How do you come to know the things you know? You learn all along the way, and school is really a sliver of what you learn. “Just give me a sliver,” that automatic request for the diet conscious at any cake cutting, is a phrase I learned at my uncle’s house. How to call pizza, apizza, which sounds like ah-beetz, I learned at my uncle’s house. I learned how to shuffle cards and play solitaire from my other uncle Lou, I learned to like the shortbread cookies my grandmother sent me home with when I’d visit my uncle’s house. I learned that some of us are blessed with boundless appetites for food that could rival the Nathan’s 4th of July champions.
I learned to survive the boredom of PBS News Hour and music from a bygone era, I learned how young I was compared to a century old grandmother, and how to politely ask for something to drink, which was difficult for a shy child. I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge, and learned that the roads in Connecticut were terrible.
I learned that my middle name, Emil, is not really my uncle’s name, it was Emidio, which was shortened to Mid, which I thought was much cooler than Emil. I have misinformed the few who know that my middle name is Emille, which sounds more exotic and fancy, but it is Emil (EE-Mill). And today I write for the first time in the loss of my uncle.
Emil DeGregorio, hung on for 98 years. A true member of the Greatest Generation. A veteran, and a generous man, who helped me at every stage of my life. Who supported from afar and with no stipulations. Just support. Constant and unwavering, and in his passing, I am left to wonder what kind of man I am and what kind of man I want to be. I think I am a decent guy, but, truly what does that mean? I learned from my uncle that generosity is like a gene you possess or you don’t, and I don’t know if that gene was passed on to me. He gave and gave, and it was always the thing most needed, at the time most needed, and I shudder to think he might not have known the depth of my gratitude. I know my gratitude and regret have brought me to tears, and somehow I know my stoic and grand uncle wouldn’t understand. It was just what he did, he saw need and gave.
My uncle wasn’t much for talking on the phone, and he certainly wasn’t much for saying, I love you, but he would always end the call with the phrase, God bless you, and I knew what he meant. I would say, God bless you, too, and try to infuse my words with all the love I could muster.
He was the oldest of my father’s brothers, and the last to leave the world. Giving me a last link to my father, and he stayed so long I grew complacent in his constancy. In his loss I finally understand what a gift he was and I am left to proceed knowing I have much to do to have a sliver of his giving spirit. My uncle Emil was a titan in my life. I learned so much. I learned what love in action looks like. I don’t know a greater lesson.