Sitting in a packed Tampa funeral parlor just before Easter, I listened to my cousins eulogize our Uncle Steve, whose Sicilian mob connections may have seemed, if that's all you knew about him, to have been at odds with his optimism, cornpone humor and, most of all, his credo that you never, ever, turn against your family.
As my cousins talked, they brought back to life this colorful man, and at one point the mourners were laughing until they gasped for air when reminded that he could be, putting it mildly, annoying with the damn telephone.
Blind for years and not adjusting to it at all, Uncle Steve called people almost 24/7 to let them know he was still, for better or worse, a force in their lives. Playing his memory-dial cordless with the finesse of a concert pianist, he'd track down his wife at a doctor's office, his sister at the grocery store, his niece in a foreign country.
As laughter rippled up and down the pews, I was transported to my parents' house 13 years before. It was a Saturday night, after 10 o'clock, and as usual, my 70-something parents were watching TV. And as usual, they weren't enjoying this activity together. My father was in the family room, watching Walker, Texas Ranger, while my mother was in the living room, watching something British on PBS. Robin, their fat old spaniel, snored and snarfled at her feet.
My father's hearing was awful so he had his TV on full blast. To combat his roaring TV, my mother turned hers to a deafening level. Both rooms, on either side of the doorless kitchen, had sound-bouncing oak floors, and the combined resonance of the dueling TVs, the wood flooring and the wheezing dog was equal to an airport tarmac. When the TVs were at full throttle, nothing, but nothing, could penetrate that sound barrier.
Suddenly, a ferocious battering was shaking the front door.
The dog lumbered to her feet and added to the din by barking for all she was worth as my terrified mother, not once thinking of turning down the TV, ran through the kitchen to the family room, flapping her arms and calling out to my father that someone was trying to break in. My father, of course, couldn't hear a single word but he was getting the picture. As the thundering continued, vibrating the floors, my father tried to leap from his recliner, but that was a no-go. He was on full-time oxygen and didn't have the breath to get up, especially when a hefty dose of alarm was thrown in.
As he was cursing and untangling his oxygen tubing, my mother was racing back to the living room, repeatedly demanding, "Who's there? Who's there?" until she remembered to mute the TV and shush the dog and could finally hear, "It's the police."
Trembling, she opened a little curtained window in the door and said, "What do you want?"
And here is what the nice policeman said: "Your husband's brother Steve wanted us to check on you. He got worried when no one answered the phone."
To be perfectly clear, this missed phone call would have been after Uncle Steve had already spoken to my father at least five or six times throughout the day. Each call typically lasted 30 seconds, just long enough to make contact.
My mother's trembling with fear turned to trembling with fury and worse when she found my father, wild-eyed and out of breath, slumped against the dishwasher, which is as far as he'd gotten in his shuffling rush to thwart the burglars or murderers or whatever was shaking the house apart.
The kind policeman helped him up and my parents promised to call Uncle Steve after they recovered.
Recovery took some time, of course. They were pretty shaken up by the two-minute episode, and the ensuing phone call an hour later was none too pleasant. As my mother raged in the background, my dad told Uncle Steve with characteristic terseness, "don't call like that anymore," which Uncle Steve interpreted as "don't call here again."
The next day Uncle Steve called me, whimpering. Remember, this was the family mafioso, the one who spent time in prison for illegal gambling, the guy who always called the shots, and now he's whimpering in my ear, "I can't call my brother any more?"
I told him that of course he could call his brother, but that he must never call after 9 and he must never ever EVER send the police to my parents' house. Period. Finito. No arguments.
"But what if I'm worried," he mewled.
"Forget about it," I said, speaking to him firmly for the first time in my life. "Your worrying could give them heart attacks. Is that what you want?"
A few days later my mother told me that she had continued blowing up about the "invasion," as she called it, and despite Uncle Steve's apologies, she remained frosty when he resumed his multiple daily calls.
And then she told me that in the middle of one of her rants my father had put his hand over his heart, and with pain in his face he'd said to her, "Please, no more, he's my brother." In a flash, she said, she saw that he was right.
Now listening to my cousins in that packed funeral parlor, I saw that the truth of it had always been right there, in my father's words, my mother's acceptance of them, and Uncle Steve's credo: Never, ever, turn against your family.
Linda Guggino Humphers lives in Clearwater.