Two Sundays ago, my father’s oldest brother Vincenzo Petralia (Uncle Jimmy to his hundred or so nieces and nephews) passed away from cancer. When I found out that he had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, I wept for a long time – partly because I had many fond memories of him and partly because I was not able to afford the cost of a flight to go see him. In many ways the news that he was ill accelerated our decision to move back to the US. I really wanted to get down to visit him to collect some of the incredible stories he used to tell, before they entered into the realm of recollection from second-hand sources. When I found out that he had passed before I made it down I felt absolutely terrible…everything I was hearing suggested he was going to be around for a while longer so I thought I’d catch him in December for a visit. Turns out, I was wrong.
As a child I spent the most time with Uncle Jimmy of all my father’s family. He lived nearby and his house was the site of numerous family gatherings. I remember spending Hurricane David in his boarded up house with dozens of cousins, my father, my sisters and friends of the family. It felt like a party to me. It always did. I think I had octopus for the first time at Uncle Jimmy’s house: I distinctly remember Jimmy dumping a live octopus in boiling water and seeing its tentacles trying to climb out of the pot. Tied up in that particular memory is the devilish facial hair Jimmy had (long head hair tied back and a pointy goatee). Someone told me he was the devil and I believed them for a moment. The truth, it turned out, was that Jimmy was devilish but totally loving and generous in his own peculiar way.
We spent many New Year’s Eves at his house. The large bar he had in his extended family room is the first place I remember having any alcohol (I think it was creme de menthe, although this memory is a bit unreliable). I also almost came out while sitting at that bar and talking to my then step-mother Mary. I remember saying that I had something I wanted to tell her but I didn’t know quite how to say it. Before I could tell her what it was she guessed (wrongly) that I wanted to tell her that I was having wet dreams. I let her think that’s what it was, chickening out and settling for a less humiliating revelation.
Jimmy had an enormous garden filled with loquat trees (just like the one my grandfather planted in front of his house when I was born), persimmons, fig, herbs and all kinds of other vegetables including Cucuzzi (A long Italian squash that my family has been growing and eating since before they immigrated to the states.). That garden was a mini wonderland that I found equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.
Uncle Jimmy was always getting into trouble… He couldn’t resist a bet and loved haggling. He was up for just about any adventure and sometimes he didn’t make the best choices in terms of who he became friends with. He was famous for taking incredibly long road trips without sleeping, kept awake only by eating pistachios whose shells he dumped on the floor of the passengers seat. He picked olives from the side of the road in California and he drove in the middle of the road. But somehow he managed to be a pretty successful business man, opening several businesses ranging from a fruit and vegetable store, to Italian restaurants, to clothing factories, to distribution companies for fruit and vegetables. In the last years of his life he was always buying something and selling it at auction (including once, recently, a goat…). One time he bought a truck filled with condoms that he gave out to the kids because he thought that they were balloons. I recently heard a story about when he was younger and living in New York. He was racing some friends along the Long Island Expressway one night and he drove through the brick walled living room of a random person’s house. No one died, but he had a permanent set of scars on his forehead from all the glass that cut up his head. I had no idea where those scars came from.
By all accounts he was probably a difficult man to live with. His first wife tried to kill him and she was duly committed against her will to a mental institution. Apparently my grandmother, feeling sorry for the woman, made Jimmy take her out of the mental ward and take her back to Sicily where she came from. He dropped her off with her mother and left with her passport in hand to be sure he wouldn’t follow him. His second wife, my Aunt Pat put up with all sorts of hijinks, but they always seemed deeply in love. I cannot imagine how sad she must feel but when I saw her she seemed mostly in shock. Luckily her kids and grandkids are helping to keep her mind occupied and active.
I remember, vaguely, a story Jimmy used to tell about the ghost who used to disturb him when he was trying to sleep as a kid in Partanna, Sicily (where my family is from). I think I’ve heard the story a dozen or more times from Jimmy and my other aunts and uncles, but I can never keep it straight. The thing I remember most about it was my impression that Jimmy truly believed that thing disturbing him was definitely a ghost. Somehow coming from him I didn’t need to question it; in Jimmy’s world anything was possible.
About ten years ago, Uncle Jimmy and my father drove over to Asheville from Tennessee where they were both living at the time, to see a play I had written that was being performed at Warren Wilson College in a workshop production. It was a totally strange and somewhat racy piece called Cheap Thrills. I was terrified about my father and Jimmy seeing the piece because I was afraid I would offend them, confuse them or make them feel uncomfortable. My father later recalled to me that after sitting down in the auditorium, Jimmy said (while laughing), ‘I think we might be the only straight people here! I bet everyone thinks we’re a couple’. He didn’t mean anything bad by his comment…I think he genuinely thought it was funny that they might be perceived that way. As it turned out they ended up sitting next to the professor who had invited me to work at WWC. At the end of the show, the professor turned to them and said, ‘Wasn’t that amazing?’, to which my father replied, ‘I have no idea!’. In the lobby afterwards Jimmy and my father saw everyone congratulating me and they both cried a bit out of pride. I don’t know if they know that I saw them doing that, but it meant a lot to me. I’m pretty sure that was the only play my uncle ever saw.
He was not a perfect man (who is) and he certainly caused a lot of grief for people from time to time, but I’m really going to miss him. It feels like a part of my life has ended fully and finally. I worry about Aunt Pat and my father who are left without Jimmy to keep their lives exciting. Selfishly, I am sad that I won’t get to hear his stories any more. I hope wherever he is, he’s causing just as much trouble as always and filling the room with laughs. More than anything, I think Jimmy just wanted to have a good time. He definitely contributed to many good times for me.
As an aside, Uncle Jimmy’s death from cancer comes after his sister Aunt Vincenzina, his brother Uncle Vito, and my grandfather Peter, all succumbed to cancer. I think my grandmother Rosalia and my cousin Frank are the only members of my immediate family on my father’s side who have not died of cancer. This is statistically worrying news for me…