The hospital staff called me “the victory baby.” My mother, however, was not happy about the vivid purple V on my forehead and was much relieved when the two dark veins close to the surface of my skin faded and disappeared.
My mother’s letter to her brother, Cpl. Anthony Greco, announcing my birth in 1943, found him somewhere in Belgium, where he and his buddies cheered my special marking as a sign that World War II might soon be over. Actually, it was over sooner for my uncle than for his friends.
Sometime in the winter of 1945, a young soldier, eager to be the first in his squad to try the Browning automatic rifle, had no sooner loaded the gun when it went off, sending a bullet through my uncle’s right thigh.
The injury was severe, and my uncle spent the final months of the war in a hospital in England. A family photo dated Aug. 25, 1945, 10 days after the surrender of Japan, shows Uncle Tony, still in uniform, finally home, standing on a New York City street and holding his sister’s baby girl, me.
Over the next few years, I saw him often. As a child, I remember playing horsey, laughing while bouncing wildly on his ankle, trying hard not to be thrown off.
One day when I was about 4, my grandmother sent me to wake my uncle for lunch. I peered into his dark room. He was asleep on the bed. But something caught my eye. A leg! I thought I saw my uncle’s leg and his foot, ensconced in the brown shoe he always wore, leaning against the wall.
Uncle Tony, jumping upright, reached over to grab me. Screaming louder, I struggled to get free, terrified that I was in the grip of a one-legged man.
It took a while for my mother and grandmother to calm me. When they realized what had frightened me, they insisted I touch each of my uncle’s legs, obviously very much attached to his body. However, when urged to touch the metal brace with attached shoe he wore to help him walk, I ran screaming. It took much convincing and several Hershey bars before I again sat on my uncle’s ankle and pretended I was riding my pony.
Uncle Tony went to law school, married and joined his brothers and sisters in suburban life on Long Island. He raised his family in Lynbrook. His home on Robertson Road was the place where my grandparents, aunts and uncles and all 24 first cousins gathered every New Year’s Eve.
Uncle Tony died in October at 96.
After his funeral, I studied another family photo. In it, flag-waving neighbors are celebrating V-J Day in front of tenement houses in Manhattan. I see my grandmother in the crowd. Although only in her 50s, she looks much older. Her face, expressionless, reveals nothing. I can only guess at her suffering as her son was fighting for his country, her fear when she learned of his injury and her relief when another of life’s nightmares finally ended.
Cpl. Greco, just one of the thousands of Italian-Americans who fought in World War II, is a symbol of the commitment to America that his mother, Antonia Greco, an immigrant at age 16, made for herself and her future family. And I, like descendants of immigrants from all over the world, am proud of what “my people” contributed to the land that gave them the chance to fulfill their dreams.
Reader JoAnn DiFranco lives in Oyster Bay.