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Finding Uncle Sammy

November 18, 2012

Uncle Sammy died. In the days following I realized there was as much mystery for me about his life as there was about his death. As I sat at his wake, I thought about his journey through the world and how it led to this conclusion. I thought about what I had known of him before and what I since had learned. I thought about the events and influences that shape the trajectory of life, of Sammy’s life, of all our lives.

This is the story of the Sammy I found, the Sammy I never fully knew.

Samuel Salvatore Venditti’s life began in distress. Born during the depression, times were very hard, especially for the many immigrant families struggling to get by in their new Promised Land. His family had already been fragmented because his father, now jobless like so many others, could not support his three previous children, and they were sent to live with relatives while he lived in a garage. His wife, Sam’s mother, had tuberculosis and thus became quarantined in a sanitorium. She died shortly after Sam was born, and he spent the first years of his life in Bonnie Brae, an institution founded to help “boys and young men to overcome personal and family challenges, build new futures and become good citizens.” Of all the events that influenced Sammy’s live, this, I believe, may have been the most critical.

the only existing photo of Uncle Sammy as a baby at Bonnie Brae

When Sammy eventually reunited with his family, his older sister Sue took on the role of mother. After they were old enough to live independently in the 1940’s, they moved into the second floor of a small house in Middlesex, the same place Uncle Sammy was found dead in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

As soon as Sammy was old enough, he joined the Army, for the world was at war and his country needed him. He started out as a clerk but then became a paratrooper. From the photos and the comments he wrote on the back, this appeared to be the best time of his life. I looked at the photos with amazement, never having seen Uncle Sammy in this light. Here he was, an eighteen year old, muscular and good-looking, smiling along with his service buddies. It gave me a feeling of great contentment to know that this part of his life seemed to give him joy and fulfillment. Perhaps the Army gave him the sense of family and of belonging that he missed.

Uncle Sammy at 18 with his Army family

Sometime during this period, Sammy fell in love. According to Aunt Dolly, the young woman looked very much like his sister Sue. They became engaged to be married. However, this came to a heartbreaking end when the woman’s former boyfriend returned from the military, and she left Sammy for him. Crushed, Sammy never had another relationship again.

After the Army, Sam joined the ranks of the United States Postal Service, working as a mail carrier in Middlesex for thirty years. No holiday meal would go by in his later years without stories of his postal career being told and retold. After his retirement from the post office, he took on a few odd jobs to supplement his income. It was during this period when he began doing much international traveling with the postmaster with whom he had become friends.  Looking through the many postcards and photographs of these travels which we found buried in his belongings opened another window into his life, and again I felt glad that he’d had a chance to see so much of the world: Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, and the Holy Land.

the wild and crazy guy touring Europe

The Sammy I knew provided glimpses only of certain things that he chose to in the stories he would tell at holiday dinners. He never spoke of his childhood, never of his lost love, not even much of his present. He kept his life private even to his brother. What did he do every day? Where did he go?

One thing we knew of was his deep committment to Catholicism. He attended Mass regularly, always sitting in the same spot by himself. Every card he sent to us through the four decades I knew him would have spiritual quotes in colorful calligraphy, and at the top of each would be JMJ. He would buy us odd gifts at Christmas, usually some small gadget from Radio Shack or The Sharper Image. He stopped doing this several years ago, but the last of these came in handy during Hurricane Sandy, a crank radio which became our constant companion during the week-long power outage.

Uncle Sammy was a small, unassuming man with a rather prominent comb-over. He had always dressed in what he must have thought were natty outfits which looked more like something out of the old Saturday Night Live “wild and crazy guys” skits. Some of his tales told over Christmas dinner would grow a bit too “colorful” for my young niece and nephew, so my sister-in-law came up with the phrase “paratrooper alert” to cue him to tone them down. We heard that phrase quite a few times. The last few years, though, he became more subdued. He started to take less and less care with his appearance. He grew thinner, which prompted concern.

“Uncle Sammy, are you okay? Are you eating?”

This last question was indeed appropriate. His stove had been disconnected long ago. When urged to take home leftovers, he told us his refrigerator was no longer even plugged in. He would always respond the same, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He ate at a few local places, mostly a diner and the Texas Weiner near his house. We had gotten him gift certificates for a nearby restaurant, Pizza and Pasta, to which he went for some meals. He used to hang out in the evening at an old-time watering hole called Kerwin’s Tavern, but that had stopped for some unknown reason. The landlord told us after Uncle Sammy’s demise that he had only been leaving the house once a day for the past year or so.

The Saturday after Hurricane Sandy, Sam’s oldest brother (my father-in-law) got a call from the landlord. Two day’s mail lay uncollected on the bottom of the banister. He suspected something was amiss. My father-in-law called us, and we called the police to check. They called back to tell us they had found him dead. We headed right down.

Power had been restored by then. When we arrived, a patrolman met us at the bottom of the stairs to Uncle Sammy’s place. He asked us to wait until the medical examiner arrived. The landlord, Clem, came to his door and filled us in on a few of the missing pieces. The power had gone out Monday. Wednesday night Sam had called him to ask if he could turn up the heat. Clem explained that he couldn’t because of the power outage. Sam’s car sat out front at the curb unmoved the next two days. Clem never went up to check.

The medical examiner came down to get some information for her forms. No, he was not married. No, he never had been. No, he didn’t take any medications. No, he had no doctor.

The patrolman came down to take us up for the purpose of final identification. He tried to soften the blow of what we would find, but no words could have done that. We entered Uncle Sammy’s dimly lit apartment to behold a scene we couldn’t have imagined. The place was strewn with belongings, with piles of mail and clothing on the kitchen table, the chairs, the floor. And here, surrounded by the clutter, we found Uncle Sammy. My wife broke into tears as she knelt by him, crying not only for his passing but the thought of how he must have lived during the last part of his time on this earth.

The following day my wife, her brother, and I went to Sammy’s place to look for his will and to begin the daunting task of cleaning up. This time we entered his private world in daylight, one which no one, not even his brother, had entered. A layer of dust covered the floor on which piles of mail lay like cairns marking some unknown internal trail.  What prompted him to save these? The landlord told us that at one time “you could eat off the floor it was so clean.” Years worth of the odds and ends of Sammy’s existence littered every available space. The unplugged refrigerator, which must have dated back to the early 1950’s, contained a can of shaving cream, some small screw drivers, and several unused rolls of Scotch Tape. In one room, all the unopened gifts of socks, sweaters, and shirts from Christmases past hid amongst his other possessions. In the living room next to a small window sat a TV, the old-fashioned kind with rabbit-ear antennae, never converted from analog after the digital changeover years ago and thus unusable. A well-worn chair with pillows faced it from one corner. Why did he not buy a new TV? Did he sit here at night just staring out the window? There are so many questions for which we’ll never know the answers.

But despite its sadness, these rooms retained poignant touches of Sammy’s essence. Cards from friends and relatives over the years had been taped to every available space on door jambs and cabinets. Photos of Emma and Luke, his only great-niece and nephew, formed a shrine-like display in the tiny windows of a kitchen cabinet. Religious statues stood on every piece of furniture, especially the Blessed Mother, something always of special meaning to him, and each room had a crucifix prominently positioned. And the mail, mostly from religious organizations soliciting funds or telling of good works, all had notations on the envelopes in his neat script, when it had been received, when and how responded to.

At the wake, a few old friends came to pay their respects. A middle-aged man who didn’t seem to fit in stopped by. He said his name was Jeff. He knew Uncle Sammy from Texas Weiner where he saw him at the same time each day; “I could set my clock by him,” he said. Sammy would go there for breakfast, always the same: toast, cereal, and orange juice. Jeff said he’d chat with him about politics, and that he was a real nice guy.

As I stood in the cold at the cemetery listening to the plaintive notes of Taps, questions still swirled in my head. How thin is the thread that holds us to a particular course in life? How easily is it broken to send us plummeting to another? How much of this do we decide, and how much is beyond our choice? Uncle Sammy lived one life I knew, and another that I found. I suppose this is true of us all. I take solace in the knowledge that the memories that are held by those who knew him —  his old crew from the 11th Airborne or the postmen he worked with or Jeff from Texas Weiner or his great-niece and nephew — are good ones, memories of a small, unassuming man of great faith who liked to tell stories. They too found Uncle Sammy, and he was and ever will be a real nice guy.

Uncle Sammy in the place where he best found peace

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