He was my friend, not my father. But, a long time ago, when I was adrift, he had wanted to be.
We first met in 1967 at my mother’s funeral. He and his wife, Bonnie, along with their eldest daughter and their son, my classmate, were among the people that attended whom I still now recall. Neither of us could have imagined that this first meeting during a time of what is still my greatest sorrow would have begun a relationship lasting 55 years.
It began with Sunday dinners. Now, Sunday dinner in an Italian household is an event. It took me a while to realize that what I thought was the main course was, as a matter of fact, only the pre-dinner starter, the “warm up”, so to speak. It ended with desert(s) – sometimes at the dinner table, sometimes in front of the TV. But, at various times throughout those Sunday afternoons, appearances would be made by Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Mike. They all lived on the first floor of the house and would trek up and down the back staircase whenever I or anyone one else was upstairs. They had all come from Naples and brought with them the simple, infectious joy only the truly happy can share.
Bonnie was as close to being a Lucy Ricardo double as anyone could be. Her antics, facial contortions and talent for getting into “trouble” would make a Sphinx laugh. He was a marvelous combination of Archie Bunker and The Godfather. Despite untold numbers of hours spent together it would take many years for me to learn the depth of his and Bonnie’s feelings for me and mine for them.
Years passed and my visits became less frequent. Swing shifts, undercover work and the shame of a failed marriage were excuses. I should have known better.
Occasionally, I would drive past the old house letting memories flood over me. To burst out laughing was not uncommon. And then one day there he was, unloading groceries from his car parked at the curb. And then there I was – back. Just like that.
Bonnie had passed and he was living, still, on the second floor. His youngest daughter and family had taken over the first floor when the Grandparents were gone. Everything was nearly the same upstairs. The furniture had a few newer pieces added to the collection and the dining room table seemed to have become his office with papers, books and photos laid out in neat piles. We had coffee.
After a few more visits he said he was thinking about moving to Florida to be closer to his eldest daughter and the youngest of the girls was moving there, too. He asked me what I thought.
Great idea, I said. The neighborhood was changing and being with family was most important, I told him. And so firm plans were made to sell the house and move. We continued to talk.
Billy, sit down, he said. I have something to tell you. You know, Bonnie and I really cared about you.
I don’t think you know how much.
Yeah. We wanted to adopt you.
Yeah, we met with an attorney and were going to ask you what you thought. But one of your half-sisters, I wont tell you which one, learned what we were thinking and put the kibosh on it. We wanted to help you but didn’t want to make any trouble in the family. You already had enough. So we dropped it.
I don’t know what to say.
I know, he said. I just wanted to let you know how much we loved you.
And so a new bond was forged at that dinner table. Stories of relatives and of his work over the years were told. How he had worked with Freddie Trump putting up buildings in NYC. And of meeting the young Donald. And of Donald being taught the value of labor and the dignity of the laborers. He was still a pain in the ass, though, he said. Tales of horses and racing and meeting Goldie Hawn in Vegas (she sometimes acts whacky but she’s really a nice lady and plenty smart). But, the most frequent conversations, other than family, were about music.
He had hit the road just after high school playing in a few area big-bands. After a while he joined The Ray Anthony Band and toured the country. Xavier Cougat, Louie Prima and Keely Smith were but a few of the characters he met while “on the road” in the early and mid-1940’s. He loved music and his stories of being part of a famous “Big Band” were always interesting and sometimes hilarious. It all ended when he met the true love of his life, Bonnie.
When he returned home with his new bride he obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering and helped build many iconic buildings in New York and in Connecticut. His stories of the ins and outs of the building trades in NYC were…interesting. Mostly, though, he built a family and a life.
I think of him more often than I would have imagined. While he had spent the last few years in an assisted living facility we enjoyed many, many phone conversations. He would complain about not being able to get any decent Italian food. I would tease him about never “passing up dessert”. He would belly laugh and tell me I had a one-track mind. I’d just say, I don’t know what you mean.
Our conversation on January 12 was one of our longest and most meaningful. We spoke about everything: music, politics, construction, sports, family and, of course, food. And God. He spoke, too, for a while to The Redhead. How she loved talking with him and how special he made her feel. At the end of our conversation we said something we didn’t often say, but both understood:
I love you, Pete.
I love you, too, Billy.
My friend, my confidant, Peter Mercurio fell into a coma shortly after that call and passed 17 days later. How grateful I am for speaking those last few words. And for his.