September 5, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of my maternal grandfather, a man I obviously never met, but one I would have loved to have had the opportunity to know.
During Woodrow Wilson’s first term as president, Crescenzo Chiulli was born to a couple who had emigrated from Abruzzo, Italy and met in the North End of Boston. Over time, my grandfather’s first and last names were Americanized, with letters dropped and changed in an apparent effort to make the names easier to pronounce and spell: Cresenzo Chully.
The pronunciation of the surname was also changed from Cue-lee, to Chew-lee. By the way, Crescenzo was the name of my great-great-grandfather, an olive and grape farmer in Alanno, Italy and Kara and I gave that name to our son as a middle name.
Growing up, I was told stories of my grandfather from my mother and grandmother, and his sister, my great-aunt Angie who died just a few years ago at the doorstep of 98. By all accounts he was a hard working, likeable guy, who went by the nickname Mazie. Where that moniker came from, we don’t know, but everyone in South Norwood had nicknames in those days.
My mother would beam with pride when she pointed out her father’s name which graced the World War II memorial on the common in Norwood, Massachusetts. The monument, in the picture below, featured the roll of all Norwoodites who served in the war, and was a frequent stop on any trip “uptown.” The memorial was taken down years ago, and I’m not sure what ever happened to it.
Crescenzo Chully married my grandmother Phebe Cassidy in the majestic Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, against the wishes of his soon-to-be in-laws. My grandmother’s Irish family were aghast at the prospect of an Italian joining their brood, and they essentially disowned her, coming around albeit reluctantly, only after the birth of my aunt and mother.
My grandfather joined the Navy during World War II, and was assigned to the SeaBees in Okinawa, Japan, where he was stationed during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war, he returned home to Norwood, where his father, sisters, brother, and half brothers and sisters all lived, and would later be home to the five grandchildren he would never live to see. My grandmother was waiting for him with two daughters anxious to get to know their father.
He worked for the Town of Norwood in the light department, and in 1953 was killed in a freak accident on the job while working near the Winslow Tannery. My grandfather accidentally stepped onto a hive of yellow jacket hornets, and they attacked with reckless abandon.
It was a horrible attack. The hornets swarmed all over him, stinging him repeatedly. Unlike bees, yellow jackets can sting over and over again.
My grandfather’s colleagues pulled him from the scene of the attack and rushed him to Norwood hospital. My mother’s remembers her father’s face was swollen with bites, and she was so shocked by what happened, she is understandably still reticent to talk about the worst day of her life.
The number of stings was so great, it led to a dangerous swelling in his brain, and he died the next day. He was only 38. My mother was 12. This Navy veteran who survived World War II, was killed by bugs.
My grandmother, who lost her mother at age 7, was now a widow at 38.
The deadly attack was big news in a small town, as such deaths are very rare. As you might imagine, my mother grew up with and then raised us with a fear of just about every flying insect out there.
These yellow jackets are crafty critters. Their nests can be in the ground, and often not seen by the untrained eye. The colony can grow to as many as 15 thousand, and their nests can be difficult to get rid of, that’s why we call in the experts to take on a task that gives me the creeps.
We recently went to my grandparents’ gravesite in Norwood, to mark the passing of six decades since my grandfather was killed. My mother, Kara, my children and I put some flags on his grave, said a prayer, made a toast with wine, and enjoyed a picnic of Italian sandwiches from the North End Deli in Norwood, an old favorite of mine. Nonno, non va dimenticato.
Also read about my trip to my ancestral homeland: https://dennishouse.tv/2013/01/24/journey-to-abruzzo-to-meet-my-italian-family/