Mary Panza

To say I have had a weird week is an understatement. One week ago one of my most beloved friends died. His name was Sam. He was in hospice care. I knew it was coming. You still are never prepared.

I met Sam in 1990 when I started working at the (real) Lark Tavern. I was a day bartender. Day bartending is different and less glamour than bartending at night. You get your old men, state workers, daytime affairs, and hardcore drinkers. It is a reality like no other. I was 22 when I started. I was REALLY rough around the edges. I was trained by one of the best bartenders I have ever seen. To this day, I have never seen (male or female) anyone run a show like my mentor, Big T. She never broke a sweat. She never got frazzled or in the weeds. She was always smiling and has a gift for making people feel like they were in on the joke.

We had three regulars that we could count on: Jas, Sam and Walter. Jas worked with us and when you see me put money in my bra and declare that they are the only two suckers a girl can trust, blame Jas. If you ever hear me talk about a sailor I knew that had a tattooed penis and the clap six times, that was Walter. If you ever hear me talk about the father God sent to me, that is my Sam. He came to be part of my real family by way of Thanksgiving 1990. I asked them what they were doing for the holiday and they all said that it was just another day for them. As an Italian girl, and no matter how hard I tried to fight who I was, I cannot stand the thought of someone being alone or hungry. In our culture, all are welcome to our table. We adopt strays and make them family. We delight in watching people eat and laugh. So as the good girl that I am, I put the invitation out and the only one that took me up on it was Sam. Since that Thanksgiving, he has spent every holiday, every birthday, every Sunday dinner and every trip to the South End Tavern in Troy with us. He became a confidant to my mother. He understood her in a way that only someone from the same generation could. He became a grandfather to my nieces and nephews. He became a buddy to my brother in law. The father I had by blood pales in comparison to the father that found me.

He had been in hospice for about four weeks. He had lost his appetite for everything except sweets and strong ultra sweet coffee. That became our routine. He got pie and ice cream for three meals a day until he wanted frosted sugar cookies and on the day he passed I walked in carrying a cup of coffee and chocolate chip cookies. I missed saying goodbye by 10 minutes. A lousy 10 minutes.

Jas passed a few years ago and Walter before him. My mother died 10 months ago and now my Sam is with them. When I was bartending I used to joke that I would get all of their ashes and put them a tin coffee can and prop them all behind the bar. The cosmic joke is that I have Mom and Sam on my mantle. My gang of old people is gone. In the last week I have cried, laughed, cleaned (which is what I do when I am upset), got drunk, got sick and spent about 15 consecutive hours on the couch. Then I just got up. I have a child to care for and I really don’t have time for the black arm band. I will grieve them all in many small ways. I will have my moments. I will do what I always do because that is how I will show my respect for them. I will tell my daughter stories of my wild youth. I will make my mother’s meatballs and gravy exactly as she did. I will talk about Sam and the rest of them. Most of all I will miss them. I hope to see you guys on the other side. Rest in Peace or at least with a full glass!