The search for an uncle lost to a pandemic past

He set out to discover who Uncle Vinny was in life.
Roy Peter Clark's uncle Vincent Marino, taken just before Vincent died of complications from tuberculosis in 1941 at a sanatorium north of New York City.  He is 19 although looks much younger, his growth stunted by the disease.
Roy Peter Clark's uncle Vincent Marino, taken just before Vincent died of complications from tuberculosis in 1941 at a sanatorium north of New York City. He is 19 although looks much younger, his growth stunted by the disease. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published Jan. 14, 2021

I am haunted by a ghost from a pandemic past.

His name was Vincent Marino. He contracted tuberculosis when he was in high school. He was the uncle I never knew, my mother’s brother. He died seven years before I was born, in 1941. In my now long life, he was never more to me than the vague memory of a single formal photo on the wall of my grandparents’ apartment.

I grew up in a New York Italian-Jewish family that talked a lot about everything, but not so much about death. They would name their babies after the dead, but not speak of them.

I knew the arc of Vincent’s story, but only the vaguest outline, like a Polaroid image before it is fully developed. He was born in 1922 to Peter and Sadie Marino, my grandparents. My mother, Shirley, was their oldest child. Vincent was a twin, entering the world with his sister Beatrice.

My mother was the only one to speak of him. I may have asked about the photo on the wall. “That’s your Uncle Vincent. He got TB. They sent him away so he could get better. But he died when he was 19, a few years before antibiotics might have saved his life. You would have liked him.”

When my younger brother was born in 1952, he would bear the burden of daily remembrance. My parents named him Vincent.

For me, the pandemic has inspired a good deal of introspection and retrospection. How the hell did we get here? How did I get here? Where do I belong? In this country, this town, this house — and, yes, this family. We have resources that can trace our ancestry, that can gather all those nuts in our family tree. Which is why, one day, I found myself surrounded by more than a thousand family photos, some going back almost a hundred years. I wasn’t looking for it, but there it was, a copy of the photo of Vincent.

I stopped asking questions about who I am, and began asking about who he was. My lost uncle. With all his contemporaries having passed away, what could I learn about him? His character, personality, habits, what he left behind in his short time on this earth? I believe in the human spirit and the souls of the dead. I wondered if there was a part of Vincent that was still alive in my family. In me. Someone I could talk to.

36 first cousins

I was born in 1948 into a huge Italian-American family on the Lower East Side of New York City. It was generated from the progeny of Vincenzo and Speranza Marino and their six children — three sons and three daughters — who arrived in America around 1900 on ships out of ports near Naples, Italy.

If we were to view the Marino family from a magic camera on top of the Statue of Liberty, what we would see from 1901 to 1931 would be six branches of the family tree, producing 36 cousins (maybe 37). All the parents were born in Italy. All the children were born in America.

They came of age in the first decades of the 20th century, the children of dark-skinned immigrants who spoke a foreign language, who were reviled by the Germans and the Irish, who would experience the effects of World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Depression.

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My Grandpa Pete married a Jewish girl, Sadie. They had four children: my mother Speranza (who would be renamed Shirley), the twins (Vincent and Beatrice) and the baby, Peter, who would be known as Junior. Even though I was the first grandchild, smothered with love and attention, I never heard a word about Vincent.

Ghostly photo images

As I looked through the family photos, I came upon some images that had been photocopied, probably by my mother years ago. The black and white copies were faint, almost as if an artist needed to fill in some spaces. My mom may have mailed them to me, or, more likely, I gathered them from her belongings after her death in 2015. It was the first time I had taken a good look at them.

Two were taken along the seashore, probably off Rockaway Beach on the South Shore of Long Island. The Marinos, remember, came from the seaport of Naples, and my grandfather was always attracted to saltwater where he used to fish, crab and dig for clams. In the photo, Grandpa is with a boy, maybe 12 years old. The boy is bare-chested and squatting next to a bushel basket full of crabs. Father and son, satisfied with the day’s bounty. Oh, my goodness, I thought. That’s young Vincent. A handsome and healthy child, not a ghost of the past.

Vincent and Peter Marino on a crabbing trip.
Vincent and Peter Marino on a crabbing trip. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

There were two other images of him. In one, he is arm in arm with his twin sister Beatrice, who towers over him. They are dressed up in a look of the 1930s. In a separate photo, he looks healthy and happy, sporting a pair of knickers. Looking at him in these indistinct images felt like I was dreaming and gave me hope that there was more to learn.

An airborne disease

Whatever damage, now and into the future, done by COVID-19, the virus has a long way to go to catch up to the suffering caused by the disease we now call tuberculosis. That is a relatively new name — dating back to the end of the 19th century. Long before that, it was known as “consumption.” It earned that name for the way the disease “consumed” the human body, a body deprived of oxygen because of the way it attacked the lungs and other organs.

Scientists would eventually isolate the bacteria that caused it, and realize that it was a respiratory disease passed from one person to another in close quarters. No wonder TB ravaged heavily populated cities across the globe.

In 1922, the year Uncle Vincent was born, New York City was still recovering from the effects of the Spanish flu pandemic. While that flu would pass, TB and other diseases would persist. Countless European immigrants settled in New York, the human energy to fuel the Industrial Revolution. They were packed into tenement buildings where disease was rampant. Not far from where the Marinos settled on the Lower East Side was a diagonal street with tenements crammed with people so ravaged by disease it became known as the Lung Block.

Young and full of life

We can see from photos that Uncle Vincent was healthy into his early high school years. He would have been a young teenager when his older sister Shirley graduated from Washington Irving High School, Class of 1937, the first person in her family to achieve that goal. We have evidence of Vincent’s personality from that year, and it comes from an amazing artifact: a leather-bound, zippered autograph book kept by my mom to honor her graduation. We found it among her possessions after she died.

Vincent Marino, Roy Peter Clark's uncle, before he fell ill.
Vincent Marino, Roy Peter Clark's uncle, before he fell ill. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

It contains perhaps a hundred messages written on pages of various pastel colors. Classmates, teachers, cousins, parents, siblings — all signed. To my amazement, early in the book, there is this inscription, written by a 14-year-old boy:

The one who steals this book should grad-u-8 in Sing Sing

I can’t imagine a more fitting bit of funny business from a family filled with wise guys. First, there is the playful “grad-u-8.” Then the idea that an act of theft would get you into the school of hard knocks, the New York prison with the famous musical name “Sing Sing.”

The page is signed by its author, Vincent Marino. The name Vincent is written uphill, Marino downhill. It is the signature of a bit of a showoff, not a shy young man.

One more little touch. In each corner of the page, Vincent leaves a single word that together form a sentence: For Get Me Not.

All branches, no leaves

Sanatorium does not sound like a good word. It sounds like a place you don’t want to be, like crematorium. But, at its root, it’s meant to signify good health and the absence of bad germs. Look closely and you can see a relationship to the words sanitary and sanitize. We are trying to do a lot of that in a pandemic.

Before the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s and 50s that could treat diseases like tuberculosis, the most enlightened cure was separation of the sick from the rest of the population. That form of quarantine was meant to control the spread of the disease. It also had the effect in the 1930s and ’40s of gathering the sick together in a place that was supposed to be healthier than their crowded homes, a place where better food, rest and some fresh air might mitigate the symptoms.

We have no evidence of exactly when Uncle Vinny contracted TB. It was in his high school years, which might have begun in 1936. By 1938, at the age of 16, he would have been symptomatic. You can see a difference in one photo discovered by my cousin, the only one that has all six of my mom’s family: mother and father and four children. It is taken at a park, and everyone is smiling in an exaggerated way — everyone, that is, except Vincent, who stands in the back. He is looking timid and smaller than his twin sister, his body being consumed by the disease.

With no cure available, the doctors offered one hope: a sanatorium in the village of Otisville, in the town of Mount Hope. It was north of New York City by about 75 miles, in a beautiful wooded, mountainous area, an isolated place in nature signifying safety, health and good care.

I can only imagine what young Vincent thought of a place that took him from his loving home and 35 first cousins and bonded him with the community of the sick. My brother Ted found two photographs among our mom’s collection that tell the tale. On the back of one, mom had scribbled: “1941 Otisville NY to see Bro. Vinny.” The sanatorium.

In one photo Vincent stands next to his father, who has his arm on his son’s shoulder. It feels like late autumn or early winter. There is a tree behind them — all branches, no leaves. They stand in front of a brick building, a residence hall, perhaps. The faces of father and son reveal a sense of loss, as if someone has already passed away.

Last of the Marinos

Still missing from our search was the hope of first-person testimony. Was there anyone still alive who might have known Vincent? Someone who could reveal his character in a more human way?

For Mother’s Day, I wrote an essay about my Grandma Sadie. It found its way to a second cousin named Carol, who now lives in St. Augustine. We have not met in person, but have shared family stories over the telephone. It turns out that Carol’s mother was devoted to my grandmother, who helped raise her during the Depression.

I mentioned to Carol our search for Uncle Vincent. “Oh,” she said, “I was just talking to my Aunt Teresa the other day. She mentioned Vincent. She talked about what a good person he was, and how sad everyone was when he passed away.”

Aunt Teresa? Who was Aunt Teresa? Remember, there were 36 or 37 first cousins. We thought they were all dead. We were wrong. Teresa Marino, now 89 and with a brilliant memory, is still with us. The last surviving cousin, we think, of that generation of Marinos. She was about to reveal everything I thought I was looking for — and more.

‘Everyone liked him’

My phone call to Aunt Teresa was answered by her son Anthony from a town on the North Shore of Long Island. Teresa has a clear voice, a sharp memory and a good sense of humor. Her given name was Teresa Marino. She married a man named Anthony Marino. “That makes my name Teresa Marino Marino,” she said. “I’m a double Marino!”

She was the youngest of five children, born in 1931 to Dominic and Angelina. Dominic was born in Italy, the older brother of my grandfather, a shoemaker by trade. I have seen their wedding photo, and Angelina was a tiny woman. The rigors of childbirth and poverty wore her down. She had what the family called a “breakdown” after Teresa’s birth, probably what we now call postpartum depression.

Angelina was hospitalized and Teresa was put into foster care. My Grandma Sadie rushed in to care for the other children. The foster parents from Brooklyn were kindly and encouraged visits from Teresa’s siblings. Then one day a tiny woman — Angelina — showed up at the home of the foster parents to reclaim her daughter. It did not go well. On a subway ride home, Teresa pulled away, shouting that this woman was not her mother. It was a miracle that no one called the police.

Teresa was reunited with a close-knit family and was doted on by her older siblings. Her father Dominic lost his job in the shoe factory. The Depression put them into a flat on James Street, a five-story walkup. The only amenity was cold water.

As a young girl Teresa loved to read, and she would sit as close to the coal-burning stove as possible to ward off the cold. Her sister Adeline caught pneumonia. Her father smoked and smoked. Everyone was sick all the time. One day Teresa was so cold she stood up to get as close to the stove as possible. She burned her arm, requiring a trip to the hospital.

On Oct. 5, 2020, the year of the pandemic, Teresa and I had a long talk about her older cousin Vincent. My long-lost Uncle Vinny. When she talked, she did not say “the cousins” or “cousin Vinny.” She said “my cousins” and “my cousin Vinny.”

“When he passed away, I was 10 years old and he was 19,” she remembered. She knew the basic details: that early in his high school career Vincent went to see a doctor, was diagnosed with TB and was sent away.

But it was her memories of a fully vital Vincent that brought him back to life. “Everybody liked him,” she said. “He used to kid around with me.” Teresa was close to another cousin named Gracie. They were the same age, hung out together, especially at big family gatherings, such as New Year’s Eve.

She recalled one party where Vincent teased her and Gracie, looking at them with a mock frown, pointing to his watch and saying, “You know, it’s 9 o’clock. You kids should be getting to bed!”

Teresa described him for me: “I loved him so much. He was tall with black, short, curly hair. A nice-looking fella, but very thin.” It was a tradition with the Marino family that when the cousins got together, the younger ones would be asked to get up and perform.

Teresa and Gracie were recruited to stand up and sing God Bless America. They were reluctant until Vincent stood up, pulled them in and sang it with them in full-throated patriotic fervor, followed by much applause and laughter.

The news would arrive that Vincent had died.

Teresa and Gracie — with all the cousins and relatives — went to the funeral at St. Joachim’s Catholic Church, which catered to the many Italians on the Lower East Side. Teresa remembers that Grandma Sadie, Vincent’s mother, collapsed in the church but was able to pull herself together. Outside the church, cars lined up, one after the other for the ride to Calvary Cemetery, where Vincent would be buried near his grandparents, who had brought the Marinos to America.

Teresa and Gracie were left behind to mourn the loss of their cousin.

I’ve seen a photograph of the grave site. If you face it looking west toward Manhattan, right from the top of the gravestone is the skyline with the Empire State Building serving as the ultimate New York memorial.

My Uncle Vinny

I was very close to my Grandpa Pete. We called him Papa. Peter was my middle name. It could not have been my first name, because my grandfather was still alive, and we mostly named babies after the dead. Roy was my Dad’s father’s name. He died six years before I was born. So I was named Roy Peter Clark after two grandfathers, one living, one dead.

In thinking about Papa and his lost son, I now realize that I never saw my grandfather cry, although I heard a catch in his voice when I told him on the phone that his first great-granddaughter, Alison Rae Clark, had just been born. “Just remember, Roy,” he said. “The most important thing is family.”

Roy Peter Clark with his grandfather, Peter Marino.
Roy Peter Clark with his grandfather, Peter Marino. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

My younger brother, remember, is named Vincent, and our conversations about our lost uncle led to a memory from the Clarks’ kitchen table. He was sitting there with our parents and grandparents when the topic of Uncle Vincent came up. There was an immediate change in Papa’s affect. It might help to know that one of his nicknames was Old Stoneface.

“But suddenly there were tears in Papa’s eyes,” said my brother Vincent. “He composed himself, but found the words ‘Every time I think about him, it just breaks me up.’”

It made me think of everything I learned from my grandfather, from a love of all things Italian (well, most things), to rooting for the New York Yankees, to attachment to progressive Republicans. It makes me grateful for what he gave me.

But I am now wondering about the things I might have given him. Did my presence in the world help fill a void created by the death of his first-born son? Would I now be the man I think I am if not for the focused time and attention and love Papa showered on me?

Would I be thinking these thoughts without the burden of a pandemic? As the year 2020 dragged us down from our normal pleasures and concerns, has it had the effect of lifting our minds, helping us achieve escape velocity from our trivial obsessions, to the values and relationships that make us the most human? Marriage. Children. Neighbors. Community. Country. Love. The curse of a pandemic falls on the living and the dead. In the end, we are all Vincent. It is up to others to keep our memories alive, to tell stories about those we have loved and lost, to validate the meaning and purpose of our humanity.

I return once more to the precious artifact: my mother’s high school autograph book. I flip to the page signed with a flourish by my Uncle Vincent. I read the four words in the four corners: For Get Me Not. Forget you, dear Uncle? Not on your life. Or mine. I’ll see you in my dreams.