Once in the city, every young girl on every corner looked like my niece: thin, athletic build, high ponytailed hair, carrying some sort of mobile device, and it was quite a chore to look for her and pay attention to traffic at the same time. I screamed her name out the car window. No one turned their heads to respond, and taxis and cars were honking away. I passed where I was supposed to meet my niece and slipped into a spot in front of the Kips Bay Plaza two blocks down.
In another call to my sister, I explained about overshooting the designated pickup point. Then I spotted Olivia, a slim girl with brilliant blue eyes and long, dark blonde hair dressed in black approaching my car. “Oh, I see her,” I told my sister. “She’s here.” Olivia opened the car door and jumped in. She removed her jacket, and in anticipation of going through a Hudson River crossing, turned on the recirculation button to, as she put it, “drown out those nasty tunnel fumes.” Her youth, her technological skills, her intelligence, made me feel self-conscious so her texting preoccupation suited me just fine. Normally nervous driving through the tunnel, I felt safe with my niece sitting in the passenger seat—just she and I, pushing our way deeper into the grimy tiled walls of the Lincoln Tunnel, anticipating the light at the end.
My sister had arranged her car with snacks and water in the back for our mother and me. Three generations of four women climbed into her BMW station wagon—four women with six different titles formed a configuration of two mothers, two sisters, three daughters, one grandmother, one granddaughter, one niece and one aunt to pay our respects to uncle, great-uncle and brother-in-law.
As we drove down 95 South, my sister decided that we needed to look up a restaurant in the area where we could grab a bite before the services. Out popped the iPhone again and my niece dutifully contacted a place she had quickly reviewed, and made a reservation for four.
The Funeral Service
The room was filled with children, combing and brushing one another’s long hair lovingly with their fingers, and adults that seemed much calmer than what I was used to in New York. There were pictures of Uncle Tony and Aunt Terry at lavish parties, on their honeymoon cruise, even with our parents at our house, but everything was simple, clean, elegant, serene and peaceful, without drama or overt signs of grief. No open coffin was in sight. He had been cremated and packaged into a small box. Cremation always made me a bit uncomfortable. A whole life of accomplishments, love, emotions, family—reduced to ashes.
His daughter began the eulogy, consulting her notes every so often. She told the story of how he was still playing bridge up to his death, and was teaching his aide how to play. He requested a glass of wine because as he put it, “this is my special occasion.” Who would refer to death as their “special occasion?” He met his fate with courage and dignity. We asked our cousins about the home in Sag Harbor, and they said they had plans for major renovations.
A well-dressed man looking crisp and clean in a sports jacket, checked shirt and creased pants approached my mother and they began a conversation. I vaguely recalled the face from many years back. My mother looked at me, and as if quizzing me on a test, asked, “You remember who this is?” It instantly clicked. “Oh, my gosh,” I said. “Phil! I’m Sandy, the little girl at Uncle Tony’s house in Sag Harbor.”
My sister introduced Phil to my niece, and she listened with interest as he spoke about those summer days in Sag Harbor, how his twenty-something son was still living with him and his wife, and always “threatening” to leave, and he laughed good humoredly. His mother had recently passed away. “Where is she buried?” I asked. He tilted his head in quizzical amazement. “In Sag Harbor,” he replied.
Of course, Sag Harbor. But, of course.
Dedicated in fond memory to my uncle, Anthony Rufolo, who passed away on April 22, 2012.