Thursday, March 1, 2012

Uncle Pete

When I was a kid we lived at 77A Somers Street in Brooklyn. The house was typical for the neighborhood; three stories, a basement and back yard. Our family lived on the first two floors. The "parlor" floor had a kitchen, large living room, a walk-in pantry and bathroom, while the second floor consisted of three railroad-style bedrooms separated by sliding pocket doors. On the third floor was a rental apartment that was occupied by my father's nephew Pete, who I always called Uncle Pete. He was the son of my father's sister Mary, who died at a young age. Lea was Pete's pretty wife, and they had a son, Peter, who lived with them. They also had a daughter, Mary Ellen, who I'm not sure was born to them while they lived with us, or whether she came later after they moved to Ozone Park in Queens.

Uncle Pete came from the large Caruso family that lived a few blocks away on Dean Street. He was the youngest of five brothers including Mike, Johnny, Mario and Jimmy, He also had two sisters, Lucy and Angie. Pete's sisters were two sweethearts who I remember very fondly. His brothers (except for Mike who was quiet and institutionalized for a time), were loud and scary. They drank more than they should, and every time one of them visited, there was usually a squabble. I don't know how he managed it growing up in that house with those brothers, but Uncle Pete turned out to have the sweetest disposition; there was always a smile on his face. He served in the Navy, and after the war got a job as a cook in Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn where his brothers also worked.

I saw a lot of Uncle Pete because he lived right above us. He was always willing to have a catch with me on the sidewalk in front of our house. He also encouraged me to draw. We would sit at my kitchen table and he would sketch pictures of some of the Navy ships on which he served. He was easy to talk to, and not being all that much older than me, felt more like an older brother than an Uncle. His wife Lea had blond hair and movie star good looks. She always had time for me and would ask how things were going at school. I think she might have been my first boyhood crush. Their son Peter was a happy, roly-poly baby who was the apple of their eye. I was sad when Pete and his family moved into their own home because we didn't see as much of them afterward.

After a time, Pete moved his family to Arizona. He had a job opportunity out there, and by then Ozone Park was already changing in terms of the character of the neighborhood. Knowing how much Pete loved his family, I'm sure their safety was a consideration in his decision. For a family of Brooklyn Italians to move to Ozone Park was already a big deal; you can imagine how the move to Arizona must have felt. Ironically, Pete's son Peter, by then a grown young man, was killed tragically in a motorcycle accident not long after the move. His death must have devastated their family, but somehow they picked up the pieces and kept going.

Some years ago, I took a trip to the Grand Canyon with my two sons, and thought I'd pay Uncle Pete a visit. A mutual friend who used to live next door to us on Somers Street had also moved to Arizona, and he arranged for all of us to meet at Pete's daughter's home. I was a little apprehensive when we arrived since it had been so many years that we had seen each other. When we walked in, I saw that familiar smile on Uncle Pete's face and the years just fell away. He gave me a big bear hug and we had a good cry. We went out to dinner, and all night Pete peppered my sons with questions as if he knew he had only one night to learn all he could about them. Lea was as pretty as ever, and we met Mary Ellen's husband and sons.

I found out not too long ago that Uncle Pete had to be placed in a nursing home to be treated for Alzheimer's disease. I'm sure this is very hard on his family, but I hope that somewhere deep down inside him, he recalls drawing with me at the kitchen table, and that this memory brings that familiar and beautiful smile to his face.


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The Whiner said...

Aw, I'm sorry about Uncle Pete. That's too bad. You should dig up some stuff on those Carusos...they sound quite blog-worthy!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Actually I had written a blog about them but it contained stuff that was probably better off left unsaid, so I never published it. They were a nasty bunch except for Pete and the girls of course.