A dear friend of my Mom's recently passed away at 86-years-of-age. Her name was Frances Lacagnina. She was better known as Red (because of her red hair), and she and my Mom, Frances Mary Turri Pilato, grew up together in the old neigborhood of Erie Street in Rochester (NY).
Back in 2001, Red and her husband Sam Lacagnina attended my Mom's big 80th birthday bash. They had such a great time (as did everyone else, hopefully), that when I planned my Mom’s 85th celebration (this past November), I made sure to invite them.
Unfortunately, however, Red and Sam were unable to attend this time - as Red had become seriously ill (with cancer). Consequently, Red left this Earth only a few months later.
Though I did not know Red and Sam that well, and despite the fact that my Mom’s memory was failing, I knew I had to pay my respects. I had to bring my Mom to Red’s wake, if only out of appreciation for Red and Sam's enthusiasm for my Mom's birthday celebrations - not to mention their friendship dating back over 75 years.
So, in honor of Red, I dressed my Mom in a red sweater, I myself adorned a red turtleneck - and we were off to Red’s wake.
The funeral parlor is located in Rochester on Lyell Avenue, which stretches from the old neighborhood near Erie Street and into a suburb called Gates. The family members of the funeral parlor, called DiPonzio’s, were also good friends with my father, Herbert Pompeii (who passed away in 1995).
By the time my Mom and I arrived at DiPonzios, the place was jammed. Clearly, Red was loved, dearly – by hundreds of people in Rochester. Police officers were conducting traffic, and one officer, in particular, instructed me to park across the street from the parlor - at St. Theodore's Church.
I'm like, "Sir - I have my 85-year-old Mother with me. I can't park across the street - she won’t be able to make the walk."
"Okay," the officer replied, "drop off your Mother in front, and then you go park across the street."
"Thank you," I said. And I went on to drive into the funeral parlor parking lot.
Low and behold, we find a space anyway – as one had just become available. But Yikes! - the length of people standing in line to see Red was extensive. I was somewhat concerned about having my Mom stand one position for any elongated amount of time.
Instead, I parked the car, told her to stay put, and ran to see if I could maybe cut in line (due to my Mom’s age, etc.).
Now, remember, again – my Mom is having issues with her memory. As a result, she sometimes becomes ornery (like the last time we attended Church together – at Easter 2006 – but that’s another story).
Therefore, at this point, I'm not sure the effort would be worth anyone’s time. I certainly didn’t want to have my Mom cause a scene in the funeral home. I’m also thinking, "Will she even remember Red or her husband Sam?"
All such thoughts were racing through my head as I raced inside the parlor – while my Mom remained cuddled in the car outside.
Once inside the parlor, I cut to the head of the line and talked to Sam. "Sam," I relayed, "my Mom's in the car. I'm not sure if she'll be able to stand in line, but I wanted you to know that we were here."
"No problem," he said ever so graciously. "I understand."
So, I return to the car, tell my Mom that we're going home – and that we will not be able to see Red. It’s simply just too crowded.
Man – was she upset. She started seeing red – for sure – on a whole other level (if you know what I mean).
But I knew better.
At least, I thought I did.
I was merely attempting to maintain all stress levels and/or trying to prevent a scene; that’s why I started driving back down Lyell Avenue.
But all I heard was my Mom, complaining. "Oh, Herbie J,” she tattled, “we should have stayed. I wouldn’t have minded waiting in line! We should have stayed!"
And on and on she went.
I felt horrible. She looked so great in that red sweater - and she would have seen and talked with people from the old neighborhood.
In my heart of hearts, I knew I had just made a massive mistake.
But then it hit me:
“I'll take her to Erie Street, so she can at least reminisce about Red - and maybe she'll forget about the whole wake thing."
Well, sure enough, it worked. She loved seeing Erie Street - and all was well again – except, of course...in my heart.
I knew I had to take my Mom back to the parlor to see Red.
All the signs were there.
When we had first left DiPonizio’s funeral home, one of the senior members of the DiPonzio family – who had known my Dad, was walking into the parlor. I could have easily asked Mr. DiPonzio if my Mom and I could have cut through the crowd.
And remember how that parking space had opened up? I knew I needed to drive back up Lyell Avenue to Gates and take my Mom to pay her last respects to Red, whether or not she would remember the experience.
I had to do it - for Red and Sam.
Consequently, upon our second arrival at DiPonzio’s in Gates, wouldn’t you know it - the same police officer was conducting traffic. But this time, he just guided me right into the lot. The traffic was still horrendous, and others were still instructed to park across the street. But not me and my Mom. This time, the police officer waved us right in the parlor parking lot (knowing we had left some 30 minutes before).
Then, once in the lot – this second time - a handicap space opened up for us right in front of the parlor. I pulled in immediately, parked - and grabbed my Mom. This time, I figured everyone would understand that an elderly woman with a cane would not be able to stand in line - and that we needed to move ahead.
Sure enough, everyone in line - and the ushers next to them - made way...as if Moses himself was parting the Red Sea - and me and my Mom needed to get to the Promised Land.
Once arriving inside the parlor, we see so many old friends of my Mom's, one in particular who knew the situation (with my Mom’s memory, orneriness, etc). This woman, Frances DiPonzio, also just so happened to be a cousin of the DiPonzio Funeral home – as well as to Sam Lacagnina.
Mrs. DiPonzio lead my Mom over to another old friend from the neighborhood, and everyone started to joyfully reminisce about the old days. Shortly after that, Mrs. DiPonzio lead us over to to see Sam - ahead of everyone else. I whispered to Sam that my Mom INSISTED that we come back after leaving - and I tell him the whole story.
Sam walked us over to Red in the casket, and immediately my Mom said, out of the blue – and to everyone’s joyful realization, "Oh - yes - I remember her."
From there, my Mom takes out her rosary and blesses Red's forehead. Sam, Mrs. DiPonzio and I shared a silent but slightly visible tear.
A short time later, my Mom and I continued to chat with some other friends. By this time, I was so happy that I made the second trip back to the parlor.
Also, too, I think about how much I wanted to visit Erie Street, which both my Mom and I had not seen in a while. I thought about how great it was that we visited the actual place of Erie Street - and then later - the actual people who once lived at Erie Street (all of whom were at DiPonzio’s funeral home).
I also thought about how I almost didn't go back that second time; how embarrassed I thought I would be; how I didn't want the police officers to laugh; how I didn't want my Mom to get ornery; how I was afraid that she wouldn't remember anyone.
In each case, my fears were proven delightfully incorrect. No one laughed at anyone. It was like everyone was just waiting for me and cheering me on to get it right.
And I did.
I got it right.
For me, my Mom - and Red.