Every family's story ends in mystery. There's no predicting what will hold it together, never a good explanation for what pulled it apart. For years, everything seemed to run on rails: Christmas at Little George's home and Thanksgiving at Liz's. George and Peter might not talk much: different languages, different places. But everybody muddled along, breaking bread and handing out gifts. Then things started to turn; Big George died, and the two sisters moved out of New York, and Peter got busy with television. "It's amazing," Peter says. "One person dies and everyone just...goes."
Three years ago one of the nieces had a wedding in Orlando, and all five of Big George and May's kids got together there. "That was a happy time," says Janet Vecsey O'Rourke, George and Peter's youngest sister. "Everybody danced, and we were a family. Things have gone downhill since."
Last year May began falling down, alone and helpless in the tall white house on 188th Street. She needed constant care. This was the time, most agreed, for clear-eyed, dispassionate thinking, George-like thinking. Four of the five kids made the wrenching decision to place her in the nursing home. May hated the idea. Peter opposed it, too, but with his traveling for TV he couldn't offer an alternative. The other three siblings lived far away, so it fell to George to make the regular visits. Often, when he goes to the home, May ignores him.
Understand: "She loved George, idolized him, but when he started to slip away in high school.... Well, now she never gives him a break," Liz says. "No matter what he says, she bristles up, and no matter what she says, he bristles up. It's been like this for 40 years."
Peter has been her one ally. He has wanted May out of the nursing home and back in the house, has fought his brothers and sisters on it, and the tension has fractured family relations. "It hurts Peter so much to see her unhappy," says Janet. "But he's not being realistic. She needs a million things every day." But just as Peter was with Big George, so he is with May. Last Christmas she became very sick, and Peter was the only one who would get in the shower and hold her and wash her. He was the one who, when everyone else was preparing to let May die, needed to keep her alive.
"We all thought she'd had a good life," Liz says, "but Pete saw things differently: 'Get her a private-duty nurse. I'll pay for it.' He wanted to pull her through, and the rest of us wanted to let her go.
"If you need anything, Pete does it with gentleness and tears in his eyes. But he isn't consistent. The rest of the family has a saying: Peter will come in on a white horse, but he'll do none of the daily dirty work. It's just once or twice a year: Look out! Peter's here!"
In April came signs of a thaw. George and Peter spoke briefly about working together to plan May's future. One day Peter took May out of the nursing home, back to the house where they all had grown up. For four hours she was home, where she could look out the window and see where the neighbors once tended victory gardens and raised chickens. This was the place where the family had heard the news that FDR had died and that Jackie Robinson had joined the Dodgers, where May had listened to the opera singers next door practicing scales in the afternoon. "It was absolutely great," Peter says. "She never thought she'd get back there. She was rearranging stuff. We ate. I told her, 'Now that we know we can, we can do this all the time.' It was a great day."
As it was with Big George, so it will be with May. When she dies and becomes the story, it must be a Post exclusive. She wants a nice tribute, and she's told Peter to write it.