By Sandra Lee Rufolo
The news came via e-mail one spring day. My cousin notified me that his father had died. He was my father’s brother, Tony, a soft-spoken, kindly man. He had retired in 1986 as director in the materials department with the Naval Base in Annapolis, Md., where he was transferred in 1970 from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Uncle Tony was quite an influence in my life and the lives of my two sisters. He was the deciding factor in me attending Southampton College for Marine Biology in the early ’70s. He had also encouraged my sister to work as he did, a civilian for the Navy in research, but she declined and has regretted it ever since. Although he had reached the ripe age of 94, death is never easy. My mother always said, once he goes, the connection between her and my father will fade as he was a reminder of their close bond of brotherhood and of the days they all spent together in Brooklyn, he playing handball with my father and they all going bowling in Astoria, Queens.
Uncle Tony called my mother every year on my late father’s birthday, which fell on St. Patty’s Day, just to remember him fondly and to chat with my mom. His first wife, Bernie, whom I had never met, died in her late 30s of thrombosis. As her illness progressed, and she was no longer able to care for herself, Uncle Tony came home from work every day to feed her lunch and to read her passages from the Bible. No one could figure out where he found the time to do this, but he did. No one had a bad word to say about Uncle Tony.
At work, I tried to hold back tears at my desk: dinners hosted by him and his elegant wife in their Brooklyn brownstone. And the summer days in Sag Harbor, when as a little girl, I climbed through the skeleton of the house he had designed and built himself from the ground up. I still remember roughhousing with my uncle’s nephew by marriage. Phil was a little older than I, tall and quite handsome, and he dared me to jump off the unfinished porch. Being the tomboy I was, and also harboring a secret, little crush, I took him up on the dare, and skinned my knees pretty badly. We had fun going there, watching that house go up, and the many summers thereafter spending time with Uncle Tony and my cousins, his son and daughter, at the Village Beach, even though we lived not far up the Island. After my uncle and his family moved to Annapolis, it was still to this Sag Harbor retreat they returned summer after summer.
So it was decided, in an unspoken agreement, that we would attend the services in Annapolis. I informed my cousin, via cellphone, that my sister, my mother and I would be there. I left my home in Eastern Long Island around10 a.m. that Sunday morning and was en route to New Jersey where my sister lives. While stuck in traffic on the LIE in Queens by LeFrak City, my cellphone rang and I looked down to see my sister’s name glaring back at me from the black, shiny glass of my iPhone.
“Where are you right now?” her voice questioned through the Bluetooth device on the visor, in the authoritative way she retained from her days as an executive at a cosmetics company from which she prematurely retired. Claire was always the one in the family that “handled” things. “I’ll handle it,” was one of her favorite mantras. All four of her children went to private schools in New Jersey, two daughters having since graduated from elite colleges and residing in Manhattan. “Well,” I replied to her question, “I’m approaching the city,” always the words I used when I couldn’t pinpoint how long it would take for me to arrive at her house, and somewhat on the edge of my seat that she surmised I had left a little later than I had informed her. “Oh, well,” she said, “Olivia decided to come. She doesn’t have time to take the train. Do you think you can pick her up in the city when you get there?” “Sure,” I said. After a few details that included a taxi from Olivia’s apartment, an estimation of how long before I actually got into the city and a slight disagreement about whether to make a left turn on Second Avenue or to go straight after getting out of the Midtown Tunnel, I had the whole schematic in my head.