They met during war and married hastily in its aftermath. Fifty years later, would their romantic tale include a return trip to Italy -- for a real wedding?

CIRCLE OF LOVE

February 11, 1996|By Norine Lovett Schiller

Whenever I tell people this love story, they get misty-eyed and sigh, "It's just like a movie."

It won't ruin the ending for you if I say right away that the couple the story, my parents, did get married, and quite a long time ago at that. Some happy endings are simply happy beginnings, after all.

My parents met and married in Sicily during World War II. Last year they celebrated 50 years of marriage. For most people that would be happy ending enough, but not for me. From the beginning of the year, I worked hard to persuade my parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary in Italy, with all their family around them. I thought it would make up for their wartime wedding, a rushed ceremony in a nearly empty church.

My father, always ready to hop on a plane to Sicily, needed no persuading. But my mother did. She has allergies and asthma, which are not helped by long, tiring flights and airplanes full of cigarette smoke. She was not having a good health year, and was not optimistic.

"We'll see," she said, which usually means no.

Nevertheless, my husband, Don, and I began to plan a trip to Italy. Every few weeks, I would gently prod my mother about going with us. I didn't want to push her into it; it had to be her decision. I am just superstitious enough that if I felt I had pushed her into going and then something went wrong, I would never be able to live with myself.

Finally, in the spring, my mother said it would be impossible for her to go.

"It's just too hard on my breathing," she said. "I won't be able to make the trip. What if I have an attack on the plane?"

"Well, what does this mean?" I asked. "Have you been back to Italy for the last time?"

"I think so," she said.

I could not accept this.

The Beginning

The Americans moved quietly through Palermo in the dark, early-morning hours of July 23, 1943. They set up camp in a villa at the base of a mountain, in the neighborhood of Acquasanta. The soldiers had been so quiet that many Sicilians didn't realize their city was occupied until they awoke.

Later in the morning, a 23-year-old soldier named Bob Lovett stood in the hot sun, guarding Villa Belmonte. He hadn't slept all night, and he should have gone off duty at 8 a.m. It was now past 9 and no one had come to relieve him. He was thirsty, his canteen was empty, and the purified water hadn't arrived by truck yet.

Three young women walked toward him, linked by two big tubs of water that they were carrying by the handles. A low wall separated him from the street; he leaned over it for a better look. The water looked cool and clear.

Though the soldiers' pamphlets warned "Be careful of Sicilians; they carry knives," Bob decided to take a risk. This might be his only chance to get a drink. Besides, the women were pretty. And they didn't know his rifle wasn't loaded.

He called to them in English.

"Hello! Come here a minute."

They stopped, but looked uneasy. They moved near, but not too near, and looked up at him. Three angels. He was struck by how neat and clean they looked. In a war zone, that was unusual.

"Can I have some water?" He held up his canteen and pointed to the tubs.

"No, no, no good!" one of them said in English. The water was for washing floors, not drinking.

Feeling bolder, they moved closer. With all the German soldiers around, they had gotten used to guns. One of them pulled on the canteen and Bob let her have it. They took it home, filled it with clean water and brought it back.

He took a good, long drink, then smiled and thanked them. He was handsome, they thought.

He tried to make friends with the young women but he knew no Italian and they knew almost no English. Soon they went on their way.

After his shift, Bob jumped the wall and sneaked out of camp, determined to find the women again.

Walking in the direction they'd gone, he found a narrow street nearby named Salita Belmonte. There was rubble around the two-story houses; some dwellings had been hit by bombs.

Bob asked people on the street about the young women. He tried to explain by holding up three fingers, then making an hourglass shape with his hands. No one wanted to help him, and it was clear that some of them misunderstood the kind of women he was looking for. Finally, a man who spoke some English pointed to the second-story balcony of No. 42 and said there were four sisters in the Grupposo house.

The staircase was steep and dark. A heavy door at the top had two eyeholes cut into it. He knocked.

A woman in her 40s slid open the panel that covered the eyeholes and saw an American soldier with a rifle. Her husband, a merchant marine, was off at sea and she was alone with her six children.

"It's an American! Don't let him in!" Amelia Grupposo said to her daughters, who rushed over to look.

"It's him," Concettina, the eldest daughter, said. "The one with the water."

The soldier kept knocking. He wasn't going to go away. His knock, knock, knock was persistent but polite, and the girls laughed.

"But Mamma, he's so nice," Concettina said. They all begged her to open the door.

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