Saturday, January 13, 2007

Two Lives have Ended in My Family

On my father's side, I come from a close extended Italian family. Most of us still live around New York City, and meet for baptisms, weddings, and wakes. Some cousins still get together socially in the summer, or go to Yankee games as a group. We have a tour of Yankee stadium planned for my Dad's 75th birthday later this month. We enjoy each other's company, and have loud, animated discussions punctuated with some Italian expressions whenever we're together. Most of us are better off than our parents, and I'd say most lean Republican. More than half, I'm afraid, have stopped attending Mass regularly. We are typical second generation Italian-American immigrants.

Great Aunt Anna
Recently, the clan met for the funeral of my great aunt Anna, who had just celebrated her hundredth birthday a few months earlier. Anna spent her most of her life caring for her disabled daughter, Cecilia, who is confined to a wheelchair. Her hundredth birthday party was a large, catered affair, and she was the queen of the day, with her snow white hair artfully done up in a French twist.
Anna's brother, my Grandfather, Vincenzo, was born in Pietrelcino, Italy, ten years after Francesco Forggione (whom we know as Padre Pio) was born there. They were baptized in the church of Santa Maria del Angeli, but, unfortunately, I have only this to prove that we might be related. Someday, I want to research this, and find a mutual cousin in that once obscure village perched, as my grandfather told me, "on the side of a rock, that's why it's called Pietrelcino".
Anna's life ended in triumph, as the matriarch of a large, happy, successful family who revered her, and needed her, even as her mind began to fail. Her funeral was packed with mourners, and she had a funeral Mass in the church she had attended for years.

Great Uncle Rocco
On my Italian grandmother Maria's side, there were 9 children, the first generation born in the US, in little Italy in Manhattan. Rocco was the youngest of the family, and since his mother died when he was three, was raised and babied by his father and older siblings. As a young man, he joined the Army(there was no Air Force yet) and became a pilot in World War II. Rocco was such a skilled pilot, he became an instructor upon graduation and never saw combat. Discharged honorably, he became a commercial pilot and lived the good life. Plenty of money went to his head, unfortunately, and he lived the life of an international playboy, with all the accompanying vices. He married and divorced the same woman twice, and had only one daughter. He was fun loving and generous, but was constantly in debt, and it ended his career as a pilot prematurely. The family lost touch with him.
One day, picking up my father at the local airport, a taxi driver was offering him a ride. It was uncle Rocco, but he didn't recognize my father at first. The years of alcoholism and dissolute living had certainly robbed him of his looks and zest for life. Through the years, my father's brother, uncle Frank took Uncle Rocco under his wing, feeling sorry for him, as he lived in boarding house, and had lost touch with his daughter. He brought him to family events, where he was not always welcome, due to his changed behavior while drinking. Rocco would always call his nieces and nephews at the end of the month, when the wine and cigarettes ran low, and they learned to avoid his calls.
I had Uncle Rocco over for Christmas and Easter, as he was my last living connection to my Nana, who died when I was 9. He was pleasant enough, though he drank heavily, and teared up when my girls presented him with home made Christmas cards. Uncle Rocco always wrote beautiful hand-written thank you notes that made me cry. His heart, despite everything, had remained tender. Sadly, he refused any kind of help to reform his life.
His last Christmas with us was tragic. Someone had mistakenly left a bottle of Scotch in front of him, and it was his undoing. He became loud and abusive, and demanded to go home, when the party was at it's height. My Goomba (slang for Godfather) Cosmo was in his Christmas storytelling mode, where he recounted with all the sound effects and Italian expressions, his adventure driving a horse and cart into Manhattan on Good Friday for pizza. The horse got away from Uncle Cosmo, and went on a wild ride, shattered the tailor shop window, and ended its wild ride by smashing into a police carriage. We love this story, and ask for it every year.
But Uncle Rocco raucously insisted on going home immediately.
My husband and I reluctantly took him home. He was completely wasted, nasty, and unable to walk. On his way into his apartment, he stumbled, though my husband had his arm around him, and gently let him collapse into a heap on the ground. Somehow in the melee, he had broken a bone, and for the next year, blamed my husband for it. When he entered the tiny, bare apartment, whose contents had been sold for liquor, it occurred to me that we couldn't leave him alone, as he was incapable of walking. I called the ambulance, and fought with him to make him go to the hospital. My poor daughters were wide-eyed in the car, watching this debacle. That was the last time I saw him.
Rocco was bounced back and forth during the next year from hospital to nursing home by social workers, who came to know him as one of the most difficult men they had ever worked with. They understood our refusal to take him in, as he was incorrigible. Finally came the news last Christmas, that he was, at age 86, dying of liver cancer. After several phone calls, I gave up on finding where he was, (in order to get him a priest for last rites) and I offered up the Divine Mercy novena so that in his dying moment, he would accept the mercy of Jesus, and die in a state of grace, as he had already lapsed into a coma.
He died this week, and as he was indigent, and his estranged daughter wouldn't come home to bury him, was left to charity for a burial. My aunt Assunta asked to be informed of when his funeral was, and they called a half hour before Uncle Rocco was to be buried in the military cemetery out east, where I live. I rushed to dress and pack up the girls for our last corporal act of mercy for Uncle Rocco, burying the dead.
The military ceremony which he had requested was attended only by myself and three daughters representing the family, two men he had roomed with, and an unidentified woman. It was touching to see the dignity of the two air force soldiers stand at attention, saluting his flag-draped coffin while taps was played. A priest read the spiritual meaning of the flag, and it was handed to me, Rocco's great-niece as the next of kin. We prayed the Our Father together, and went forward to take a rose from the flowers on his coffin, a tribute from his daughter as we offered some final prayers. A simple, yet dignified service for a complicated and tormented man. I will pray for his soul for years, to alleviate his suffering in Purgatory. I had begun to pray that he would die in a state of grace two Christmases ago, when I saw the kind of life his desperate soul had been leading.

While volunteering at the nursing home of the Little Sisters of the Poor,this advent, I attended Mass, and in his homily, the priest discussed our upcoming family Christmas celebrations, including "that relative we only mention in whispers, and only invite once a year, while we hide the liquor bottles". He asked us to be charitable to this relative. Be kind to your Uncle Rocco, he is what Mother Teresa called the poorest of the poor in your family, for the sake of Christ who loves the sinner.

1 comment:

Esther said...

My sincerest condolences on the loss of your family members. Thank you for sharing these stories. I found them quite interesting. I do hope you do a family tree research to see if you are related to St. Padre Pio. Wow!!