On Saturday last I learned that my dad’s cousin, Donald Anthony Cornacchio had passed away. It’s never easy to put in words how we feel about someone we’re close to and Tony (I always called him Tony—no one called him “Donald” that I know of and I think he hated to be called “Donald”) was more like an uncle to me than a distant cousin.
I’m not exactly sure what happened to him but I get the notion that he was suffering from cancer and it finally got him. I know that must sound strange—saying I was close to my dad’s cousin and then saying “but I don’t know exactly how he died.” It’s because for the last several years he’d lived in Indiana far away from the rest of my extended family. Life has a way of drifting people apart I guess.
I’ve only had a few people hang a nickname on me in my life. My uncle Giovanni and my cousin Louie Sardy used to call me “Onion”. I liked that because it made me feel a bit less awkward at a time in my life when I often felt like I was on the outside looking in. In college my roommates called me “The Latin Lover” which was a joke because I never had any dates. But I laughed along with them because I knew they weren’t trying to be mean but rather it was the kind of good-spirited teasing that friends do to each other. My cousin Ann-Marie calls me “Frau” after “Frau Blucher” in Young Frankenstein. We both find that movie immensely funny even after having probably watched it 40 times between the two of us.
A good nickname is sort of a special friendship between people; let the rest of the world call you what they like—to me you’re . . . the nickname. We’ve got a nice safe friendly space here and that nickname is the password for you and me. I think I heard Smokey Robinson (whose real name is William) relating how his favorite uncle had given him the nickname “Smokey” because he was self-conscious about the light tone of his skin. A nickname can help to smooth the rough road of life sometimes.
Cousin Tony had a nickname for everyone he liked. My dad was “Bounce”—I always thought that Tony had given dad that nickname but I learned a few years ago that my dad got that nickname when he was in high school. And he called me “perfesser” (I know that’s not spelled right but that’s how Tony pronounced it.) For some reason Tony always thought that I was a smart guy. If I live to 100 I will always smile when I think of Tony calling me “perfesser” because Tony didn’t put on airs and he didn’t pretend to like people if he didn’t like them so when Tony gave you a nickname it was a sign of genuine affection.
The other thing that I will always remember about Tony was his given name. I was complaining, as I often did when I was younger, about how annoying it was to be named with such an odd name as “Onorio”—how much teasing I took. Tony said something to me like “Do you think you’re the only one who ever had anyone make fun of his name?” and he proceeded to relate to me that kids had cruelly called him Donald Duck and other names not quite so nice. As an adult it’s hard to imagine being hurt by that kind of name calling but as a kid that kind of thing really hurts And knowing that my cousin Tony had suffered that too made it hurt just a little less—I felt just a little less excluded.
I am going to miss Tony because rather than seeing a little know-it-all and telling me (as he rightly might have) to stop being such a know-it-all, he gave me a great nickname and he made me feel pretty special.
I could go on and on about Tony because even though he may have told you otherwise, Tony was a great person. At some point it seems that trying to reduce a person’s life to a few sentences maybe cheapens things. I hope that we’ll all be together again someday and I can tell Tony thank you in person.