Delivered at Jesus Saviour Church in Newport R.I. on the snowy morning of 10 December 2013…
I lost two hugely important influences in my life within 24 hours this past week, Nelson Mandela and my Dad, Ernest J. Carrellas. As I was thinking about their lives I realized how many of—all of us perhaps—have our lives defined by some singular event or circumstance—a circumstance or event so overwhelming and intense that it hijacks our life. When it’s finally over, we find that the course of our life has been irreversibly altered. For me it was the AIDS crisis. For Nelson Mandela, it was, of course, apartheid. For my dad, it was the Great Depression.
Ernest was 14 in 1929 when the stock market crashed. By then he had already been working with his dad at Carrellas Shoe Store on Broadway for two years. Suddenly the country and much of the world was plunged into poverty and joblessness. Ernie had nine brothers and sisters and two parents to help support in a world where the cash to buy shoes—and most anything else—had simply dried up.
The Great Depression lasted for over a decade—that was almost twice as long as young Ernest had been alive when it had started. Do you remember how long ten years seemed when you were a teenager? And, before the depression was over a second tragedy struck—the hurricane of 1938. The hurricane of 1938 was a super hurricane—the kind that only occurred once every 125 years or so, so that literally no one had ever seen anything like it. It swept away a massive portion of this state. A few of Ernie’s high school classmates who had gone to the beach to watch the towering waves were swept away as well. Well into his 90’s he could describe to me in detail the waters from the tidal wave pouring into the streets and up over Newport Beach, sweeping away everything in it’s path.
Ernie learned young that surviving both natural and man made disasters took both luck and careful planning. In short, stay on high ground when the floods come and make sure you’ve saved plenty of money. Ernie dedicated the rest of his life to insuring that he and his family would never again go through anything like what he’d experienced in the 1930‘s.
Ernie worked in the shoe store for 50 years—first for his extended family, then to support my mom and me after he finally bought the business from his family. Ernie loved his customers. Since his passing I have heard so many memories from parents and children. My cousin Ann remembers buying her yearly PF Flyers—Ernest always let her think the choice of color was completely up to her, despite my Aunt Mary Lou standing by clearly disapproving of the white pair which would be dirty the next day. A Facebook friend remembered that all the shoe boxes went home neatly wrapped in brown paper and string, with a balloon tied on for each child. (As a side note, Ernie first gave out lollipops until someone accused him of trying to drum up business for his brother George, the dentist upstairs. The lollipops were quickly replaced by the bright balloons with “Carrellas Shoe Store” printed in white letters.)
Ernie may have loved his customers as much as they loved him, but he hated working in the shoe store. He had always wanted to be an accountant. Finally, at 61, he retired from the shoe store to live his dream. He set up office in his basement and became a tax preparer, bookkeeper and investor. He thought it would be a part time sort of thing, but soon business was booming. Yet he always found a way to devote the major portion of his days to investing his hard earned and well saved money. What I found most remarkable about my dad’s love of playing with money was his healthy detachment. He could ride out even severe market downturns with philosophical peace and calm. I could say that this naturally comes with surviving a depression and living almost a century, but it doesn’t. It was something quite rare and unique, and it taught me a great deal about faith, patience and non-attachment.
Ernest was a gentleman and he was generous. When, only recently, he became unable to manage his financial affairs I became aware of how much he gave and to how many charities, including, of course, his biggest charity—me. I will be forever grateful to him and to my mom for the financial support that has allowed me to pursue so many of my dreams.
Since his passing we have all had time to reflect on our gratitude for Ernest in our lives. In the days to come, especially over the holidays, we will continue to appreciate him. This, however, is my only public opportunity to appreciate those of you who made Ernest and Alice’s life so much happier and richer in their final years. So here they are—prayers of gratitude from Ernest, Alice, and me.
Anthony Carrellas, his younger brother, and closest friend. Obviously, Anthony has known Ernie longer than anyone else alive and they’d been thought some…shall we say…interesting times, over the ninety years they knew each other. One of the things my dad most looked forward to was a visit from Antony. Bless you Anthony, and bless my cousins, Patricia, Dave, Bob, Ann and Joan for making their visits possible.
Lucille Silvia. Ernie really really loved Lucille. So did Alice. They also thought she was a great artist (I agree, BTW). Ernie counted on her frequent visits and never ceased to feel guilty (but pleased) whenever she brought him some little gift. Thank you, Lucille, for your constant love and friendship.
Ernie met Peter and Gail Paranzino along with Lydia Reynolds when they started bringing him Holy Communion when going to church became too difficult for him. Peter’s friendship was one of Ernie’s great pleasures these past years. Most of Ernie’s male friends had passed away by the time he was in his nineties and having a guy friend he could talk to and trust was an immeasurable gift. Bless you, Peter.
Arthur Carrellas, Ernie’s nephew, was the accountant Ernie had always wanted to be. He loved Arthur and he trusted him. Plus, he loved their chats about taxes and investments and the economy. Bless you, Arthur.
Jean Carrellas. Both Alice and Ernest adored my cousin Jean, who I agree is one of the most adorable people I know. And also one of the most giving and caring. Jean is a nurse at Newport Hospital and she kept a watchful eye out whenever either Alice or Ernest was in hospital, especially my mom who spent more than her fair share of time at that hospital. We love you, Jeannie.
Kate Bornstein. Kate is my partner. For the 16 years she knew Ernie and the 9 years she knew Alice, she consistently strived to make their lives more comfortable and pleasurable—often against their will. (They were neither pleasure nor comfort focused, my parents.) But Kate wore them down. My mom loved the steady stream of soft stuffed animals and fairy figurines that poured into the house. For Ernie, it was the food. My dad loved sweets, especially cookies. He’d only buy the cheapest ones for himself—the ones on special at the Stop and Shop. For Ernie’s 90th birthday, Kate gave him a HUGE shopping bag of gourmet cookies. He ate like a prince for months.
Now to the real Bodhisattvas of Alice and Ernest’s lives. A Bodhisattva is an ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of buddhahood. Which means, a life dedicated to easing the suffering of others.
My cousin, David Roche, was adored by both Alice and Ernest. As my parents became less able to do things for themselves, he quietly, surreptitiously, took on more and more of the small tasks they could not do. Whenever my dad couldn’t do something, needed something, couldn’t figure something out, he could call David, who’d appear—usually within minutes. As he did yesterday, BTW, when I locked myself out of the house!
When my parents were younger they made elaborate plans for their old age—none of which they executed. When the time came, they did not want to rearrange the house to bring the bedroom downstairs. They did not want to move into assisted living. The Bodhisattva that made our lives possible, bearable, pleasurable and sane for the past decade is Carol Yount. Carol came to assist my mom after she’d broken her hip. After my mom died about two years later Carol said she’d be going back to her job at a nursing home. On the day of my mom’s funeral my dad asked her to “stick around,” as he put it. And she did—for 7 years. Carol was my mom’s last best friend. She was my dad’s last best friend. And she’s been mine. I have no brothers and sisters and I live in NYC. Carol has been the only person I could count on to keep my parents safe and to tell me the truth. My gratitude to her knows no bounds and I hope to keep her as a friend for the rest o my life.
As we go forth into this holiday season, we will all celebrate the Rebirth of the Light in different ways. Whether you call that light God, Goddess, Creator, the Great Spirit, Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah, the Universe, All That Is, or as my partner Kate says, “The Great Big Good,” I invite us all to remember that Ernest and everyone else who sheds the flesh suit that we all take on at the time of our earthly birth, is reborn into this light. May every holiday candle and bulb, every ray of returning sunshine, remind you of how much Ernest, Alice and I appreciate all the love, courage, support and light you’ve all shown us. Happy Solstice, Merry Xmas. Blessed be.