Turn the page….
This past Saturday was the first time I’ve ever heard my father weep. Having already been told by my brother that my uncle Matti had died that day, I called my father in South Carolina. His machine answered and I left a message, wondering where he might have gone to having just heard the news. When he called me back I realized he hadn’t gone anywhere. He was bereft, could hardly speak through tears I knew were falling, but that I would never have expected. And I was, unusually, at a loss for words.
My father and I have not been close for many, many years. I never felt like “daddy’s little girl”, so much so that I didn’t even allow that song to played for our dance at my wedding. I have no recollection of what was played and it’ s certainly of no importance this far down the line. He and I have come to a good place in our relationship, beneficiaries of both time and tide and the beginnings of the role reversal that inevitably takes place between parent and child.My heart broke hearing his sadness at the loss of his brother, the second to go before he and his sister who are now left to tell the stories. And are there stories. Matti was a character. Almost a caricature. He was alternately hilarious, boisterous and full of bluster. He smoked way too much, loved a good, stiff drink and his mood could turn on a dime. But, when I was a little girl, I thought he was the bee’s knees. To me, he was a joker, always laughing and making me laugh. I didn’t know the sadness that was a large part of his life until I was much older. By that time, I had enough to deal with myself, and, not living close by, his life and his troubles became something I only heard about once in a while from my father. Something detached from my own life and realities. My parents divorced, and we all just grew apart.*****And so, this Labor Day was spent riding out to Riverhead for a brief wake. It was good to touch base with dad’s side of the family again, though it was a very small contingent that arrived at the funeral home, a modest, lovely place, tucked into a residential neighborhood. It was a trek for us, but Matti wanted to be buried in Calverton. There were no huge bowers of flowers next to him as he lay there, but there were pictures. There were great pictures, some which I have known all my life. In every one of them he’s smiling. He had a churlish smile. He was truly the cheshire cat.
I think you can guess which one is Matti in this picture. I’ve loved it all my life. And I’ve heard the stories about 180th street, and all the other places they lived. They moved a lot, because if you signed on as the super at a building you got a few month’s free rent, usually. From what I’ve been told it was a tough, New York City up bringing. As soon as he could, my father joined the Navy, and Matti joined the Air Force.
In between then and now there’s a lifetime of ups and downs and crazy stories. Fond memories and sad, and all the other things that make up a life lived hard.
So we spent our holiday in this lovely, quiet funeral home, not far from the ocean. We shared memories and laughed, because there was always, always laughter around Matti, even if you were so angry with him you could explode. There was no priest. I don’t think he was a religious man.
Who did show up were gentlemen from the Babylon, NY American Legion post. I had never known how much Matti loved the place. Just another piece of information that didn’t make it across the chasm separating our lives. These fellows performed a heartfelt ceremony, and listening to their words, and the sniffling of one of the main speakers (he obviously knew my uncle) brought me to some quiet tears of my own. But for a very odd reason.
None of the legionnaires were young men. As I looked them over I realized I was looking at the remnants of a generation of proud men who went to war as children, some out of necessity, some to escape their home lives and most all with the goal of protecting what our country stood for. Now, I know there are plenty of young men and women who have served since, but looking at my uncle in the coffin and these old men, each saluting the way they were taught all those years ago (no two doing it the same way) I couldn’t help but feel the loss. Of my uncle, of course. But of a time when we he was young and carefree and had it all laid out before him. Before it all went harsh and real.
Ah, well. What is the sum of a life? Our memories of him bring smiles to our faces. Or make us laugh. And some just make us shake our heads. It was a life that, for better or worse, is certainly worth noting. Still, I can’t stop thinking of all those boys, now old men, saluting Matti beside his coffin and saying goodbye to a comrade in arms, little by little laying to rest a simpler time in history.
My cousin told me, before we left the wake, that the house on 180th street is still there. That the other buildings around it were all torn down and new construction raised up around it. But that that house is still standing. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know why it makes me sad.
Rest in peace, uncle Matti.