“Good-bye Perry Como . . . . Again”


Ray Peterson, ‘62

Isn’t it strange how the death of celebrities can affect us? They are people that we usually know only superficially. Our knowledge is limited by the information that filters down to us through the media. But their lives and deaths can be events that touch the most basic core of our being with an intensity that can be surprising. As time passes the event is often framed within the context of a period when our own lives were changing and can add to its endurance and meaning. And of course we each add our own individual private

dimension to the public experience. I was sad for a few days when Diana was killed in that car crash. But for whatever reason the sadness has not endured. I didn’t understand the national mourning for Dale Earnhardt. I still cry when I think of the loss of John Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn. And please don’t remind me of the day Mickey Mantle went over to the other side. When he died I had this visceral feeling that I had lost the last vestige of my youth. Even worse I realized that I was probably mortal also.


So on May 13, 2001 when I read that Perry Como had died the day before I was struck with that familiar wave of disbelief as my mind retrieved old memories of his songs and images from his television shows. Perry Como was a known personality in my family from the time he began his television career in the late forties. Even during the turbulent transition epoch of the sixties he was a fixed constant star in a changing universe. He was obviously a good man who knew who he was and was happy with who he was. His songs were always light-hearted happy songs that I could naturally remember: “Hot Diggity,” “Catch a Falling Star,” ”Magic Moments,” “Round and Round,” “Wild Horses,” “Til The End of Time,” “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” are some of the songs I remember most clearly. In a family of five very different people (was I really related to them?) we all liked him. No small achievement there.


My little sister adored him. She was only four years old when my parents bought her a little black and white kitten that she immediately named Perry Como. I was eight and had never lived with a cat. We were pretty much a dog family. But this little creature that purred while sleeping in a spot of sunlight on the floor and who swatted at strings dangled in front of him began to win my affection. We underestimate by many factors the intelligence and emotive powers of our pets. We also underestimate the meaning and value of the depth of our care and affection for them. During a bitter marriage dissolution that began six years ago I went through a divorce/child support/custody system that is every bit as oppressive and destructive of basic human rights and dignity as any political system the world has seen. This system took my three small children away from me with no rights of contact or parenting time. I can say very truthfully that my dog Charlie and cat Devil have kept me more or less within the boundaries of sanity while I struggle to hold my balance and fight that system.


Perry Como the cat did not play such a central role when I was eight but he was a daily presence in my young life. Sometimes he would sleep on my sister’s bed. Sometimes on mine. Yes, they understand politics also. One day I came home from school and I didn’t see him around the house. After a while I asked my mother if she had seen him. She told me he had followed her as she walked from Arthur Kill Rd. to Main Street to go to Ralston’s. When she was finished shopping he was not outside the store. She assured me that cats know where they live and he would find his way home soon. Well, he never did. After four or five days I remember praying for his return. I pictured him lost, hungry, hurt, frightened. I didn’t want to leave the house because I knew I had to be there if he wandered by and didn’t recognize the house. Surely he would know me. My mother tried to help by telling me not to worry and that after all, he was only a cat.


Even as an eight year old I realized that my grown-up mother had no idea what I, a child, was feeling. An experience utterly fundamental to the human condition was felt (not articulated – I was not precocious) very early in my life as it is in the lives of most little children: I felt alone in my anguish and bewildered over why God had answered my prayers with silence. As I grew older (much older) I understood the importance of keeping in mind how children experience the world: absolute feelings unfettered by reflective thought, thoughts in pictures not words, the outside world divided between places that are safe and places that are scary, creatures (people included) that want to care for and protect you and creatures that want to harm you. I resolved never to forget what it is like to be a child.


This resolution was in my mindset almost half a century later when it made the loss of my children many times more painful. I knew the fear and incomprehension that they must have felt when suddenly their Father was not there to help feed and bathe them (I always sang “Splish-Splash” when I would put three happy giggling children in a tub filled with bubbles and colorful floating toys), tell them stories at bedtime and answer their questions about bugs and rocks and stuff.


Finally (I don’t know how long it took), I realized that Perry Como was never coming back and I said good-bye. I’ve had to say good-bye to grandparents, parents, friends and pets over the course of my life. This second good-bye to Perry Como was not as existential as the first farewell. There was just a simple bittersweet sadness to it. I’ve read that loss is necessary. Cold comfort, I say. I’ve also read that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. I need to stay strong. Someday my children may find their way home again and I have to be there.

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