I’ve had this open in my computer for months- wanted to put it someplace permanent. My mother sent me this as it was making rounds in the various large italian family email chains- it’s a little eulogy/ancedote written about my grandmother by a distant cousin of some kind that I believe I’ve only met once or twice. Even though I’ve never heard the story firsthand, it’s so true to her and my grandfather’s personalities and is a nice memory of them to have, even if it’s not mine.
Lost in all the pre- and post-Sandy turmoil was the passing of my aunt and uncle, Joe and Joan Intrabartola. Their quiet deaths have affected me personally so much less than recent events, yet in profound ways that I feel I must voice. In a eulogy delivered at my uncle’s wake, it was said that the headstone that marks your time on this earth contains two dates separated by a dash. It is what you do with that dash that defines you and determines the mark you leave on humanity; a legacy for all to see and appreciate. In memories, no one really ever dies, which is why we fondly recall these stories that entertain us and probably bore our children who’ve heard it all before. With that in mind, I’d like to share with you something that, if you knew them, will make you smile and keep them alive in our memories.
My aunt and uncle were children of the pre-war Rockaways as is most of my family on my mother’s side. My ties to Arverne are still very strong. The devastation to the Rockaway Peninsula is a heartfelt blow to those who know the places and scenes from youth that will never be the same. Growing up on the beaches of Rockaway teaches you many things: I got my first stitches there, built my first sand castle, crabbed the stone jetties, caught my first fish and learned to surf thanks to my cousin Michael who also taught me how surfing and near-drowning go hand-in-hand. As I got a little older, I came to appreciate Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s. My aunt and uncle and their brood of six lived around the corner and my family of eight would descend upon the neighborhood for all kinds of adventures.
My aunt had an almost magical way with people and family. She had a way of looking at you that cut through any fact or fantasy you could conjure. She made you feel like you were the most worthy person on the face of the earth or made you want to hide from her countenance. There was a constant vying for attention from Joan, everybody fought for her notice and advice, whereas if you wanted my Uncle Joe’s attention, all you had to do was something wrong. Then you got his attention and more…
My cousin Peter is 7 months older than me and could only be described as a ringleader. My Sunday visits were consumed with mischief and misadventures in his wake. In the pre-dinner hours we got to go off on our own, my aunt would always bid us off with one caveat: Don’t go down to the bay! A number of years before, my grandfather’s sister had lost a son to the notorious Rockaway undertow and any talk of it was filled with tales of terror and dread, all designed to keep us kids in line, I’m sure.
No sooner were we out of sight, and headed towards the bay in search of “boat anchors”. Fascinating stuff these forbidden trips! People dumped garbage, had parties, fished and crabbed, and dug clams at low tide- always something to see and do. I can never remember any danger from an undertow; we weren’t there to swim, per se. It was the mud. The telltale proof of where you spent your day. It clung to your sneakers and jeans in a foul-smelling slick that no matter how careful you were, you were wearing it back home. That is of course, unless you fell in the water off the bulkhead, trying to bait a hook or catch “killies” for bait with white bread in a mayonnaise jar. Either way, you knew what was waiting for you when you got back…
My aunt’s child radar worked to perfection those days. She would catch us on the way back to the house. Wet, muddy, smelly and miserable, covered in muck, we must have made quite a sight. She never completely freaked out on us. A testament to her compassion for the pitiable. She would look at us with mirth in her smile and I-told-you-so in her voice. But always the same sentence she would utter as she ushered us home. “Don’t tell your uncle!”