Goodbye to an Italian prince, but not his kingdom
My extended family is huge. My mother has 27 first cousins, most of them still living within an hour’s drive of each other in the suburbs of New Jersey. And our family got just a bit smaller when one of those cousins, Dr. Arthur Falgione, passed this weekend. We weren’t close – I haven’t actually seen the guy in years, and I haven’t laid eyes on his children since they were babies, though I know through the family grapevine that they are grown and doing well. I won’t be making the trip up to Jersey to pay my respects for my cousin Artie, but since I got the news I have been thinking about him and remembering him fondly. I always got a huge charge out of Artie, and also his father, my Uncle Art. Uncle Art, who married my grandfather’s sister Olympia, was a New York Port Authority cop and worked a beat in the Lincoln Tunnel, and I believe I owe to him my penchant for idiom. It was he who taught me the phrase “on the arm,” which essentially means “free,” and down in the tunnel there was much opportunity for on-the-arm merchandise. “Sometimes a box falls just right,” my Uncle Art would say, meaning the box would be damaged as it came off a truck but the goods inside would be just fine. Art warned me when I was just a child about those who would perpetrate the “fast shuffle,” and when he got wise to the wiseguys he would always say the same thing: “School’s out.” Somewhere in the family’s vast trove of slides there is an image of Uncle Art and his wife Olympia at Christmastime. They are both wearing togas fashioned from white bedsheets. Also among the archive is a shot of young Artie just back from medical school in Italy, which that branch of the family pronounces “It-lee.” A tight white T-shirt clings to his muscular olive frame, his jet-black hair swept into a pompadour, eyes the color of black olives blazing with good humor and intelligence. “Artie looked like a movie star,” my mother says. Every family has its stories, and many of ours feature Artie as the protagonist. In high school he spent nearly every weekend with his grandfather, my great-grandfather, Pellegrino Pagano, and cruised the Morristown junkyards which at the time comprised the family business. One Christmas, home from college, he filled in for an errant altar boy during midnight mass at the Villa Walsh. He was bigger than the priest. When he became an eye doctor he continued a family tradition begun by my grandfather, a dentist, who started giving the nuns of the Villa Walsh free dental care in the 1950s. Artie followed suit, and he took great pride in the front-row pew reserved for him and his family each year at midnight mass. He was, as my mother often said, an Italian prince: smart, witty, handsome… the pride of a family that didn’t always have much, but always had each other. He fitted me with my first pair of contact lenses when I was 12, and he took them away from me when I was 13 because I didn’t care for them or my eyes properly. I was just a kid, but he took pains to explain carefully the manner in which I would go blind if I didn’t treat my peepers with a little more respect. I got it, and by the time I was 14 he gave me another pair of lenses. The last time I spoke to him was more than 15 years ago. And it was about my eyes. I was tending bar in New Orleans and while breaking up a bar fight a piece of glass from a broken bottle made a gash in the white of my right eye. His was the only advice I would trust. I called him on the phone. “Jeez. Brian,” he said. “What the hell are you doing down there?” He suffered a stroke a few years ago, I learned through the family newswire, and had lost perhaps a bit of his twinkle and shine, but still his spirit blazed through his damaged shell. A guy like Artie, nothing keeps him back. And the story of his passing is sad but appropriate. He was with his wife, Cathy, and one of his sons, driving in the car to a party. Cathy drove; she says he hadn’t been looking too good of late. He put his head back and stayed like that long enough to scare everybody. She pulled over at the nearest intersection. My cousin Artie spent his last moments at a church, surrounded by his family and his faith, as an EMT tried to resuscitate him. By all reports, he went peacefully. This is how family works: We are connected by unseen bonds that transcend place and time. We are of the same cloth, though often of different patterns. We are together through good times and bad. And when one of us passes, we all mourn. I haven’t seen Artie in years, so in my mind’s eye he’s still wearing his father’s smirk that borders on salacity; his eyes still blaze and his spirit fills the room. The Italian prince is gone, but his kingdom is forever. To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.