Uncle Tony. I never think of the man, or speak about him, without a smile coming to my lips. Uncle Tony was a “Dutch uncle,” not really a blood relative but such a close friend of the family that you referred to him as your uncle, and we had a lot of those when I was growing up. He went to school with my Uncle Buddy, so I’m pretty sure he was born in 1922 or 1923, and although he never married, I think he was half in love with my mother — he certainly spent enough time at our house. Heaven alone knows why he didn’t ask my mother to marry him, when she was available.
Every Saturday night he’d come for a visit, along with his friend, Bill Roach, who was from Ireland; and he and my parents would talk about everything under the sun, politics, religion, baseball — football wasn’t nearly as popular as baseball back then — oddly enough, I don’t recall anyone ever talking about the job. I’m not even sure what Uncle Tony did for a living, though I think it was something to do with the Parks Dept. of NYC. But what a character he was! I almost never saw him serious, I don’t believe I ever saw him angry, unless his anger took the form of biting humor; and the most serious thing he ever said to me was, “Whatever you do, don’t grow up like your Aunt Mary.” Since I idolized Aunt Mary, I was shocked he would say such a thing; now, I understand all too well what he meant. (More about her on the anniversary of her death.)
When I began working, for reasons I will never understand, he began “dating” me. I never thought of our excursions as dates — after all, he was 25 years my senior — but I don’t know what else to call them. Namely, he would take me to dinner and a Broadway show. I saw more Broadway shows than any young woman has a right to claim she saw: Cabaret, Auntie Mame, Butterflies Are Free, Barefoot in the Park — gosh, I’ve forgotten more than I can remember. We went out about once every two months. He was always very careful of my safety, and I appreciated that, though probably not as much as I should have…. Thinking back, I have to say he was one of the best people I have ever known, one of the most ethical, one of the most moral. I can only think of maybe five other people I could say that about.
Unless you got him on the subject of politics, or the Catholic Church. Like most of us in our part of town, Uncle Tony had grown up a staunch Catholic, never missed Mass, and as his parents aged — he lived all his life with them, till they died — he’d take them to daily Mass before going to work. Vatican II was a catastrophe for him. There was nothing he liked about any of the changes, and he was very voluble on each one of them (and there were a lot of them). His friend Bill Roach finally joined a radical sect of Irish monks whose order stood in complete defiance of any kind of changes. I’m a little surprised Uncle Tony didn’t go along with him.
And politics. We were all Democrats in our part of town, since “the Democratic Party was the Party of the working man,” and as a secretary, I was about as white-collar as it got in our part of town. But what most of us distrusted about John V. Lindsay was not that he was a Republican, but that he had such liberal ideas — expansion of welfare took place in his administration, police power was radically curtailed, and it seemed to all of us that the City began to deteriorate while he was mayor. And no one was more voluble on the subject of that deterioration than Uncle Tony. To be fair, he and all his generation could remember a time when you could ride the subway system at 3:00 in the morning and never fear being molested, and gradually it got so you couldn’t set foot outside your door without risking your life or at least your wallet.
Anyway, Uncle Tony was one of the first to break with the Democratic mold, when he supported Bill Buckley for mayor, who ran on the Conservative ticket. Between that and Vatican II, it suddenly seemed as if anything was possible! He became very well read, and despite never having gone above high school — in our neighborhood, completing high school was an achievement — he could discuss any and all of the great philosophers and theologians, dissect the downfall of New York with a knowledge that could at least have matched Buckley’s, and demolish the arguments of pundits with a wealth of a lifetime’s experience.
As he grew older, though, he became a bit strange. He took to holing up in his apartment, especially after his father died, and reading more and more extreme right-wing publications. At one point, well after I was married, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him in quite some time, so I asked my mother how he was doing — and she didn’t know. After his retirement, he simply became a recluse. Very occasionally he’d call my mother, but the only person he really saw from day to day was his cousin Joe.
And it was his cousin Joe who, having called for a few days without Uncle Tony’s picking up the phone, found him dead in his apartment. It’s a sad thing to say about anybody that it isn’t known exactly when he died, but worse nowadays, when we know so much about everything, and everyone. Yet, that’s what happened to Uncle Tony; all we can say is that he passed on sometime between October 28 and October 31. It seems such a sad end for someone who was so large a part of my life, and my brothers’ and sister’s, as well. I wonder what he would have made of my becoming Orthodox; I think this faith would have suited him very well, if he had been able to break out of his firm belief in the rightness of the rule of the Pope. I don’t know if he could ever have managed that; but I think of him at this time every year, and today I’ll be able to light a candle for him. It’s the least I can do; my life would be so much poorer without his influence.