At Spatola's home for funerals
By Anthony Buccino
my grand-uncles died, back in the 1960s,
Andrew Pagliaro died April 22, last week. He was 93 years old. I never got to talk to him before he died. I have a couple of letters he sent me a couple of years ago.
I keep his letters with a note from New York Times writer Russell Baker who once lived in Belleville and wrote part of Growing Up about life here, and two from Gay Talese, author of Unto The Sons and more.
In October 1991, Andrew Pagliaro, age 92, saw my name in an ad for my book A Father's Place in the Italian Tribune. He wrote me a letter and asked me if I was related to Anthony Buccino, the first person he met in America when he came here in 1907.
Andrew said his Anthony Buccino lived at 6th Ave. on the corner of 12th St. in Newark. Andrew and Anthony both went to St. Rose of Lima school. My Buccino family is hard to trace before 1929, and I wrote that as far as I could tell, I was not related to his old friend.
Pagliaro's letter touched me. I am not made of stone. His letter, scratchily scrawled, showed me how moved he must have been to see my name and how touched he was by the memory of a good friend he had when he was seven. What would I remember from my childhood should the Lord allow me to live to 93?
I thought Andy was a sweet, precious little old man. I sent him a free book. It doesn't end there. Andy Pagliaro is from the old school. On Christmas Day 1991, he sat down and wrote me a thank you note on a half-sheet of lined notebook paper.
At Andy's wake, Spatola's parking lot was nearly empty on a Friday night in April. Spatola's is a grand old funeral parlor on Mount Prospect Avenue in Newark. I walk through empty rooms at Spatola's and remember many family funerals, and my father's in 1980.
Walking into a wake of someone I didn't know to visit his bier I felt uneasy in a pleasant sort of way. I knew that unless I stopped by to tell the story of Andy's letters, his family might never know about his childhood friend whose name was the same as mine, and though probably not related to me, merely seeing that name inspired Andy to remember a good friend from long ago.
Andy was slightly built, with a thin white mustache. His visage reminded me of an old-time Italian barber. He was not a barber. The Star-Ledger said he had been a materials handler for Wagner Electric in Newark until he retired in 1964. With his late wife Helen, he had two children, Gloria and Michael, and five grandchildren. Andy enjoyed retirement for twenty-nine years. God bless you, Andy, and rest your soul.
They say the first afternoon of a wake is for the family and the evening is for friends. When my grand-uncles died, back in the 1960s, wakes lasted two days before the funeral. These days, people want to get on with life, such that it is. Shorter viewing relieves stress on the family, and cuts down expenses.
I did not know Andy Pagliaro except for the two letters he wrote to me. When I turned to face the family, I did not know who to console. I stared, dumbly collecting my thoughts. This was the same room my dad, grandmother and Aunt Julia were laid out in their time.
First I spoke my regrets to Andy's son-in-law, then to his daughter, then to the small group gathered. There was much he could have said about our ancestor's struggles, I said.
They seemed not to know that Andy's first friend in America was Tony Buccino. They seemed a bit surprised that he would have written to someone whose name appeared in the Italian Tribune. Even now, at 93, Andy Pagliaro surprised his family.
I'd like to think that as I quietly exited through the nearly empty funeral parlor that the story of the writer who got a letter from Grandpa Andy was being retold to his grandchildren in the back of the room.
First published in The Belleville Post, Nutley Journal on November 11, 1993.
Adapted from Sister Dressed Me Funny by Anthony Buccino
Also appears in Greetings from Belleville, New Jersey collected writings by Anthony Buccino
Essays, photography, military history, more
New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards.
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