My beloved uncle, my mother’s only sibling, Frank Zummo passed this morning at a little after 5a. It’s the season of Samhain/All Souls Day where the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. He was hearing bells, seeing our beloved dead. It’s never a good time but I suppose crossing over to be with our beloved dead would be easiest for him now. When I got the news, I felt his spirit and I felt peace and calm for a long moment before sunrise. I felt like he was going to where he wanted to go. I knew the feeling wouldn’t last but I tried to be present with it while I had it.
These last few months haven’t been about who he really who he was. Not really. Sometimes, a glimmer. When he would fight with my mom, when we’d bond over the food I picked to bring over – ancini balls, cannolis, pizza from Umberto’s, antipasto from Uncle Guiseppe’s, anything I knew he would think was good to eat. When we’d talk about my crafting and he’d give me advice for my business, when he told me how there were carnival rides that would come regularly to the block he lived on with my mother and that milk, potato chips, warm nuts and candy would come straight to their door. When we would watch stupid sci-fi movies together and joke and he would watch football games. When he told me not to wait to write my books, to do it now. I haven’t shared what my weekends have actually looked like with many people because it wasn’t my struggle, it was my uncle’s.
For me, these past few months have been more about the story of my life. Working hours and hours at my day job, coming home and preparing for a weekend craft show. The craft show would usually be one day of the weekend, the other day would be an endless drives to Long Island, bridges blurring past me, the traffic, my mom getting increasingly more upset as time rolled on and it became more obvious that he was not going to get better, not this time. The false alarms, the strain, trying to be there for my mom in a way that I couldn’t be when my dad died because I was only seventeen then. I was too self involved with my own grief then. None of my friends had ever lost someone younger than a grandparent and no one knew what to do with me. I wanted to be out of the house, away from everything that made me sad and all the words I didn’t yet have to describe my grief. This time, at 34, I could be there for my mom. I could listen to the things she needed to talk about and try to take her mind off it whenever I could – Zumba classes, Tricky Tray expeditions, a trip to the casino. I would gladly keep strain of trying to be a good daughter, a good sister, a good niece over this endless corridor where time feels like it’s going both too fast and too slow and nothing feels certain anymore.
But that’s not really what I want to focus on, I want to focus on how my uncle lived.
My mom and uncle lived in Brooklyn as children, my grandmother worked at the Ideal factory and my grandfather was a social worker. They had a happy childhood filled with road trips, eel fishing in the bay and trips to a country house by the lake that was so old fashioned that they had to use an outhouse there, a story that all the cousins (Mary, Franklin, Joann, my mother and my uncle Frank) would enjoy reminiscing about at the holidays.
In 1966, after he graduated academy, he married Joanne in a glamorous wedding. She wore a long trained lace trimmed gown and my uncle looked dashing in a morning suit with a grey tie. My mom was a bridesmaid in an emerald green dress with a green birdcage style fascinator. My grandparents looked very stylish wearing outfits similar to their children. My grandmother wore “the mink stole that you stole” as my mom says to me. The marriage lasted for four years before they parted ways.
My uncle was a flight navigator for an actual Prince. He has a few glasses rimmed in gold from his time with the Prince. The Prince was a Prince of Saudi Arabia and kind of a jerk, he wouldn’t talk to a commoner like my uncle but they had to be ready to fly whenever he wanted and where ever he wanted to go. While my uncle lived in Saudi Arabia, he learned to make bath tub gin and flew all over the world, rubbing elbows with Mick Jager, Malcolm Forbes (not jerks according to my uncle, very nice actually) and arms dealers. It was the swinging 70’s and my uncle worked for Pam Am during a time where it was incredibly sexy and fun to be in the airline industry, he partied like a rock star all over the world. He also was a very handsome man and looked like Tom Jones during a time where Tom Jones was a sex god, so between that and my uncle’s charm he was never lonely for long! He married his second wife, Lois in 1975 but the airline industry is hard on a marriage because they would be separated for long periods of time so they parted ways as well in 1979.
He and my cousin Alicia would become my sister’s godparents once Melissa and I came on the scene. My earliest memory of my uncle’s house was his backroom which seemed incredibly fun as a small child. He had a fish tank full of fish swimming all over the place that you could see through from his bar to his downstairs bedroom. When Melissa and I were allowed to sleep over, we were very excited to jump up and down on his water bed and to look at ourselves in the mirrors on the ceiling that were lit up with twinkling fairy lights. We would always insist on sleeping in that bed, making it roll like the ocean, giggling at each other in the mirror. Once puberty came, certain things began to click about that room (the artful nude paintings, the wooden massage tools, the mirrors on the ceiling, the waterbed . . .) but what can I say? My uncle was a ladies’ man!
But my uncle was also very patient. For reasons known only to him, he got it into his head that he should teach me how to play chess when I was eight. My mom rolled her eyes and scolded him that I was way too young to learn how to play and to remember everything and come up with strategy but he told her to mind her own business in typical brotherly fashion (they were at their happiest when they could be squabbling with each other over some minor detail and my mom could be bossy to him and my uncle could tell her that he knew what he was doing in typical Italian sibling fashion). My uncle kept at it with me, rarely letting me win unless I could manage it myself and smugly told my mom that I could learn strategy and remember all the pieces. He gave me a wooden chess set that Christmas to celebrate our triumph.
Christmas Eve has always been a particularly happy time for my mom’s family. We always make too much food and get the kids so excited that we/they didn’t know what to do with themselves. The adults always made the kids wait until after dessert to open presents. When it was at my uncle’s house, he would always serve something exotic for my mom to turn her nose up at along with our traditional zitas, Italian heroes, meatballs, strufoli and cucidati. When we would have Christmas at my uncle’s house he would always have a fire in the fireplace of his back room that he stubbornly cobbled together himself because he wanted an extra room.
When we were small, my uncle would always bring my sister and me dolls from all over the world that we would show off at show and tell in elementary school. My favorites were always the ones with the most glitter so the Las Vegas Showgirl who wore a glittering bikini and a huge feather headpiece was a favorite along with the Indian doll with her shining sari.
My uncle was a free spirit who loved to travel, loved to eat new and exciting food and liked nice things. He had a Jaguar that he was so proud of and he bought my mom and grandmother expensive jewelry from abroad. In the early 1980s, he bought a ski resort and mountain called Eagle Mountain where he had a cozy little ski chalet. My dad gamely tried to learn to ski but wound up knocking a bunch of people over in his efforts and called it quits. I slowly trotted along with a ski instructor while my sister happily built snowmen, rolling around in the snow in her little snow suit.
When we were a little older, he met his last wife, Laura in the late 1980s. Aunt Laura had a big family full of brothers and sisters and cousins. We ran around with all the kids at their wedding, so excited to be allowed to attend and wear our fancy dresses. Aunt Laura looked so elegant in her long ivory beaded wedding gown that shimmered when she walked. She sang a wedding song to my uncle and we thought it was the most romantic thing we had ever seen. Aunt Laura saw to it that I always got the best Christmas presents – sparkling nail polishes, my first set of Clinique make up that made me feel so grown up. In 1991, they had my uncle’s first and only child, a handsome baby boy they named Justin who would go on to follow in his father’s footsteps in the airline industry, he’s working on his degree to become an airline mechanic right now. But the airline industry is very hard on a marriage and my uncle and my aunt went their separate ways for quite a few years.
My uncle continued to work in the airline industry for many years in a few different capacities. He was always there with a joke and a laugh for us or a scolding if needed. When I wrecked my first car he took me out to teach me to drive correctly as he put it. He taught me to always look in my rearview mirror, my side mirrors and then to physically turn my head to check my blind spots. He was always interested in whatever my sister and I were doing and never made us feel like he judged us. He bought a boat that he would play pirates on with Justin and claimed he would fix up some day and spent a little time in a gorgeously huge house out in Bayshore that had a dreamy view of the bay which I would pretend were English moors as a young teen and I would stomp around out there, brooding over what I imagined to be my lost loves even though they never knew I even liked them in the first place.
He came to my first SalonCon and laughed with my mom about everyone dressed so crazy in corsets and mini skirts. When we would travel together, we would always eat the craziest thing on the menu and he would ask me about my writing and I said I would write his memoir, he just had to just give me the notes.
At the end of his life, my Aunt Laura came to live with him again and selflessly nursed him through his last days and always made sure he had whatever he wanted and that he was well taken care of which will forever be appreciated by my family.
Sometimes my mom looks at me and says she doesn’t know where I came from. The travel she gets, we’ve always been a family full of wanders. But sushi? Why do I need such crazy expensive shoes? Why am I always doing such crazy things all the time? And I always tell her because, I’m just like your brother.
I hope I’m always like you, Uncle Frank. I love you and I miss you in ways that I can’t even think about yet. I thought we’d have so much longer together and we’d always have more time to try just one more dish, travel to one more place and to write your memoirs over big glasses of red wine. There’s a hole in my heart as big as your smile and it’s never going to fill up again. You were so much larger than life and you always will be to me. May angels guide you in.