When I was growing up in a suburb in Central Jersey, we’d take the hour or so drive up the turnpike to visit my paternal grandparents in Jersey City. They lived in the Greenville section on Danforth Avenue.
Part of visiting Nana and Pop Pop was seeing Uncle Joe, who lived with them. I was fascinated by how he was always on the move, would stop to talk with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, and then was in motion again. Even more engaging to us was his uncanny memory around numbers.
If someone in the family had a baby girl, you could turn to Uncle Joe and ask what year she’d make her holy communion or graduate high school and he’d rattle it off in this quick cadence he had. There was no hiding one’s age in our family because if you said you were 39, Uncle Joe would nod, turn, and then on his way out of the room politely say, “You meant 41, right?”
Uncle Joe, or Joseph Colasurdo, left us last night at age 85. He died of Covid-19 in Jersey City Medical Center. He was my father’s younger brother, one of my grandparents’ six children. Uncle Joe was mentally retarded, diagnosed at a time when there was stigma attached to it.
Stories of my father’s childhood often include ones where he was fiercely protective of Uncle Joe, going to movies with him, or making him complicit in his shenanigans. When they were kids and he caught my father smoking and declared, “I’m gonna tell Mama” my quick-thinking Dad popped the cigarette into Uncle Joe’s mouth. “There, now you smoked, too.”
My uncle was a well-known fixture in his neighborhood – the stores, the church, the firehouse. For my cousins who also lived on that street and nearby, he was a beloved part of their daily lives. If my grandparents’ house was full of family, he would sometimes hide food he liked so no one would eat it. I fondly recall his conversations with my father about movies, sidling up to him and saying, “Johnny, so-and-so was in that. 1952, right?” And my father would nod, “Yeah, Joe. That’s right.”
One time I remember calling him “Joe” – I was a pre-teen, maybe? – and hearing my father’s voice come from behind me.
“That’s Uncle Joe. And don’t you forget it.”
I didn’t. Ever. And as an adult I love that story because it says so much about my father.
A few weeks ago we received word that Uncle Joe, who was living at St. Ann’s nursing home in Jersey City, had tested positive for coronavirus. At first it wasn’t serious enough for him to leave the home, but then pretty quickly he was transferred to Jersey City Medical Center.
Imagine that, a man who spent the latter part of his life mostly sheltered-in-place in a routine he enjoyed contracted this monster virus. The idea of him being in the hospital and not allowed visitors, probably not understanding why, with no access to his priest, is shattering.
Yesterday my mother called to say he had taken a bad turn. This morning in the wee hours I dreamt we were at a family gathering and that Uncle Joe wanted to leave. I walked him to his room, hung up his coat, and tucked him into bed. When I woke up and remembered the dream, I knew he had passed. I just waited for the call. It came.
So many people who loved him have passed over the years. Today I have pictured the celebratory greeting Uncle Joe received on the other side, led by Nana and Pop Pop. Bells and whistles, horns and trumpets. A total racket. And maybe a plate of macaroni better than he’s had in a long, long time.
(Photo: My father’s 80th birthday. Top row, Uncle Joe and my late Aunt Tess. Bottom row, my father and my Aunt Mary.)