This morning, between 8 and 8:30, one of my most loved relatives passed away.
I have a very large family - there are routinely around two hundred people at our parties. Clearly some of us are closer than others. Some relatives I never remember from year to year, and have to be reintroduced. Some I look forward to seeing at events, and wish I could see more often. Some I see every Christmas, like clockwork, and we take opportunities to drop by whenever we can. Then there's the cousin or two whom I talk to on the phone a few times a month.
One of those cousins is Joey. He shares nothing with Matt LeBlanc's character outside name and ethnicity. My cuz is really smart, not an actor, and is great with engines. We're very close, really the one in the family I'm closest to, as an adult. We agree on a lot of things, and we've lived through some similar stuff (like divorces). He's the second oldest of five kids, and a good 15 years older than me. It's like having that big brother I always wanted. This is odd, because when I was very small, I was closer to his younger siblings. I used to think those kids were far cooler than I could ever hope to be. We all changed quite a bit as we grew up.
Joey's Mom and my Mom are first cousins, but you'd think they were sisters, they're so close. Every time we visit those two women are up until dawn talking. When they get on the phone, its for hours. Sometimes I think my Mom is the only person my aunt really talks to, which is hard to believe, because my aunt is a talker. The difference may be that my Mom listens to her cousin with complete love and acceptance, where others tend to be argumentative or coldly distant when they don't feel like arguing. My mom and her cousin truly love and respect each other, no matter how much they nit-pick behind each others' backs. Like sisters.
My aunt always referred to her husband, Joe Sr., as "the King." We always called him "Big Joe." Daddy used to call him the Don. He's from a family of Brooklyn Italians, and, though we liked to joke about it, absolutely no ties to organized crime. I've met them on a few occasions, and they are good, strong, earthy people, devoted to each other and their church. I said once that my Italian blood flowed more smoothly when Uncle Joe gave me a hug. There's something comforting about being around someone who affirms a piece of your own identity. This was always even more special to me, as my Uncle Joe was not actually related to me by blood - his wife, my aunt, is my Mom's cousin. Big Joe married in. But he sure fit right in.
We used to say the same about my Dad - he fits right in. Daddy, being largely German, and Midwestern to boot, should have had very little in common with these Italian-Irish Easterners with their thick city accents, but he and Big Joe became very close friends. They disagreed on a lot of things - especially politics - but they loved and respected each other. I think the greatest tie that bound them was their devotion to their families. Both these men cared for their aging mothers in their homes. Both married strong-willed, loud Irish women who were far from easy to live with. Both had spunky daughters that they couldn't really control. And both worked hard at their jobs to provide for their families in the best way they knew how, missing out on large portions of their children's younger years. They were successful professional men in the 1970's, who had married women close enough to be sisters. They had a lot of good laughs in the living room in front of the football game, munching on nuts and M&M's and drinking imported beer. Invariably I'd grow tired of the women in the kitchen and toddle out to the living room, climb up on Daddy's lap and just sit there while he and my uncles watched TV and chatted.
It wasn't Christmas without going to Connecticut. Mom and dad and I drove to Jersey City every single year of my life, picked up Grandma (and Grandpa, when he was alive), and drove to Wilton, CT to spend the holidays with my cousins in their enormous house in the hills. My Aunt and Uncle had a family room (a "den," they called it) with a two-story high ceiling, and a Christmas tree that stretched all the way up. When I was five, those Christmas trees were Goliathan. I remember being able to walk under the lowest branches, only needing to slightly duck. The tree stretched easily eight to ten feet in diameter at it's base, probably more. It seemed to have hundreds of ornaments and lights on it, and a huge star on the top. I felt like Clara in the Nutcracker, craning my neck to see the star way up on top of that tree, staring wide-eyed at the ocean of presents wrapped underneath it, knowing some of them were for me. I must have looked like a little doll, with the little dresses Mom put me in, and my blonde curls, bouncing around that room, fingering the decorations around the rest of the room.
That was just such a great room. They had an impressive modern stereo system with a turntable, tape deck, and tuner. They had an enormous TV screen, and eventually a betamax VCR. They had huge couches and lots of space to dance around to the radio. One year my cousins taught my Grandma - who they called "Aunt Mary" - a dance that the high schoolers were doing to a Commodores song. "You are the sun, you are the rain, that makes my life this foolish game... You need to know, I love you so, and I'd do it all again and again..." I could still, to this day, do that dance.
Uncle Joe sat at the end of their banquet dining room table and carved the Christmas meat, be it turkey or beef or goose or whatever had caught my aunt's fancy that year. She always made enough to serve an army, and there were never fewer than ten people at the table. Most years it was closer to twenty, as Joey and his siblings married and expanded the family. The local nuns would drop by for dinner or for dessert and coffee. And my Dad would always be asked to play the piano, and I and Joey's younger brother (who grew up to be a Broadway star) would always be asked to sing.
Joey's sisters are all stunningly beautiful. They all modeled when they were in their early twenties. Their ethnic blood shows strong: one Irish-looking blonde, one Italian-looking brunette, and one all-American girl with reddish brown hair. They were funny, sharp-tongued, wildly independent young women. They were everything I wasn't as a child. They were confident, rebellious, and seemed to live such exciting lives, dating lots of guys, driving (and crashing) fast cars, skiing, smoking and looking sensational everywhere they went. They all had perfect Farrah Fawcett flips in the seventies. They were like Charlie's Angels, I told my third grade friends one year. I worshipped them.
I even remember Uncle Joe's mom, who we all called Nana, sitting in her chair at the small kitchen table, giving my uncle a hard time about what he was eating. She didn't seem to approve of her daughter-in-law's cooking very much, which confused me, as the local gourmet market provided half the meal anyway. I remember her hugging me, and it was like hugging a pillow, all soft and warm and gentle. Nana passed away when I was still in elementary school, but I am glad to have these memories of her.
All of my strongest memories of this family are from when I was quite young. By the time I was in high school, My grandpa had died, and Grandma was starting to act like a little old lady, which distressed me. My mother and I didn't get along, and because of this my aunt gave me a lot of crap. I was too old to climb into my dad's lap for solace, so when the men gathered in the living room, I often disappeared into a bedroom with a tape player and a book. The Charlie's Angels had all grown up and left home, and I wasn't close to them anymore. I felt dorky and childish around them, where I used to be their pet. I didn't know how to talk to their younger brother at all, for whom I suffered an embarrassing adolescent crush that would last for many years. And in those days, mysteriously, Joey was never around. I wish he had been. I was a pretty alienated teen. He might have made me feel more normal, more acceptable.
Uncle Joe was a strong foundation stone for his family. He was very successful in business and provided beautifully for them, though he wasn't around much in the earlier years. Eventually his company became the target of a hostile takeover, and he was forced to retire early. He always talked like a business man though - like a boss. Nobody messed with him. When he was mad, he was positively frightening. My dad seemed so gentle in comparison. And yet I knew that Big Joe was a gentle man himself. He was never violent, just red-faced and loud, and I think I only saw him that way once, when I was about six or seven. He joked about it later - the whole family did. "Don't make dad yell," his daughters would say, with knowing smiles. "Just don't do it!"
Big Joe could pick me up in both of his arms and hug me until my legs were dangling off the floor, even into my teens. He could pick me up, swing me off my feet, and squeeze the breath out of me until I was gasping and struggling. I still love being hugged like that. Nobody has swung me off my feet in a long time, and I miss it.
My uncle has suffered from advanced vascular disease for a number of years now, and has had a number of difficult, painful, frightening surgeries. Last June, he and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. My parents and I knew at the time that it might be the last chance we had to see them together. I'm glad I got my hugs and kisses from my uncle on that very special day.
I'll never forget him, and I'll always love him.