My Uncle Nick died. Except he wasn’t really my uncle. He and his wife had been friends of my parents for close to 70 years. Before I was born they and my parents decided they would be known as “aunt” and “uncle” to their children in keeping with an old New York Italian tradition. I remember asking my parents how we were related to them when I was a kid. There was a fuzzy answer to this question. They lived far away and I remember long car rides to their house on Long Island. Traveling for hours in the car often meant we were going to see relatives so this made sense. I remember swimming in their pool with their seven children. Uncle Nick had tattoos on both arms from his time in the Navy which he tried to keep covered as much as possible since he had gone on to become a dentist and was ashamed of them. I found out at his funeral that he had served during World War II. He was 91 when he passed. It was a privilege and adventure to attend his funeral. We are losing 372 World War II veterans per day.
The adventure began two days before Uncle Nick’s wake with making travel plans with my parents who are 85 and 86 years old. I had to convince them that we needed to travel the 100 miles to the funeral home on the other side of New York City on the afternoon of the wake, then stay overnight at a hotel so we could attend the funeral early the next day. Even if we left at 5:30 in the morning on the day of the funeral, we would have no guarantee of arriving in time on a Friday morning in New York city rush hour traffic. Still, it wasn’t easy to convince them that $159 for a hotel room was a wise investment. My mother ultimately called the hotel I found online and got a senior citizen discount so she booked the room. They don’t travel much anymore so this was going to be an exciting trip to say farewell to one of their oldest friends. I was thrilled to be able to spend two full days with my parents.
I traveled by myself to my parent’s house an hour south on Thursday morning. Our hotel was 100 congested miles away. I offered to drive, but my 86 year old dad was planning to do all the driving. The wake was from 2–4 P.M. and again at 7–9 that night. Midday travel across the Hudson River rode like rush hour traffic. When we got on Long Island, we were able to travel in the HOV lane that is reserved for vehicles with more than 2 passengers during the hours of 6–10 AM and 3–8 PM for a total of nine hours a day of what is considered “rush hour” traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
We arrived at The Hampton Inn in Commack after crawling through three hours of New York traffic. Our room had a king size bed for my parents, and a pull out sleeper sofa for me. After check in, we walked over to the diner where we were served family size portions of food. We packed up about half of it to take back to the hotel. My dad fought with the refrigerator in the room to get it turned on.
It was when I walked into the viewing room at the funeral home that night that I learned Uncle Nick had been a World War II veteran. His cap from the Navy was sitting near the head of his casket along with some war decorations. In keeping with old Italian tradition, there were elaborate flower arrangements for “our beloved husband/papa/father” around the room. Several collections of old photographs of Uncle Nick were displayed. A television played a slideshow of old photos, too.
We met with Aunt Josie and her seven children. There were countless heads of thick, black hair among their 22 grandchildren with names like Joseph, Frankie, Nicki and Sal.
I was introduced to some of Uncle Nick’s old friends and cousins. They all knew my parents. My mother whispered stories about many of the attendees. “That’s his fourth wife.” “She had cancer.” “Her daughter died.”
We returned to our hotel after 9 PM for an uncomfortable night’s sleep for me on that pull out couch. My mother went downstairs to the lobby of the hotel early the next day in her nightgown and slippers for breakfast. She asked the hostess if it was ok to which she replied, “At your age, you can do whatever you want.”
We said our final farewell to Uncle Nick at the funeral home that morning. My mother continued to whisper stories about the attendants. His six sons were his pall bearers.
There were touching tributes in Uncle Nick’s Catholic church. His oldest son read a touching account of the final day they spent together. Uncle Nick had been “holding on” despite not being able to breathe, to make sure his family was going to be ok. It was after Sal told his Dad that he had done everything right by his family that he finally let go. Being in church didn’t stop my mother ‘s whispered stories about everyone.
The ride to the cemetery was interesting. The procession drove down the side street next to Uncle Nick’s house. Next we drove around the block so we could drive past the front of the house, too. My father explained that this was so Uncle Nick could see his home one last time before being laid to rest. He said this was done all the time when he was growing up. I had never heard of this.
I expected the cemetery to be near the church or Uncle Nick’s home. Instead, we drove about 30 miles further east out on Long Island to a military cemetery. It had started to rain and snow on the way there.
We stood under a small roof that covered a bench where the immediate family sat. The casket was draped with an American flag. There were naval officers on each end of the casket. The officer in charge asked us to silence our phones and told us it was not only ok to video tape the flag folding ceremony, but also encouraged.
I recorded it with difficulty as I stood behind people who were taller than me. The officers folded the flag with precision as the commander described the symbolism of the flag for Uncle Nick.
At the end, Uncle Nick’s cousin spoke of the bravery of the young men who served in the US Navy in the Pacific theater. I imagined Uncle Nick as a Seaman 1st class bravely sailing into battle aboard the USS Leonard F. Mason. This was a small chapter in my Uncle Nick’s interesting, rich life that I only learned about after his passing.
Thank you for reading :)