When you’re a child, you inevitably have a favorite Aunt or Uncle, and if you are lucky, they are married to each other. I was lucky because my favorite aunt on my father’s side was Aunt Nancy, and she just so happened to be married to my favorite uncle, Uncle Casey. This morning, my uncle Casey died, and I’m sad, really sad. Pieces of the already spotty memory I have of my childhood are fading fast, but when you get a call that someone has died, memories come flooding back with abandon and in no particular order.
I spent my early years growing up on Long Island. I remember being surrounded daily by more DeNicola’s than my mother’s side of the family, even though that side was far bigger than the DeNicola side. My grandfather owned a construction company with his three sons, My father, Jimmy, and his two brothers, Tony and Casey. I remember spending hours at the “yard,” and the smell of a mix of diesel and cigarette smoke is forever etched into my subconscious. My Uncle Casey was the youngest and the most fun. His laugh was contagious; if I close my eyes sitting at my desk in Nashville, I can hear him laughing. It’s a sound that hadn’t changed in fifty years, and when I visited my Aunt and Uncle after my father died, I heard that laugh, bringing me back to my childhood.
As a child of divorce, my early years were rocky at best, but Aunt Nancy and Uncle Casey were always that reassuring calm in the storm that was growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother trying to navigate her way through it all. Aunt Nancy is probably the only reason I know my multiplication tables. She would spend HOURS with me after school in her tiny apartment somewhere on Long Island with the flashcards and a snack. I have memories of Uncle Casey yelling at the tv at an Islander hockey game or talking to my father about “the old man,” my grandfather. I remember being amazed that they would call their father “the old man,” but I knew he was never within earshot.
Death is a weird thing that I have always struggled with, and I can never really fully understand how someone can be in this world one minute and a second later just gone. And gone where? The older I get, I start to lean into my early childhood Catholic teaching with a mix of other things and believe that the good people head straight up to heaven. They do not stop in some waiting room; they just head up there and find the people that went on ahead of them, and when they are done hugging, kissing, and holding their people, they see God, and she tells them the rules. They learn how to send signs to the people back on earth. How to make a room smell like cigarettes to remind their wife they are looking out. How to get a Cardinal to sit on their granddaughter’s windowsill to remind them they are there for them. And the lucky ones master the secret of coming to their husband in a dream to remind them of their happy life together.
I was estranged from my DeNicola family as I grew into an adult, but we managed to reconnect when I lived in Manhattan for six months, and I am forever grateful. I will miss my sweet Uncle Casey and wish I was there to hug my Aunt Nancy and Kip, but I know he’s up in the big yard in the sky learning all the tricks.
*Because I’m a child of the 70’s, there aren’t very many pictures of my childhood. That top picture was taken about 11 years ago when I reconnected with my DeNicola family. The photo is Uncle Tony, Uncle Casey, and my Dad.