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The perfect talk show guest
The passing of my cousin Alma Kaldowski Furcinito in July (2012) was, of course, a sad event, but one for which we were long prepared. She had lived in pain for several years, the result of a chronic back problem that eventually confined her to a wheelchair.

For a long while Alma's personality seemed unaffected. Oh, she'd complain about her condition, explain and analyze it, but quickly move on to other things.

My wife and I visited the Syracuse area infrequently in recent years, but when we got together with Alma, she always seemed to pick up where she left off. My first indication that her condition had worsened came about a year before her death when I phoned her and she told me she didn't feel like talking.

Even in sadness I can't help but think of the Alma I knew many years ago. She was quite a character, one who had what some might call the gift of gab, though, frankly, we occasionally described it not as a gift, but a curse. When you called Alma, or received a call from her, you had to be prepared for a long conversation, most of it one-sided.

She came by her gift naturally. Her mother, Wanda Smolinski Kaldowski, also mastered the art of talking without breathing. Or so it seemed. (Once, while taking Wanda the six blocks or so from my parents house on Russet Lane to her house on Woods Road in Solvay, New York, Wanda's incessant commentary on my driving ability so distracted me that I sideswiped a parked car. She momentarily went quiet, but the expression on her face said, "See, I told you so!")

Both Alma and her mother had a wonderful attitude toward their gift. Neither was disturbed if you raised your voice and demanded to be heard. Both would smile, listen, then resume as soon as you were finished.

Alma was born in 1927, thus was eleven years old when I arrived. She was my first babysitter, though she was more like an older sister because she spent a lot of time with my parents, particularly my mother, who remained close to Alma for the rest of her life.

Family photos taken during the early 1930s indicate Alma went with my parents during daytrips and on family vacations to Sandy Pond.

If my sister, Mary Beth, and I harbored any resentment toward Alma it was because of the piano lessons that were inflicted upon us because Alma had taken them earlier. And if they were good enough for Alma, my mother reasoned, they were good enough for her children.

My parents purchased an upright piano similar to the one Alma's parents had. And so it began ... Well, Alma may have learned how to play, but my sister and I both ran into a brick wall after about a year. (Not that the torture stopped; between the two of us, my sister and I must have had eight years' worth of lessons.)

Still it was Alma who provided the most memorable moments on our piano, when she was in her late teens or early 20s. In a moment of wild optimism, my mother purchased the sheet music for "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," a hit song from Walt Disney's movie, "Song of the South." It proved far beyond my ability or my patience, but one afternoon, while Alma was visiting, she decided to give it a try ... with limited success. As I recall, she was still practicing the song after my sister and I were tucked into our beds.

Alma had a good heart, a great sense of humor and a wonderful laugh. She also had a lot of opinions and freely dispensed advice of a wide variety of subjects. She and her husband, Jim Furcinito, had two sons, James and Peter, and lived in Liverpool, New York. James Jr. settled in Texas, Peter took over the family business, Furcinito Builders, Inc.

In the days following Alma's death I exchanged a few emails with her daughter-in-law, Ann Marie, Peter's wife, and one of the things that came out of the experience was a reminder how little I know about the Smolinski side of the family.

For example, Ann Marie asked about the spelling of Kaldowski, which was Alma's maiden name. The question concerned the last letter — is it I or Y? At that point I decided to do a little research. I would find it spelled both ways, though Kaldowski seemed to be preferred.

I have little recollection of Alma's father, Peter Kaldowski, who died in 1960 at the age of 64. He seemed to be the odd man out at family functions. There apparently was no love lost between Peter and his mother-in-law, my grandmother Helen Kalinowska Smolinski, but I never knew the reason.

In any event, I don't recall ever meeting anyone from the Kaldowski side of the family. Now I am attempting to put together a brief Kaldowski family tree. And with help from Jim Maltby, I have done the same for the family of Gertrude Maltby, who married my uncle William Smolinski. I've a long way to go, but it's a start.

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