The safe at my parents’ home always was a bit of a joke. We never owned anything truly valuable. It wasn’t locked because mom worried she’d forget the combination.
While emptying it out recently I stumbled upon an unfamiliar small box. It held something I’d never seen before: the purple heart awarded to the family after the death of my uncle, Jonias Joseph Flores.
For most of my childhood, mom told in a tidy summary the story of the too-short life of the brother she called Joni: We had another uncle, but he died in the war. He was a kind soul, good student and liked to box. Her delivery was matter of fact, never giving evidence of the sorrow his death brought her, her siblings and my grandparents. Like the purple heart, their feelings were tucked away, hidden.
For the longest time that story was enough. But as an adult I started to wonder about Joni and that day they learned he died. I nagged mom for more details; once she realized she was dying, she finally opened up. Now, with this purple heart in my possession, mom’s words and old, yellowed letters, I’ve pieced together a story.
It wasn’t lack of money only that kept “studious Jonias” – as one teacher described him on a report card – from continuing on to college. Joni was determined to be part of the World War II effort. Already, his father was in the Navy and older brother in the Army. He wanted to serve, too.
My grandmother was against it. Enough so that she wouldn’t sign some paper he needed to enlist. But Joni wouldn’t be deterred. He sent the form to my grandfather for the necessary signature. On May 13, 1944, the last male of my mother’s immediate family became an enlisted man, this time in the Marines.
By March 12, 1945 – two weeks before his 19th birthday – Joni would be dead on an Iwo Jima, Japan, battlefield.
The family didn’t know Joni had died until a telegram arrived on April 4. Mom, 15 then, and her older sister were laughing and talking on their way from school. As they approached home they could see the shades drawn and knew something was wrong. Inside they found my inconsolable grandmother.
Mom had to notify her father and older brother of Joni’s death but didn’t have the faintest idea how to send telegrams. A kind neighbor took mom and gently guided her through the process. (In a bittersweet pay-it-back twist, that same woman and husband later lived around the corner from my parents. When upkeep of their property became too much, my dad took over until they died.)
Initially, Joni was buried at Iwo Jima, but in 1948 his remains were returned to Chicago.
Actually, I thought the purple heart was long gone. When it arrived, my mom said, my grandmother threw it away. She didn’t want a medal; all she wanted was her boy back. (Mom, lifelong saver of stuff, retrieved it.)
That was the same reasoning, I bet, behind the refusal grandma gave to a state legislator who wanted to put up something in Bessemer Park where my uncle had been an accomplished boxer. If she couldn’t have her son, she didn’t want anything.
My grandmother never mentioned my uncle; it must have hurt too much. So the rest of them went quiet, too. For years I swam at Bessemer Park, went there for day camp. Never once did mom mention its association with her dead brother. That pact of silence ran deep.
Once an out-of-town relative was visiting and reminisced about what a good baker my grandmother was. What? My grandmother cooked up a storm but never baked. Turns out Joni had a sweet tooth and she so enjoyed baking for him. That died with him, I guess.
War may take the enlisted, but it kills off a part of their loved ones, too.