As the story goes, my mother was at work in a Chicago office building when the call came. It was short, her sister’s voice serious and the message simple: Get home immediately.

She didn’t ask questions. When you’re 16 years old, your country’s at war and a call like that comes in, you get home.

The year was 1944, and the Army chaplain had been to the Rossi home to inform Mrs. Rossi, my beloved grandmother, that her only son had been killed in action. By all accounts, my grandmother skipped the crying and went directly to the screaming. His name was Bernard Frank Rossi, and he was 23 years old.

He died 13 years before I was even born, but there was never a moment when memories of him were far removed from the conversations of my grandparents, my mother or her two sisters. As a kid, I remember having questions about “Ben,” about what kind of person he was, and what kind of uncle he’d have been to the six nephews and five nieces he would have lived to know. In spite of my curiosity, there’s still so much that remained a mystery.

Did my grandparents, Italian immigrants, cry tears of joy when their only son was born? How could they have ever known their only son would die, one of 416,800 other brave Americans whose lives were claimed during World War II? Was there anything that could have ever prepared them for that visit from that Army chaplain? I’m certain I know the answer.

Years later, at the age of 12, while going home at night in a crowded Buick after a celebration of my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, I remember listening to my parents’ quiet conversation. My dad mentioned to my mother how subdued my grandfather seemed throughout the night. She told him: “I think he was missing Ben.” It was followed by silence. Sometimes there are no words.

I only remember, in that instant, feeling angst for my grandparents, my mother and her sisters. Looking back on my younger self, I’m sure my 12-year-old mind could not have fully comprehended the multitudes of hearts that have, over our country’s history, been broken with inconsolable anguish – or the oceans of tears that have been shed, or the terrible cost of freedom – the way I do now.


Today, at the age of 97, my mother is the last survivor of a gold star family that was forever changed by the loss of a brother and a son. A family that, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter to a gold star mother during the Civil War, “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom.”

My mother has never gone to Brittany American Cemetery in France, to where her brother’s body, along with so many others, was laid to rest. My cousin Linda did, though. She recalled her experience in a LaGrange (Georgia) Daily News column in which she referred to Uncle Ben’s gravesite as “as beautiful a final resting place as any family could want for a soldier buried on foreign soil.”

As I gaze upon the smiles and innocence of my young grandkids, I sometimes wince at how removed they are from life’s brutal realities. I wonder if they will ever live to experience such profound loss: whether it be a son, daughter or loved one, the likes of which will forever change them. These are among my darkest thoughts, and I do my best to avoid them.

This Memorial Day, it is fitting to solemnly remember those heroes who lost their lives fighting and dying in defense of the things we cherish most: our freedoms, our Constitution and our way of life.

Are we a country so divided by religious, political, economic and cultural divides that we can’t stop and take time to appreciate the freedoms purchased by the treasure of so many American lives?

I hope and pray that’s not the case. Throughout the bickering and disagreements we will continue to have over the years, there’s one thing we should understand, and it is this: The freedom to do so is not despite the sacrifices made by those brave heroes. It is because of them.

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