“I wish I would have written them down so I’d never forget,” said my cousin Carol who, as the oldest of my 40 Viola cousins spent every weekend sitting with her brother Charlie whose stories made her laugh even as he lay dying.
We can reconcile the death of a parent with the gentle understanding that nature is following its predetermined course, but losing a brother or sister is never easily justified. There’s an implicit pact that you helped each other survive the worst moments of childhood and celebrate the best. The dissolution of that bond severs that part of you that you spent years using, drinking, or in therapy trying to escape, but whose memories bring strange comfort in the lonely recesses of night.
Charlie’s voice has been removed from the choir of our family. Gone with that voice is the laughter, the memories, the connection with a part of our collective past that only he could bring to life with such clarity that I often had to remind myself that it was his memory, not mine.
Growing up in Fort Lee surrounded by 40 cousins blurred the lines between cousins, brothers and sisters. We all took care of each other; we all had a role. Charlie assumed the role of comedian. From the depths of my memory I can’t remember a time when he did not make all of us laugh, mostly at the most inopportune times—wakes, funerals, when our uncles were screaming punishments at us. Even the mistakes he made were hilarious.
Charlie had the distinct pleasure of working in the film industry with my grandmother. Now, my four-foot nothing grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. Any woman widowed at 37 with 10 children is a woman who takes crap from nobody, most especially from her sarcastic teen-aged grandchild. Every day a car came to pick them up and everyday he collected more stories about Grandma. It’s because of Charlie that memories of my grandmother are preserved for me.
Charlie also raised the bar for the Viola family and brought us into high society. One summer in the early 70’s, four or five cousins were getting married. The altar boys in the family made a fortune serving the wedding masses! Up until Charlie’s wedding (“Charles” to my aunts and uncles), the VFW served as our reception hall. Charlie broke tradition when he married the only daughter of a well-to-do local family. His reception was at The Manor, in West Orange. Well, my aunts were in a tizzy for months buying new dresses and getting their wigs coiffed in preparation for the big day. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last, but the memory of my family “moving on up” like the Jefferson’s did.
As I sat in the old Madonna Church on the hill listening to Father Carey’s sermon, staring at a portrait of Charlie smiling to the point of smirking, I couldn’t help but cry. Cry for the loss of laughter, cry for the fact that our once vibrant family has thinned, cry for the mortality of all of us crowded into the pews of a church that our family has been baptized, confirmed, and married in for 100 years.
My hand searched my pocketbook for a tissue. Finally, I came across a stiffened crumpled tissue and pressed it against my eyes. Suddenly, it felt like my eyes were on fire and it was all I could do to suppress screaming in pain. At the same time a beautiful fragrance filled the pew making me think for a moment that it was Charlie’s spirit seated beside me. Then it occurred to me. That scent was awfully familiar. I strained to look at the tissue and realized through my watery blur that it wasn’t a tissue I had wiped my eyes with, but a used dryer sheet. Clearly, my tears re-activated the fresh Downy scent.
It seemed an appropriate thing to have happen at Charlie’s funeral and I could hear him saying in his lower-Main Street, Huntz Hall-tinged accent, “Whata you a freakin’ idiot?” Through the tears, I laughed. It reassured me that even though his life on this earth has ended, the legacy of his laughter will forever live on and the stories that he told so well will fill the empty spaces of all my yesterdays.