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  • Writer's pictureJerry Della Femina

MY BROTHER JOE (5/12/20)

This column came about because Denis Hamill, a wonderful writer and a good friend, encouraged me to write it. He said it this way:

"My condolences, Jerry. But the grief you're feeling is really a new measure of your love for your brother. Treasure it. Write a column about your brother for us, Jerry. For you and him."


In the end the only thing that gives us eternal life is that we live forever in someone's memories. Covid-19, the vile disgusting virus, can take away life, but it cannot take away memories. And if coronavirus takes me, the memories of my brother Joe will continue to live and shine bright in his 10-year-old grandson Louis Forgione's mind The memories I have of my brother Joe pop up as 10- or 20-second picture shows in my head, whenever they feel like reminding me of my love for my brother. The earliest memory goes back to  December 7th, 1941. I was 5 years old. My father, who worked on Sundays, was not home. My mother -- so so unnerved by the attack on Pearl Harbor -- was listening to the rantings of Rosie, the overweight old maid who lived across the street. "They say they rape white women and I heard they can be here tonight or tomorrow," she whined. My mother was trying with a trembling hand to feed mashed carrots to my brother Joe, who was 6 months old. But she kept missing the baby's mouth. The carrots went everywhere but his mouth ... into his nose ... into his hair ... everywhere but his mouth. His little face was covered. I can still see him. It was a memory we laughed at during happy family dinners for years. Another picture ... Joe and I shared a tiny bedroom in the back of our house, facing the Sea Beach 86th Street station, which was only a few feet from our house. In the summer, when the window was open, you could hear a subway train pulling in and out of the station every 15 minutes. The sound went on all night. But the big sound was the Sea Beach Express, which roared through on a middle track and never stopped on its journey to Coney Island. The roar made our whole house shake. Joe and I slept through it, even though the room felt like it was going to explode. You get used to everything. Another picture that just invaded my mind: Joe and I waiting to walk into Our Lady of Grace Church for our grandmother's funeral. It was a cold winter day. I hadn't been in church for years. I said to Joe, "I wonder how this is going to feel?" With that they rang the church bell and it dislodged a giant piece of ice that hit me right in the middle of head and drove me to my knees. "God is throwing snowballs at you!" said Joe. We laughed and giggled our way through the services. "Put a handkerchief in front of your face so they'll think you're crying," said Joe. We laughed some more. On the night before he passed I called him and we talked. "You have to hang in," I said. "Everyone is rooting for you. Do you know that everyone loves you?" A pause, then he said, "Yes, I do." "What a wonderful thought to go out on," I remember thinking the next day. "When I call you tomorrow I will tell you who the Jets drafted," I said. "Won't help," he gasped. Then we both laughed. It was the last time I ever heard him laugh. Joe and I never had a fight or an argument. Or even one harsh word. I loved him. Everyone loved him. I know those words sound like the cliché that's part of the obituary of every person who dies, but this time it's true.

I've known him for every one of the 77 years he was on earth, and there's never been a person who met him who didn't fall in love with this sweet, kind, lovable man. What's amazing is that Joe never liked school, so he was totally self-taught. He read hundreds, maybe thousands of books, and he was one of the smartest people I have ever known. He never went to school. He was marked absent 50 ... 60 days a term. The truant officer Mr. Rosenne gave up on him. Joe simply chose to stay home with my mom and listen to soap operas on the radio and read another book every day. Joe's knowledge and love of sports was amazing. He was Google before there was Google. He could answer any baseball or pro football question. He was a wonderful advertising writer who worked at McCaffrey & McCall and then at my ad agency. The most fun he had in advertising was when he wrote for the New York Mets' account. He wrote the line "Baseball Like It Oughta Be" for the Mets. But in the end what Joe loved the most was his home and his family. He was a wonderful grandfather. Change that: He was the greatest grandfather there ever was, and he proved it every day.

As I used to say, Joe retired at the age of 63 from a very successful career as an advertising copywriter to become a professional grandfather. He was there for his family every minute of every day of the year.  He loved his family. He lived for his family. The best way to show the wonderful effect he had on his family was this story I heard just a day after he passed. Louis Forgione, with tears rolling down his cheeks, was talking to his mother and trying to come to grips with the shock of the death of his wonderful pal -- his grandfather. "Can't we clone Papa? Then he'll never leave us. Let's clone him," he said in the way a very smart 10-year-old tries to understand and change the death of his best friend. "Louis," his mother said, holding back the tears. "When someone is cloned they don't come back the same age and the same way they were before. They come back as a newborn baby." There was a pause, then Louis said, "That's okay, Mom. When he's a baby I will be able to take care of him the way he always took care of me. "He always took care of me." That's a statement that Joe's wife Carol, his three children, Elisa, Danielle and Mark, and his nine grandchildren -- Francesca, Mario, Gia, Peter, Emma, Nina, Ava, Sara and Louis -- will have as a sweet memory of my brother Joe for the rest of their lives.

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