October 13, 2005
I need to get this out. My cousins, Vinnie and Eddie Voci, will close on the sale of Uncle Gene's cottage on Cape Cod tomorrow, and I'm pretty bummed out about the whole thing -- accepting it, but still bummed -- and I hope you won't mind the use of this space for a kind of elegy. I admit to being a baby boomer tossed into the mosh pit of middle age. Some guys drown in the melancholy. I get to write my way out of it, at least for a day or so.
What I tell my kids: Savor every stupid and silly thing that happens; savor family and savor friends. Pay attention to the sound of laughter, and the words and expressions of interesting people. Take it all in. Suck the marrow out of the life you're living today because you're going to need every bit of happy memory as you get older and race toward the great and chilly unknown.
Readers of this column know that I did not grow up in Baltimore. I was born in Brockton, Mass., the hometown of the late heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, and once the shoe manufacturing capital of the world. We lived in a small, blue-collar town nearby, but Brockton was where we went for just about everything -- Italian bread, baseball gloves, great pizza, dungarees, imported provolone, fried-clam rolls, driving lessons, candlepin bowling, the movies, Chinese food -- and, in high school days, to check out girls and rent a prom tux.
Brockton is where Uncle Gene, an auto mechanic, had service stations -- Gene's Jenney the first of them. (His wife, my mother's sister Lizabee, kept the gas station books and sold Avon products.)
Gene Voci was short, trim, vigorous and funny, and simply the nicest man I ever knew.
He always had a wink and a joke, and seemed to carry through life the same impish grin he wore while shooting craps during World War II at Edgewood Arsenal and Scofield Barracks. He took sincere interest in all his nieces and nephews, and he tried to make golfers out of most of us because he believed it was key to our having successful lives. (Only one nephew took this advice.)
Uncle Gene was also generous, plowing driveways in winter with his Jeep, and sharing his cottage in summer.
The cottage was a gathering place for the whole family, and ours was a large, extended, Italian-American one, very loud and perpetually hungry. With few exceptions in those days, we all lived within a few miles of each other -- and, at most, a 50-minute drive from the Vocis' cottage.
The cottage was a modest, shingle-sided house with knotty pine walls, on a dirt road in a pine grove a short walk from a beach of Buzzards Bay. Uncle Gene and his wife built the place in the early 1950s, and I don't think they ever intended for it to become a secluded hideaway. They understood from the beginning that the cottage would have frequent visitors, many of them relatives who could never afford such a vacation spot of their own.
And that's what it became, the entire family's summer home -- two dozen cousins running through the place in bathing suits, screen doors slamming; uncles eating spaghetti at a picnic table with their shirts off on a Sunday afternoon; an aunt in a summer dress, nylons rolled down to her ankles, watching a Red Sox game on the television; hot dogs and Italian sausage on the grill; three elderly women, including my grandmother, hoisting their dresses and blessing themselves with saltwater in the surf on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption; men in tank tops and summer shirts playing poker; aunts eating peaches in wine; kids playing horseshoes, or digging clams on the beach, or dunking each other in the waves, or trying to catch minnows with stale bread.
The cottage survived hurricanes, snowstorms and large family parties.
The cups and saucers, pots and pans, cabinets and window dressings are all familiar to me and to my many cousins. We can describe every inch of the place, and every inch contains a happy memory. Uncle Gene liked jokes -- the cornier the better -- and I assume it was he who nailed near the ceiling of the living room a small novelty sign that said, "Why Look Up Here?"
Uncle Gene died 20 years ago, and my aunt lives in Chicago with her son, my cousin Eddie, a lawyer. Her other son, my cousin Vinnie, is a doctor in North Carolina.
Vinnie sent an all-cousins e-mail last week -- that's how we frequently get together now -- stating that the cottage had been sold (just four hours after going on the market) and that the contents were available for anyone who would like to have something from the place.
I've arranged to have a memorable red cabinet shipped to Baltimore, but I have mixed feelings about taking it.
When it gets here, it might not fit in my house; it might look to me out of place, like a famous figure in foreign exile.
I'm already thinking, from down here in the baby boomer mosh pit, that we should have left the cabinet where it belonged. We should have left it over by the window in the noisy, hot, oregano-scented kitchen of Uncle Gene's cottage, with Aunt Lizabee reaching for a big spaghetti bowl, and the little cousins running, doors slamming, uncles laughing, eternal family, eternal summer.
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