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Smithtown seniors get free ride to Calverton National Cemetery

Dorothy Lehl of Ronkonkoma shares a photo of

Dorothy Lehl of Ronkonkoma shares a photo of her late husband, George, during a trip to Calverton National Cemetery on Dec. 2, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

It was time to get off the bus, but Dorothy Lehl couldn’t will her legs to move.

She had made the nearly hourlong trip from Smithtown to Calverton National Cemetery five years ago for a holiday visit to the grave site of her late husband of 55 years, George, but when the bus pulled near the section where he was buried, she felt dizzy.

“I said, ‘I don’t know, my heart’s not beating right. I can’t do this,’ ” said Lehl, 86, of Ronkonkoma. An assistant at Branch Funeral Home was there to sit and talk with Lehl, and walk her to her husband’s grave when she was ready. When she returned to the bus, Lehl said she felt that she wasn’t neglecting George, who served in World War II as a gunner in the Eighth Air Force, anymore.

“I had closure. I had everything that I didn’t have before,” she said. “It was unbelievable!”

Since then, Lehl hasn’t missed the free trip, offered to local seniors each December by the funeral home, she said en route to Calverton this month.

The service, complete with free coffee and doughnuts in the morning and pizza and soda in the afternoon, has been provided by Branch Funeral Home since the late 1990s, said Paul Vigliante, who co-owns the Smithtown business with his brother, John, and father, Henry.

“We thought it would be nice, you know, to make it feasible for them to go see their loved ones during the holidays,” said Vigliante, adding that several participants do not drive. “Around this time of year, family members might feel a void in their lives. They always counted on that loved one being there during the holidays.”

Mary J. Thomas, chairwoman of the psychiatry department at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in Patchogue, said the season of festivities, traditionally marked by joy and laughter, can magnify a loss by bringing up memories that intensify the void.

Thomas said the need for support after a death is the greatest during the holidays. “The sharing experience of talking about your loved one, talking about how they celebrated the holiday and what they did during that time, lightens your grief and your pain,” she said.

That was true for Thelma Lettieri, 77, of Smithtown. Her husband, Salvatore, who served in the Army during the Korean War, died in October from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. She hadn’t visited his grave until she went on the bus trip Dec. 2. “In a group, it was an easier way to handle it,” she said. “It was like a cushion.”

For a while, Lettieri said, she felt numb and didn’t accept his death. They had shared 58 years together, and Salvatore felt it was his job to do everything for her. She never learned how to drive, because he drove her everywhere.

Lettieri said seeing her late husband’s headstone helped her move forward in the grieving process. “It gave me the feeling in spirit that he was gone and he was comfortable and he was out of his pain,” she said. “I feel blessed that they did it this way,” Lettieri added, referring to Branch Funeral Home. “It’s sort of like getting together and socializing.”

Sharing fond memories

The half-day cemetery trip is organized with a sharp eye for detail. Interested riders, who often learn of the event through their churches or the Smithtown Senior Citizens Department, sign up about a month in advance, listing the site and location numbers at Calverton where their loved one is buried.

Vigliante used the registration information to prepare an itinerary — critical at the cemetery, which has more than 250,000 interments — and provided golf carts to bring seniors from the bus to their loved ones’ actual marker, where many laid wreaths and took a moment to pray.

The solemn moments at the cemetery are a contrast to the ride there. It is filled with chatter, punctuated by holiday music and even TV scenes from a “Saturday Night Live” Christmas special. Many stories are shared.

Nesconset friends Dora Petrozzella and Peggy Kelly laughed as they recounted how they met their late husbands. For Petrozzella, 74, it was in the maternity ward of a Brooklyn hospital, after her husband Joseph, a veteran Air Force radio man, asked his stepmother who had just had a baby to make nice with Dora’s sister-in-law, with whom she shared a hospital room.

“He reminded me of Mario Lanza,” Petrozzella said of her husband’s likeness to the tenor — something she could enjoy over the couple’s nearly 45-year marriage. “I loved him.”

Kelly, 84, met her husband, Ed, a Marine rifleman, at a Christmas party at the Marine barracks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They were on separate dates, but she was struck by the “happy-go-lucky, fun-loving Irishman” with the “bluest eyes you’re ever going to see.” He was apparently smitten too, as the couple wed just six weeks later and were married for 54 years.

Both Kelly and Petrozzella said the grave site visit is an intimate experience.

“I come here to talk to him and feel like I’m close to him,” said Kelly, who kissed her husband’s headstone. “I just miss him.”

Petrozzella arrived with a message, too. “I come and tell him that I’m not ready to go yet,” she said, chuckling. “I gotta see my grandchildren grow up.”

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