Thursday, December 31, 2015
The Passing of Peter Letterese
During the night, my Uncle Peter Letterese passed away in a hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has been suffering on and off for years from the effects of leukemia, but it never stopped him from enjoying a glass of wine or listening to an aria by Pavarotti. He was 93 years old, so we certainly can take comfort in knowing he had a long, fulfilling life. However, his passing is hard for the family, because he was such a vital part of our lives for decades. His granddaughter, my cousin MTB, has now lost the second half of the duo who did so much to raise and support her through the years, having lost her Nana, my Aunt Florence (my mother's older sister) in 2009. I blogged about her passing at that time. Uncle Pete was admittedly never the same after Aunt Florence died; she was the love of his life. In recent years he spoke honestly about how he wanted to be with her again. By a strange coincidence, New Year's Eve--today--was their 45th wedding anniversary. But he did the best he could all these years. The picture you see above is a shot of Aunt Florence, Uncle Peter, MTB, and her son, ten years ago at a family dinner.
Uncle Pete was a boxer. Not everyone knows that. He gave that up ages ago, though, and eventually worked as an X-ray technician in hospitals in the Bronx and St. Petersburg. A few years ago I uncovered the photo you see here in an issue of The New York Times. On June 18, 1949, he was the X-ray technician on duty who treated French boxer Marcel Cerdan for a torn shoulder muscle, and was photographed with Cerdan by an unidentified Associated Press photographer. The juxtaposition of his lives as a boxer and technician came together on that day.
When Aunt Florence and Uncle Peter finally retired for good in the late 1980s, they moved permanently back to their home in St. Petersburg, and soon joined up with the Italian-American Society of St. Petersburg, taking language lessons and tarantella dancing lessons. They were responsible for getting my parents and me involved in this too. (Yes, I admit it, I used to dance the tarantella and other dances with the group all over Florida!) Uncle Pete went to Italy once with my father, so he met the whole Italian side of family. When I was growing up I remember my aunt and uncle always coming out to our house on Saturday mornings, bringing pastry boxes with rolls and doughnuts. They always bought me a NYC classic: a black-and-white cookie. When my cousins and I were all kids, he was the Uncle who every summer picked us all up and threw us into the pool, doing it again and again, encouraged by our squeals of joy, and in spite Aunt Florence always yelling at him, "Peter, be careful!" As I grew older, it was Uncle Pete who helped educate me about wine. I went to more than one wine tasting with him over the years. He was also the person who first got me interested in opera. Once, he was given free tickets on a night that Aunt Florence couldn't go, so he asked if I wanted to go. My parents drove me into the City to meet him at Lincoln Center. That was my first live opera experience: Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, in box seats, at the age of twelve. It was an amazing experience. (We even sat next to Mia Farrow and Woody Allen--long before the Soon Yi scandal.)
Uncle Pete always had a big heart for everyone and he did truly enjoy life. He simply adored his granddaughter MTB and we know he appreciated greatly all her help over the past few years as things got harder for him. If Aunt Florence taught us how to be disciplined, organized, smart, and strong, Uncle Peter taught us how to have fun, enjoy good things in life, and never to take anything too seriously, because there were always choices and options. When I think of the great phrases that the elders in my life gave me, Uncle Peter gave me two. The first was: "The hardest part of making a decision is making the decision. After that, it all rolls into place." The second was: "And what's the worst thing that could happen if you discover you made a mistake? You change it." Very wise words from our own family wine expert. Salute, Uncle Peter!