Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eulogy- Elaine Regina Musitano (1934-2011)

Hopefully, the last eulogy I'll have to write and deliver for a long time. This one was for my aunt, who passed in October, 2011.


On behalf of our family, I want to thank you for coming this evening to help us bid farewell to someone who meant so much to us.   The cruelness of Alzheimer’s is such that we actually  lost her years ago.  It seemed slow at first, little blank spaces in memory…in train of thought.  Then all of a sudden she wasn’t there at all; physically, more or less, but nothing of her spirit… her passion for the people and things that she loved.   When you read about the victims of Alzheimer’s, it seems that it’s fate’s cruel joke in that it so often attacks the richest of minds, the ones with so much to give.  This was the case with Elaine.  It’s really kind heartbreaking to think of all that was lost, all that could no longer be shared even though she was physically still right in front of us.

And now we’re here.  Elaine is finally at peace and it’s time for us to try and find some of our own.  We’ll try and forget the past six years of this disease and all the lamentations of what had become of her.  Now we’ll just honor the life that she lived and the person that she was.

I feel a particular responsibility because of how much she meant to me personally. a I wish more people knew her the way only a very few of us did. 

It’s accurate to say that she shares equal credit (or maybe blame) for the development of me as a person.  I’m pretty much 1/3 Linda, 1/3 Bart and 1/3 Elaine.   And if you took away her influence, you’d find someone standing before you that you really wouldn’t recognize at all.

In order to understand Elaine’s impact, it’s necessary to introduce or re-introduce her and dad’s mother, Regina.   I don’t think it’s fair to say that my grandmother put on “airs”, because she didn’t perceive it that way, but there was definitely a sense of regalia about her that I rarely see in other people.

To me, she also never quite seemed to fit in with the modern age.  I always got the impression she’d somehow been time-warped out of an earlier century; perhaps whisked away from her Renaissance Palace  and somehow dropped into 20th century Philadelphia.

 Though my grandparents lived in pretty modest row home, stepping into their living room was like stepping into a European parlor.  A Renaissance chair,  a grand piano, not a sofa, but a setee.  The modern conveniences like televisions and stereos all hidden in the basement.  The living room was for conversation, for afternoon tea in cups and saucers, and for reading.   My grandmother was by no means wealthy, but she was cultured and she was elegant.  She loved art and poetry and she was one hell of a cook.  This was all passed on to Elaine.

From my grandfather, Joseph, Elaine got a love of classical music and opera and also a love of reading.   He read constantly and his shelves were filled with books on all subjects.  He also had one of the largest collections of opera records in the city.  These were their positive influences on her.

Now I don’t think I’m bragging or exaggerating when I say that for my grandmother and my aunt, my birth in October, 1970…on my grandfather’s 65th birthday…was probably the single greatest event in human history.  Since my grandmother was beamed from the Renaissance, the two of them treated me like one of the Medici Princes.  There was a painting of me, prominently displayed in the living room, painted by my aunt, as a baby falling  through the sky, from Heaven, with angels bidding me farewell.  Thank God there were some strategically placed clouds, covering my Princely “package”.

 In those early years they did everything short of chewing up my food  for me.  Scented baths were drawn, a nighttime snack of ovaltine and Lorna Dunes, complete with a formal table setting, and finally….these women were intense….they actually perfumed my pillow before I layed my head down.   They were also constantly  concerned about the healthy state of my bodily functions, ya know, the digestive system.  At least once a day, I’d get the question, in a kind of hushed whisper…”Did you have a b.m. yet?”  Even as a little kid, I knew I did NOT want to discuss this with them.  That would be the 1/3 Linda reeling it’s head right there.   Fortunately some of this of catering to faded as I got older.

In 1976 my aunt moved out of of my grandparents house and moved to Center City, to the VIDA apartment house at 15th and Locust Streets, the place that would become my single favorite place on Earth for the rest of my childhood.

From about 10 years old I began to spend as much time as possible with Elaine (or Zi-Zi) as Gianna and I called her, at her apartment. Gianna came a few times, but she was a homebody, so it became all about it should be.  She doted on me and was eager to share all her interests …and they were numerous.   If you don’t already know this about her, it’s important to understand that when she loved something, it was never just a little bit…she had a passion for certain things and she had the need to share it.  Looking back, the vast majority of the things I love were a result of her influence:  movies, books, different types of food, televison shows, art, music…so much of this is what she shared over the years. 

All I had to do was show the slightest curiosity in something and the floodgates would open; she’d spend hours with me discussing it, showing me examples, playing  records.   When movies like Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan and Blade Runner hit the theaters, she went crazy over them.  We’d be on the phone every Saturday, long distance, breaking them down scene by scene…the movies, the novels the soundtracks…all the while dad tallying up the long distance charges in his head.  “Is it necessary to talk about movies and tv for an hour,” he’d ask. 

I’d visit her a few times a year, usually a week at Christmas, a week in the summer and a shorter weekend when I could fit in in.   In the 80’s Center City was filled with great book and record stores and we’d hit them all.  We’d also go to movies, sometimes the theater, and frequently try new restaurants.  Other times, she’d try out a new recipe at home; she loved cooking Chinese and Indian food so her kitchen was filled with numerous cookbooks and spices.  I’d read the recipe out and she’d follow step by step.  She made a special “event” out of everything, from going to the bakery for a loaf of bread to watching a movie on the vcr.    In my spare time around the apartment I became familiar with every book on her shelf, every record she owned, every piece of artwork she painted.  I think to this day, I could probably set up her bookshelves exactly the way she had them.

She provided such a complete cultural education for me as a kid, just through her passion for things.  She missed her calling, she should have been a teacher…art or music or Humanities, because she could instill her love of things to others like nobody I’ve ever seen.

She exposed me to my first two operas, taking me to the MET in New York to see Wagner’s Lohengrin and Die Walkure.  We studied each Libretto first and she made sure I knew the stories completely beforehand.  There were many more that we watched on videotape.

And then, in July of 1983, she gave me the greatest gift of all….The gift of David Bowie…

Now I really had no idea of who this guy was.  I knew she liked him and I’d seen some of the paintings on her wall but didn’t know anything about him.  I remember the first weekend John was visiting her with me, and as we were walking out her front door, he caught sight of a Bowie painting she did, and he asked kinda bewildered, “Is THAT David Bowie?”   I answered “Yeah, apparently she likes him.”

So it was July 83, and I was up there for the week and she happened to mention that she and my grandmother had just been to a David Bowie concert.  So I asked her, “Well what kind of music does he play?”

Oh yeah! That’s ALL I needed to ask.  I could almost hear the internal sirens going off in her head.  Within minutes, the records were spread out on the living room floor as she played a selection of songs throughout his career, while I poured over the lyrics.  I also got pretty much the entire David Bowie biography lectured to me over the next two hours.  I was pretty much “Born Again”, by the end of that night..  I remember going home and getting a cassette mix tape to John, telling him, “you REALLY need to listen to this.” 

So now back to John for a bit, he is perhaps the only other person that completely understands the impact that Elaine had on me, because over the course of only a few weekend visits to her apartment, she had the same effect on him.

It all started with a trip to a science fiction convention in November 1982.  She had invited John and me up for the weekend.  We were in 7th grade and I remember we left after school on a Friday.  You can only imagine our total excitement  and arrogance in school that day as WE were spending an exciting weekend in the city and nobody else was.  I don’t think we  mentioned the Star Trek convention part.
Lil drove us into the city and it was about 6:30 or so when she turned onto Locust Street in front of the VIDA to drop us off.  I know neither of us will ever forget those first few minutes…

It was dark and a little cool, and there was a small group of people on the corner, standing out in front of Dewey’s, a small diner on the corner under the VIDA.  Just as we got out of the car a burst of steam came up out of the vent next to us, and it had this orange hue to it from the street lamp.  Visually, it was the perfect start to an amazing weekend. 

In addition to the convention, John got a sample of who she was, and her incredible power to expose you to new things…. 

            (John’s letter)

Her legacy has clearly lived on…

My aunt and my grandmother loved John, from the very first time they met him and they both always remembered to ask about him.   He and Patrice were the first of my friends to have kids.  I remember a party in Brigantine once, Jessica was an infant and John was in the house taking care of her, trying to get her to nap I think.  I remember my grandmother saying to Elaine, “Oh Lana, look what a wonderful father John is.”  To which she responded, ‘Yes, isn’t it darling?”  That was her word. 

My aunt and my grandmother, the two of them together were a trip.  When I would stay for the week my grandmother would come down to the apartment and spend time with us.  We’d take her on our rounds through Center City.  The two of them walked so slowly, constantly stopping to gaze longingly into store windows.  It drove me crazy.  Especially during the frigid winter wind chills, when I just wanted to keep walking.  I’d turn around and find them a half a block behind me.   

We’d get back to the apartment and my grandmother would say, “Lana, it was so cold out there.  I think Bart needs a glass of sherry to warm him up.”  So there I was, a 12 year old Frazier Crane, sipping sherry and listening to opera.

So this has been a sample of some of the defining moments of my childhood, really up through high school.  Memories that are still so totally vivid.  I can never go into Center City without them slamming into me, thinking back on all the miles of walking I did with her downtown.  Arriving on those streets EVERY TIME, brings that same feeling that John and I felt getting out of Lil’s car almost 30 years ago.  I walk past the VIDA or the LENOX (her second apartment building) and it feels like if I just walk in, get on the elevator and take it upstairs, everything will be exactly the same.  And then, when I realize it won’t be, well that royally sucks.

These last six years have been horrible.  So much she should have seen, so much she should have been a part of.  It makes me angry that Nico and Alex never got to really know the person she was.  They never had the chance to experience one of those visits, the things that she could have taught them. I do my best, but it’s not the same, coming from a parent sometimes.  She never got to see them on stage with their band and that’s very sad

She would have loved things like youtube and facebook, and I could see her spending hours sharing videos and interacting with other people that shared her interests.

Every time a movie, album or book that I go crazy about comes out, I think of her because I know it would have led to hours of discussions.  The remake of Star Trek was bittersweet because as a big Trekie, she would have been totally wrapped up in everything surrounding it.  The Harry Potter series she would have been INSANE over.  She had seen the first two movies, but by then the disease had already started to affect her and she didn’t completely understand it.  I remember though that she loved Professor Snape.  I sat in the theater seeing the final movie, maybe one of the most perfect movies ever, and that opening scene, zooming in on Snape in all his  Vader-esque awesomeness, I remember dropping the F-Bomb in my head, thinking “You should be here for this.”

Amy and I were with her last Thursday when she died.  I arrived about 90 minutes before and the great staff at Seashore Gardens had been caring for her all morning.  They knew she loved opera, so they had her CD’s playing.  I sat with her, listening to the songs and arias I’d heard with her dozens of times.  Me, Jose, Placido and Luciano, the way she would have wanted it.  Amy arrived about ten minutes before it happened.  The chaplain came in, said a prayer and then turned her music back up.  She died very peacefully to Pavarotti singing Rondine al Nido, a Neopolitan song from the late Romantic era…her favorite period of music. Odd to say, but as deaths go, for her, I’m not sure it could have been any more perfect…

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