This past weekend, I flew back to Philly to go to the latest of the three funerals I’ve had to attend over the past few months. My paternal grandmother was the first in the series, having passed last September; a good friend of mine “went home” just before Christmas, an event I wrote about in these pages already (My Fading Accent); and this time, it was the funeral of my Uncle Richie. Frankly, with no disrespect intended, I was not very close to him, although he was a steady presence of my life. I don’t write to cremate Richie or to praise him, but this weekend, as I nodded towards family members I now see only when someone dies, I was confronted with a fact each one of us already knows; we don’t escape our families. These people who play semi-recurring characters in our personal sitcoms are with us always.
Take a look at his picture above. I posted my Uncle’s obit on Facebook last week, and two friends commented that they recognized the family resemblance. Apparently my uncle had my smile (although he had it first by some thirty years). My aunt Andrea, his sister and only remaining sibling since my Dad died in ’92, was talking to me at the post-funeral luncheon, and she went on at length about that picture and that smile. She saw me in that picture. I can’t confirm or deny I have his smile, since I’m typically not smiling when I look into a mirror.
My uncle was famous, especially to baseball fans. He headed the Major League Umpire’s union for a couple decades, and he was beloved and hated in turns by the umpires he worked with. He greatly improved their lives, just about tripling their salaries and their benefits, but he engineered one too many walk-outs and gave his enemies the opportunity to get rid of him. His effect on baseball was significant, greater than most players and even some hall-of-famers. I learned this weekend that he was also at one time the head of the NBA referee’s union and a representative of the Philadelphia 76’ers. Don’t ask if that created any conflicts—Uncle Richie could make it work.
When I was younger, I was thrilled to have a “famous” person in my family. He was not Brad Pitt famous, but when I went to Notre Dame, people from all over the country would ask me what he was up to. I would read write-ups in the Chicago Tribune and even the New York Times, where his obituary could be found last week. Frequently, as a young lawyer trying to get a job in the city, I would drop his name during interviews, not yet understanding that he was as much disliked as liked. One firm’s hiring attorney told me bluntly, “You’re not winning any points mentioning his name here.” I didn’t get that job.
This weekend, no one told my favorite story about him, a story that makes me think that in one specific way, I was like him. (Note—if anyone reads this who knows the story, I’m sure I’m messing it up.) He was a kid playing in the yard of his beach house in North Wildwood, NJ. My grandmother, “The Beaut,” and her sister, my Aunt Rose, were coming down the concrete stairs from the main entrance of the house to the sidewalk. Richie hid from them, and then when they reached the sidewalk, he leapt out, held out his finger gun and made the “pshew pshew” shooting sound. Then a look of horror crossed his face. He ran to them and cried, “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to shoot you. I was trying to shoot Aunt Rose.”
He was just a kid, but the story reveals a playful lack of seriousness I share, a trait that is both my best and my worst quality. When I think of it, I smile my Richie smile.