Saturday, March 16, 2013

50 Years and a Lifelong Namesake Later: Remembering My Uncle Richard James Todaro (b. Dec. 15, 1943 - d. March 16, 1963)

My uncle Richard at about the age of 6 in Long Branch, New Jersey circa 1949. The occasion of this was my dad's (his older brother's) First Holy Communion.

This picture and many of the ones in this entry are screen grabs of video frames of the home movies I have that my grandfather tool.

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Today, March 16, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the untimely death of my Uncle Richard, my father's younger brother / only sibling and the person for whom I was named[1] when I was born 6-1/2 years later. Thus, I never personally knew my Uncle Richard, and though I live a life in a place and time he would not understand at all (indeed, often I don't), I carry his name throughout my life, as well the memory of him as given to me by my grandparents and dad.

Yours truly with my grandmother in our house at 368 Kirby Avenue, Long Branch, New Jersey on the occasion of my 4th birthday (Nov. 26, 1973).

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Furthermore, both Uncle Richard and I were raised as small children by the same wonderful person who gave us boundless and unconditional love and care and for that reason we are very close. In this way, he is the brother I never had. (As you may know, I'm an only child.) Or maybe instead he is just a different version of me and so in that way, he is still alive.

For this reason, I bear witness to his life on this 50th anniversary of his death at such a young age. His story is as follows[2] ...

Uncle Richard as an infant being held by my grandam; Long Branch, N.J., early 1944.

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Richard James Todaro was born on December 15, 1943 in Long Branch, New Jersey to Lewis and Florence Todaro (my paternal grandparents). My dad (Robert) had been born almost two years earlier on January 23, 1941. Interestingly, Richard's birthday is Dec. 15th; my mom's birthday is Dec. 16th (1948); and my Uncle Rob's birthday (my mom's only brother/only sibling) is Dec. 17th (1955).

This is actually a screen grab of some color film my grandfather took of my grandmother and dad as an infant in Long Branch, N.J., spring or summer 1941.

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My Uncle Richard and my dad and grandparents lived on Cleveland Avenue in Long Branch, N.J., in the mid-to-late 1940s. As context, my grandmother is part of the enormous Acerra family, and was born and raised in Long Branch. It was her younger sister, my Aunt Babe, who just celebrated her 100th birthday (YES, I STILL have to post on this blog the main batch of photos -- it WILL happen.)

My dad in his little sailor suit and my Uncle Richard with my grandma holding him, Long Branch, N.J., early 1944.

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At the age of 3-1/2 -- i.e., in the summer of 1947 -- he was struck with some kind of massive fever that sent his body temperature to a lethal 107F. I do not know what happened or if there were some antecedent conditions (I suspect there were). And in a horrifying chain of events that was to have ugly recriminations for the rest of their lives, as his fever rose, my grandmother was paralyzed with indecision and uncertainty. Her husband -- my grandfather, Mr. Big Spender -- was at the racetrack that day.[3]

My grandma with my Uncle Richard and dad on the stoop of their house on Brighton Avenue* in Long Branch, N.J., early 1950s.

*To be clear, I think this is the Brighton Avenue house rather than the Cleveland Avenue one.

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As the story was recounted to me in bits and pieces, on that terrible day Richard was on a sofa moaning and burning up, his temperature rising relentlessly to 107F, but my grandma did not call for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. Nor did she do anything to try to cool him down but instead she gave him an aspirin. He had at least one seizure and by the time my grandfather got home, by all rights he should have been dead. Finally, he was taken to the hospital that night but it was too late and the brain damage was already done. My dad (who was 5 at the time vaguely remembers this).

My Uncle Richard at about the age of 6 playing in the yard of the house (I think) on Cleveland Avenue, Long Branch, N.J., circa 1949.

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My grandfather blamed my grandmother for not doing more. My grandmother blamed herself for not doing more. These recriminations were to last a lifetime, and to put it in present day terminology, after Richard's death, their marriage was effectively over. The screaming fights they had regularly was simply an actualization of this fact. However, Italian American couples in New Jersey in the mid-20th Century did not get divorced. That really wasn't an option and so it didn't happen.

My dad's penchant for tape recording the fights and plyaing them back to various people was admittedly odd and a bit sadistic when he would play it for them (and my grandfather would scream, "RAH-BERT, TURN THAT FUHHKING THING OFF!" and try to get the tape, but he wasn't fast enough). Those tapes provided us endless mirth. Finding one would be like finding a new Dead Sea Scroll. On an aside, I wish I knew what Richard's voice sounded like but there are no recordings of it (despite all the home movies my grandfather used to make).

My grandparents, Lewis and Florence Todaro, Long Branch, N.J., circa 1985.

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As the years went on, Richard's condition only deteriorated. His mental retardation became more acute and he never really progressed in school beyond kindergarten. He walked with a bad limp and basically lost the use of one of his arms, which he sort of pathetically pulled along. I guess in a way it was a partial paralysis he suffered. And whatever the medical treats were in the 1950s and early 1960s that he received, they weren't enough to halt his decline.

My dad hands my Uncle Richard a football, Long Branch, New Jersey, circa 1949.

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By about 1951, they had moved from Cleveland Avenue to Brighton Avenue and then in 1958 they moved to 368 Kirby Avenue in Long Branch into the then-newly constructed house that I would live in the 1970s.

My Uncle Richard and my grandmother at a family birthday party in the early 1960s. This was not too long before his death. Whatever medications he was taking caused him to swell up as he did.

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By the time he was a teenager, Richard could not take care of himself and it was up to my grandparents -- mostly my grandmother -- to clothe and feed him and even to take him to the bathroom. He was frequently heavily medicated (God knows on what).

This is a picture of my dad, Uncle Richard, and grandparents that I've posted before. It was taken around Christmas time 1957 in Long Branch, N.J. However, I want to note here that it was actually taken in the house on Brighton Avenue, not Cleveland Avenue.

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Having said that, my grandmother did all of this with unconditional love and without hesitation. It was her life. As for my dad, he was quickly becoming the person I know: brilliant, energetic, jack-of-all-trades chaotic, prone to risky and even sometimes dangerous behaviors.

My dad and myself (at about age 4) in the Middlebrook Apartment complex (1423 Rustic Drive/Bldg 56/Apt. 2) where I lived with my mom in Ocean Township, New Jersey in 1973 or 1974 (unsure). My dad had bought me a train set that he set up in my room, and I think my mom was doing the videotaping at this point. Of note, my parents were already long since separated and I think she was already seeing Ray.

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In early 1963, it was decided for whatever reason to try to perform some sort of brain surgery on him. I have no idea why or what was intended. Following the surgery, he developed an infection and went into a coma. He died on March 16, 1963 exactly 19 years, 3 months, and 1 day after he was born.

Yours truly and my dad and our bull mastiff dog Borky in the house on Kirby Avenue, Long Branch, N.J., 1977. My dad had injured his hand in a karate competition.

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His death devastated my grandmother and she was inconsolable. Indeed, she never really recovered and I can always tell photos of her that are before and after his death. It was after his death that she became the frail little old lady that I knew, prone to injuring herself by banging into things ("I saw stars!").

Yours truly on the side of our house by the big hydrangea bush that grew and was in full flower at 368 Kirby Avenue, Long Branch, N.J., July 1974.

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For the first year or so, she would walk twice a day from Kirby Avenue to his grave at Mount Carmel Cemetery off Wall Street (yes, Wall Street) in West Long Branch. My grandma never drove for most of her life (she may have at points in the 1930s and 1940s but by the time I knew her, she hadn't driven in decades).

A Google aerial view map with the roughly 1-1/2 mile walk mapped out between Kirby Avenue in Long Branch, N.J., and Mount Carmel Cemetery in West Long Branch, N.J. The Atlantic Ocean is visible on the far right.

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Here is a picture of the gravesite at Mount Carmel Cemetery in West Long Branch, N.J., for my grandparents and Uncle Richard (and someday my dad). I forgot to post this with the entry and I'm including it as an update (1045PM 3/18/2013).

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As the years went by and the immediacy of the impact of his death passed, she sort of recovered. And I do like to think that the God Who in her view had snatched away her son ("He took my Richard" she would often say in a way to that only a mother who has lost a dear child could say, and to which there is no decent reply) perhaps in some small way made it up to her by bringing me into her life and raising me when my mom was away (in Belgium and then Texas with my stepfather).

Yours truly with my grandma in our yuletide decoration and gift-festooned back "den" in the house on Kirby Avenue, Long Branch, N.J., Christmas 1974.

The Christmas seasons of 1974 - 1978 were probably the best ones of my life with a level of joy that can never again be reached.

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Of note, in the years that she raised me, my grandmother invariably called me "Robert" (my dad's name) and my dad she would call "Richard." She did it so much that I just got used to answering to "Robert."

My dad, grandparents, and myself at some event in or near Long Branch, N.J., July 2, 1972.

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My grandmother contracted ulcers in 1987 (due to my grandfather's hypochondria and refusal to get out of bed and function like a human being -- remember she was very dependent on him for everything). "GET OUTTA THAT GOD-DAMN BED!" she would scream at him. (By that point, they were living in the Oceanpointe Towers on Pavilion Avenue right by the beach.) She went into the hospital -- Monmouth Medical Center -- in November 1987 and had no fewer than three operations to REMOVE parts of her stomach. Remember she was 79 years old and all of 5'3" and 95 pounds.

My grandma and her sister Babe (she who just turned 100) on holiday in Florida lounging about, circa 1950. My grandma was about 4 years older than Babe.

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This galls me to no end because in 2013 the treatment for bacterial ulcers is fairly simple: Ingesting an antibiotic fluid to kill the bacteria responsible for it. It's possible I don't know the whole story and I never saw her death certificate but that's how I understand it. (I had just turned 18 when she died and I was a neurotic mess of a senior in high school living in frickin' Glen Burnie, Md., and did not see her that often any more.) I think the last time I saw her was in either late December 1987 or early January 1988. I don't recall. She died on January 11, 1988 and the 25th anniversary of her death recently came and went.

Yours truly at Vancourt Park in Long Branch, N.J., circa 1974. I remember that red and black checkered winter coat.

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I was told by a family member that before she died, she kept calling out Richard's name. This family member said she was calling out to me but I knew that was not the case.

Again, yours truly in Vancourt Park, Long Branch, N.J., on a bright, cold winter's day circa 1974 (I vaguely remember this day and my grandfather videotaping things).

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As for my grandfather, he died in July 1993 in Freehold, New Jersey after spending several years in a nursing home called "The Manor." The place was awful and stunk horribly as all nursing homes are awful and stink horribly. By that point, my dad had already moved to Florida and my life was shifting to the Washington, D.C., area. We basically abandoned grandpa for the last 6 months of his life. We were wrong but he made it almost impossible to be around him.

As for namesakes, in the end, I will be the last male Todaro on this side of the family. The name will die with me. There are other Todaro's in northern New Jersey (some cousins).

NOTES:

[1]To clarify, I have his first and last name. I had no middle name at birth because my grandmother and father wanted James but my mother wanted Anthony, except my initials would have been "RAT." Many years later, I had "Michael" added legally as my middle name (my mom helped me with that in 2001). Had I ever been confirmed in the Catholic Church (let's not go there), I would have added James, and I sometimes use it unofficially as a second middle name.

[2]I talked to my dad earlier this afternoon to make sure of some details; he wasn't crazy about the topic but still understood why I wanted to post this.

[3]That was pretty much life in the New Jersey Italian American world of the mid-20th Century: betting at the track, golfing, baseball games, eating and drinking, and ENDLESS chain smoking (remember that Onion Our Dumb Century article set in the 1950s: THE SURGEON GENERAL RECOMMENDS YOU ONLY SMOKE CHESTERFIELDS!)

Yours truly looking south along the surf at Deerfield Beach, Fla., 12:37PM August 2, 2009.

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OK, that's all for now. This was kind of a difficult entry to write (it took four hours to compose), and I probably won't be posting a new one until Monday night. Oh, yes, I have jury duty on Monday morning (at the ugly hour of 8AM) here in D.C. I still get regular pay at work, though, which is nice no matter how short or long it lasts. I was last on jury duty in December 2010 (again, as a petit juror) and I even served on a trial and was jury fore-human.

--Regulus

2 comments:

к.нео.физ.де.му said...

what a greatly written touching entry - thanks for sharing!

Regulus said...

Thanks, Mike, for the comment.