Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches
Two years ago, Connie Giuntoli was packing boxes in her parents’ home when she discovered something unexpected— 19 letters her father wrote to her mother more than 75 years ago while he served in World War II.
“I had no idea these were in the house,” said Giuntoli. “We never talked about the war. I never knew anything.”
After 55 years in their Lyons home, Giuntoli’s parents—John and Marie Matiello—were moving to The Birches Assisted Living in Clarendon Hills. Giuntoli knew moving her parents out of the home they’d inhabited for more than half a century would unearth remnants of the past. But the letters she uncovered revealed a moving war-time love story that caused her to see her parents relationship in a whole new light.
“It’s a beautiful love story,” said Giuntoli. “Anyone who looks at the letters today becomes extremely emotional for that young man writing to the woman he would eventually marry when he got back to the States.”
The start of John and Marie’s story
When John Matiello was drafted, he’d only met Marie Liberto one time. Marie’s sister Carmela decided to bring Marie to a company dance party where John, her coworker, was playing accordion. But Marie had a boyfriend, so nothing came of it. At least not yet.
After John left for war, Carmela kept in contact with him. In one of her letters, she mentioned that her sister Marie broke up with her boyfriend. John’s response: Have her write to me.
John and Marie’s letters were simple, innocent and sweet. They were only 17 and 18 years old when they started writing. They wrote about their families, mutual friends and asked each other questions back and forth. For John, it was helpful just to have something to take his mind off being at war.
“He was so happy to have someone to write to,” said Giuntoli. “That was everything to them. Mail saved their lives. When the mail didn’t come, they became so lonely and sad.”
Through these letters, however, John and Marie become close. And their relationship quickly evolved into something more than friendship. John sent Marie flowers on her birthday. And Marie told her daughter Connie that’s when she knew he was the one.
“She came home from school and there was this big box. She opened the box and it was a dozen roses,” said Giuntoli “That was the moment she knew he was the man for her. Because she thought, ‘He’s fighting in a war and he thought enough about me to make the effort to send me flowers.’”
John came home on leave a handful of times, so John and Marie had some face-to-face dates. But even though they’d only met in person a few times, after a three years of writing letters, John was ready to propose. Rather than do it by letter, however, he decided to deliver the message another way.
“I visited his mom, and she started crying,” said Marie Matiello. “And I asked her, ‘What’s the matter? Did something happen to him?’ She said John wants you to have this ring. And I accepted.”
Preserving the past
After she discovered the letters, Giuntoli spent an entire summer transcribing them and compiling them into a book. Her mother Marie has glaucoma, and she knew this was the only way she’d be able to read the delicate and faded letters.
It was an emotional process, because the letters showed Giuntoli how hard war was for her dad. In an era with no internet and limited access to phones, men like her dad didn’t have many sources of connection or distraction. All they had were their letters.
“I felt like I went back into time. I felt like I was with my dad,” said Giuntoli. “He had no idea what was in store for his life. Whether he would make it back. Whether he would be okay. Whether he would have a family. But it worked out.”
John and Marie, then and now
Now, 72 years later, they’re still married. They share a spacious, sun-drenched apartment at The Birches, where they get frequent visits from their children and grandchildren.
John has Alzheimer’s now. But John and Marie are still living out their love story—a love story that started with letters.
In fact, a couple of years ago, when Connie was getting them ready to move, she asked her father if he was worried about moving. Here’s what John said:
“When I was away at war, I lived in a tent. I could live anywhere. As long as your mom and I are together, we’ll be okay.”
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