UNCLE RICK CAME TO VISIT the other day. He retold the tale of Uncle Frank’s last visit. Uncle Frank’s real name was Francesco Petrellis. In America, he was known as Frank Peters. I’m not sure if he ever reconciled these two identities. Uncle Frank was born in San Giorgio Albanese, an old village overlooking the Ionian Sea in the hills of Calabria. He emigrated with his family — including his younger sister, my grandfather’s mother Rose — to the New World in 1900. Old documents show him holding odd jobs and married to a woman of Hungarian extraction. They had no children. At some point, Uncle Frank moved to Florida. One day, though, in the early 1960s, there was a knock at my grandfather’s door. It was Uncle Frank! He had come to say that he was leaving. “And before he left, he gave my father a $500 bill,” Rick told me at our kitchen table. “Now, this was the Sixties, and a $500 bill was a lot — a lot — of money. I don’t know where he got it, but my guess is that he was on the run from the mob or something.”
My father’s cousin Nancy told me the same story. “I’ll never forget the day he showed up. And he was handing out money.”
After Uncle Frank left, nobody heard from him for some time, until word came that he had died in his birthplace. My grandmother still has the photograph of him laid out in his coffin with a bouquet of flowers on his chest. I’ve seen the photo. He looks at peace. When you turn it over, you can read that it was sent by a cousin named Cosimo Petrellis from Via La Croce, San Giorgio Albanese, Cosenza, Italy. It is dated June 1965.