I write today with a heavy heart. I just got off the phone with my friend, Inge, who told me that her husband, Emilio, has entered hospice care.
I met the LoIaconos during a writing class some time ago. In class, Inge wrote about fleeing Nazi Germany with her family when she was a child. Emilio wrote about growing up in an orphanage during the Depression.
To say I was riveted by their stories is an understatement. I asked if I could interview them for Rochester Magazine, and they said yes. And then a pretty cool thing happened: I not only got to hear more of their stories, but I made a couple of friends.
To look at Emilio, you never would've guessed that he'd been managing bladder cancer for years. As he once told me, he was "perfectly healthy" otherwise.
In fact, up until three weeks ago, Emilio was still working as the assistant charitable gambling manager at the VFW, a "post-retirement" job he's held for 25 years. Just a month ago, I'd met the two of them for lunch, where Emilio shared more stories over a glass of wine.
But life is unpredictable. Inge's been told her husband of 57 years has only days left to live.
Before we got off the phone tonight, I told Inge that I'd like to honor Emilio by printing an excerpt from his Rochester Magazine interview in this week's column. She gave her blessing, and told me that she'd tell Emilio. So this one's for him and the beauty of a life well lived.
What's one of your earliest memories?
It was in Brooklyn. My father's store was on 69th street and we used to walk home with him every night at 9 o' clock. He had a shoe store, and he not only repaired shoes, but he made mine and my brothers' shoes. He used to work for I. Miller, and when they went on strike, he said, "I have a family to feed. I have to get into business for myself." He borrowed money from his brother, who was a banker in Italy.
Other memories from those early years?
I remember when my father died. They told me to kiss him, and I kissed him on his forehead, and I remember I said, "He's very cold." I was sleeping next to my father when he died in bed. My brother and sister woke me up and said, "Get out of bed, Papa's dead." He died from a heart attack, I think.
It had to be hard to lose your dad so young.
My mother's friend took us in for a few months, but she had three kids of her own. We went to the orphanage. I was eight years old. My brother and I went to a boys' home, and my sister went to a girls' home.
Your mother was gone?
She was in and out of hospitals so she couldn't care for us. I was about five years old the first time. She had TB. She died in 1946.
Did you get to see her?
Once my cousin took me to her. I was 15. I couldn't speak Italian to her. She couldn't speak English to me. But I remember her. She was a teacher.
Tell me about growing up in an orphanage.
Most of it was happy times. You don't remember the bad times; you do remember the good times. We had classes from nine to three. We had to make our bed, had chores. On Saturday, you'd wax the floor in the dormitory. We used to get these rags and go skating to shine the floor.
We used to sneak out. There was a pizza place across the street. Other times we'd go to the candy store. They'd sell you five loose cigarettes and they'd make 20 cents instead of 15 cents on a pack. Then we'd get chewing gum to take away the smell.
What was your career before moving to Rochester?
I worked at the American Bank Note Company (on Wall Street) for 37 years — from 1952 to 1989. We printed stocks, bonds, travelers checks, foreign currency, liquor stamps, food stamps. … We printed stock for Playboy magazine, and a girl named Wilhelmina Rey posed for it. The stock exchange took a look at it and said, "Give her a little more coverage!"
Were you ever in the military? I was in the Navy. I came out of high school and joined the Navy right away. … I went to Hawaii and Saipan. It was right after the war.
I never did like Hawaii. Waikiki beach was like Coney Island to me. Maybe it was because I had to be there.
Then I went on the USS Pennsylvania. Strangely enough, two weeks after they dropped me off at Saipan, she was torpedoed at Buckner Bay.
You've been married 57 years. Any advice?
Meet her halfway. If you disagree, don't hold it. If you have an argument, don't go to bed with that argument still intact. Say I'm sorry. Forgive each other.