Fifty years ago Jimmy strutted into our 8th grade homeroom and announced, “I’m an uncle! I’m an uncle!”
Five years later we were dating. Little Chuckie was a perfect specimen to practice our parenting skills on. He wasn’t fully formed and we weren’t fully invested. Cute, in a puppy sort of way and he was sturdy enough by then that bad things weren’t likely to happen to him on our watch.
We’d take Chuckie and a few years later his sister Susie and our other nephew and niece to amusement parks and on boat rides and back to my tiny apartment in Queens to play board games and let them chase around Herman, my poor pet rabbit until Herman dove into his cage, his eyes begging us to lock him in.
We married, had a daughter and son of our own and because Chuckie looked so much like Jimmy both Jacki and Dougie as babies were easily soothed by him. They snuggled into his pillow top tummy and cooed as this chubby teenager rocked them and sang when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie its amour.
Pizza was not just the subject of the song, but a big event in Chuck’s life, along with White Castle belly bombs and Carvel Ice-cream. Not a tidy sort of guy it was easy to tell what he had for lunch because he was wearing it.
Food and family, possibly in that order, was most important to him until he fell in love with singing. He chose Opera, although he’d say, “Opera chose me.” We’d make fun of how pretentious that was especially coming from a man with marinara sauce on his shirt.
Years passed. Our family fell into calling him Chuckles. It fit. He was funny and loud and silly and he just was a Chuckles. Professionally, he changed his name to Carlo figuring a tenor called Chuckles Pavarotti or even a Chuck Domingo might not be taken seriously.
He married, had a son Jordan, got divorced and traveled the word singing to huge audiences gaining respect from all.
In between gigs when he wasn’t on the West Coast with his son and his Mom, he stayed with us. He literally sang for his supper and he made it too. His specialties were meatballs, lasagna, anything heavy and Italian that could be sopped up with bread.
He was happiest in a casino. Me and Jimmy too. The three of us would steal quick trips to Atlantic City and they’d all start the same way. As we got close enough to see the signs for the hotels our hearts would race. “It never gets old” we’d practically squeal to each other.
We’d have barbecues with friends and everyone we knew knew Chuck. Every gather with Chuck was a party. He began to smoke cigars and wear Fedora hats.
Life was good…until it wasn’t.
In July 2001, his sister Susie died from a rare form of cancer. She left three young daughters, a heartbroken husband and a devastated mother. Chuckie was crushed but he went home to rock and sing to his nieces and help put the pieces of their family together again.
Eventually, he went on tour making friends all over the world. Then, in April, 2006, my world stopped. Jimmy died. He had just turned 56. Our little granddaughter, Skylar was two.
Chuckie swooped in to stay with me and we became locked together in grief. My house was his home when he wasn’t away performing. We’d eat muffin tops for breakfast and read our horoscopes out loud. He’d come up with funny little quips that I stole and posted on Facebook as my own. I joked that when he sang in the shower I should open the window and charge admission.
When I ventured out he was my plus one. At home he’d spend endless hours helping me with my computer and then scream at me, “How could you not remember your password?”
Then he’d make me dinner.
He saw Jimmy. I never did. I’d come home and he’d say, “You just missed him.” Then, he’d add, “He doesn’t like the color you painted the kitchen. “ I’d tell him, “That’s because you don’t.’”
He sang Nessun Dorma at my 60th birthday party and that night my friends and family called him Carlo.
He snuggled with my dog Tony, nicknamed him Tony Baloney and promised me if anything happened to me he would take care of him.
We hung out together at the house during Hurricane Sandy even though we were ordered to evacuate. We figured how bad could it be? After a houseboat landed in my backyard we took off for our favorite place, Atlantic City and stayed and gambled for six days. We got home just in time for the power to pop on.
After that, I didn’t feel I belonged in the suburbs anymore. As Chuck put it, “It’s like eating leftovers.” Life as a single woman had become easier for me. I sold the house. He got his own place in Manhattan and so did I. Chuckie and I un-clung, if that’s a word, to a healthy emotional dependency, that’s such a thing. I was with Mickey now, my boyfriend, and he and Chuck spent time together playing golf and smoking cigars…a new civilized chapter.
He was with me and my kids and my grandkids for most holidays, but this Christmas he went to California to be with his Mom and son and nieces. My daughter called him for his lasagna recipe.
Last week, back in New York, right after the New Year, Chuck had stomach pains and brought himself to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with Pancreatitis. He turned 50 on January 5th and died four days later. He was surrounded by love but only a teeny fraction of the love he gave.
Today I remembered what my granddaughter Skylar used to say. “We’re lucky. Not everyone has a Chuckles.”