Charlie Nessi walked through the cemetery searching for his mother’s grave. He had to find it because he wanted to put a headstone on it.
His mother was good, he told me again and again in 2002 when I first wrote about him. He was 53.
Charlie had spent too many years in the Willowbrook institution, where they hosed down patients with cold water and made them wear the same clothes for days. The same underwear, too.
Charlie’s mother and father got him out of Willowbrook. Then, after his father died, he lived for 15 years with his mother in the Sullivan County village of Jeffersonville. She taught him to make lasagna and shave, bathe and wear deodorant. And to never throw rocks or hit anyone.
Emily Nessi died in 1996. She was buried in a cemetery near Jeffersonville, in Youngsville.
Charlie couldn’t read or write when he searched for his mother’s grave. He couldn’t tell time either — even though he wore a new silver and gold watch from Wal Mart. He’d bought it with money from the first job he’d ever held — packing nail polish. He told me he wanted to learn to tell time.
But more than anything, he wanted to use that money from his job to buy the headstone for his mother’s grave.
Finding that grave looked hopeless on that warm September day tinged with the breezy hint of autumn. Not just because Charlie couldn’t read — although he knew what the word “Nessi” looked like. But after climbing up the hill of the cemetery, looking through row after row after row of graves with gray, brown and black gravestones, and often stumbling as he looked, Charlie ran out of graves.
He was not about to give up his search. So, as the sunlight dimmed, he stood at the top of the hill of the cemetery. He scratched his head.
He looked beyond the graves. He walked up the hill. He kept walking maybe 50 feet beyond the last row of graves, to the beginning of the forest. As crickets chirped, he wandered near the shade of leaves tinged with the burnt orange of the season to come.
He bent down and pointed to a metal marker six inches wide covered with grass and dirt. He pulled away the grass until the marker was clear. He touched the silver letters on the dull black background.
He stood and said:
“My mother. Right there. I found it. I really did.”
“Emily Nessi 1921-1996.”
Charlie Nessi passed away last week. He was 70 years old.
He was buried right in front of his mother in that cemetery. Her grave is marked by a gravestone that is not only a testament to Charlie’s love for her, but of the lesson Charlie taught us. That what really matters isn’t how people seem on the outside, but by who they are on the inside.
After I first wrote about Charlie Nessi — who did learn to tell time and write and always loved his beloved Mets — many of you sent money so he could buy a gravestone. One man who sent $100 had lost his wife a few months before he read about Charlie. He knew the comfort visiting her grave gave him. Elton Harris of Harris Funeral Home quietly donated a gravestone Charlie wanted — a light-colored one with an engraving of Jesus on it.
Charlie knew his mother loved Jesus. And he loved his mother.