; the only bridge open to civilians was several miles upstream.
Neopolitans being who they are, they used the military bridge as a short cut whenever there wasn’t U.S. Army traffic on it.
One foggy morning my mom decided to risk it. Not seeing any headlights, she tried scurrying across as quickly as she could, walking along one of the steel rail gutters like a high wire artist in a circus.
She almost made it.
She was about three-fourths of the way across when she met an American truck traveling in the opposite direction, its headlights shielded to prevent being spotted by German aircraft. The driver stopped abruptly, hurling several choice Anglo-Saxonisms at her, honking his air horn, and encouraging her retreat by nudging her with his bumper (to her dying day Mom remembered how the grease on his bumper ruined her best skirt).
Mom retreated and hurried upstream to the bridge approved for civilian use. Shaken by the incident, she didn’t tell her parents about it.
A few days later the family was shocked when a jeep carrying the truck driver and an Italian civilian interpreter pulled up outside their house. Mom — to use a phrase that became popular two decades later — freaked out, certain she was going to be arrested.
Her father answered the door. The interpreter explained what had happened a few days earlier, that the American soldier driving the truck felt sorry for yelling at her, and since he knew she lived in the neighborhood because he had seen her while driving to and from the port, had come to apologize.
The carton of Camel cigarettes brought as a gift did much to convince my Italian grandfather of my American father’s honorable intentions.
So began a circumspect courtship that lasted until my father was shipped out of Italy before the end of the war to be part of the final push into Germany (my father, being in the transportation corps, never came closer to combat than the occasional air raid. That sounds so nonchalant. What I mean by air raid is the Luftwaffe dropping hundreds of pounds of high explosives on the base where my father was stationed with the intent of killing as many Americans and destroying as much equipment as possible. Puts kind of a different spin on it when you think of it in those terms).
My father’s plan was to go to college, get an education, get a job, come back and marry mom, and live happily ever after.
Fate deemed otherwise.
Dad never completed college, at least not on that go-’round. They carried on a long courtship by mail. They dreamed of a day when they could marry.
In 1950 dad learned the Army was recruiting vets to fill the ranks of the post-war military: Re-enlist and they’d make you a sergeant and guarantee assignment to a post of your choosing.
Dad re-enlisted and got an assignment to Italy.
Two weeks later the Korean War broke out.
Dad never made it to Italy but luckily he avoided Korea (fate had another Dixon tapped for that assignment). This time he saved his money and, when discharged in 1953, bought a ticket for Italy.
They married in February, mom came to America in November, and I was born in December.
I am American by birth, but Neopolitan by conception.
They enjoyed a long and happy life, one blessed by three sons. We moved a lot when growing up; dad as a times study engineer in the textile industry would frequently work himself out of a job by getting a factory to run at peak efficiency, meaning the only superfluous person was him (wuzza times study engineer? Next time the musical Pajama Game plays on TCM, look for the guy in the factory scenes who has a big clock on his belt: That’s the times study engineer and his job was to figure out the fastest way of making a particular garment & budget accordingly).
I learned a lot about marriage from mom and dad, a lot of what it means to be truly committed, truly loving to one person all your life. I trust I’ve put those lessons to good use in my own marriage.
Mom had a cancer scare when we were living in Tennessee. The night before her operation she told my father that if anything should happen to her, he should remarry.
Mom came through the surgery just fine, but a day or so after coming home one of the internal stitches broke. Not a big deal as we later learned, but at the moment it sent a sharp, piercing pain through her chest.
This time mom really thought she was dying. Even though she’d been a professing Southern Baptist since coming to the US of A, she began calling on Mary and all the saints she knew or even had a casual acquaintance with. She called us boys in and begged our forgiveness for any wrong she had ever done to us.
Then in a weak voice she called my father over, grabbed him by the throat, and said:
“Don’t you dare remarry!”
You can take the girl out of Naples…
Mom finished her education in America, got a college degree while her sons were in high school in Tennessee, was offered a chance to be a teacher but once again dad’s erratic career put us on the move, this time back to North Carolina. By the time her sons were grown, age worked against her and dreams of a career of her own were put aside.
Mom and dad finally settled down in Asheville (i.e., technology in the form of computerization overtook dad and he wasn’t able to keep up with a new generation of tech savvy management). They bought a house and lived together quietly and comfortably for their declining years.
Dad died from Alzheimer’s 3 years ago. Mom had been waiting patiently for her chance to be with him again.
That chance has arrived. God bless you and go in peace, mom.