My mother is the youngest of three children. That's her on the far left. My aunt Laura is next to her, my grandfather is the white-haired dude in the middle and on the right is my uncle Oreste. This photo was taken 14 years ago, at my cousin's wedding. I love how happy everyone looks.
They say that birth order really does determine your character and in the case of my mother's family, it's hard not to believe it. Laura, the oldest, was the family peacemaker, protective and a little bossy. Oreste, the middle child, was the quiet one who was always more content watching from the sidelines than being in the middle of the action. And Letizia, the youngest, was the feisty one who often clashed with my strong-willed, stubborn grandfather even if, or because, she resembled him the most.
I think, in a way, that Laura and Letizia have always seen themselves as being my uncle Oreste's buffers against my grandfather. Oreste was by nature a far gentler spirit than my grandfather, who could be so hard on his children. As hard on them as he was sweet on us, the grandchildren. Which is why it is all the more devastating that Oreste has passed, after a short, intense illness that took us all by surprise. His death was mercifully quick, but his illness itself was a shock to our family, in which so many people lived very long lives, some of them nearing or passing 100. Oreste still had so many years ahead of him.
We're not a religious family. We don't go to church and many of us don't believe in God. So imagining my uncle's path now is a difficult, slightly nebulous thing. I wonder, is he in Verona, hanging out behind his wife's dining room chair, wrapped up in the slightly smoky air he left behind? Or is he in Torre San Tommaso, walking back and forth on the country road that joins the cemeteries where my grandfather and grandmother are buried, past the house that we all love so much even if it holds some memories we'd like to forget? Is he in Toronto, whispering in his son Riccardo's ear that he's with him every step of the way, on Riccardo's trip to India later this month to meet his future wife's family, at City Hall when they marry, at everything that still lies ahead?
I like to think he is in all those places at once. And in Berlin and Brussels, too, flashing his infectious grin at his sisters and telling them not to be sad, that he had a good life even if he had to leave it too soon, a good marriage, a son to be proud of. And that, anyway, he'll be with them always - as the knock-kneed little boy who once fell out of a moving car on a family trip, as the proud father of a baby boy who grew up to have his same smile, as the brother who always knew how much his sisters loved him and love him still.
He's all around us, everywhere.