This week we said goodbye to one of my father’s closest friend, a friend to our entire family. His name was Walter Caron and he was a person of influence. An influencer.
Walter didn’t influence from his Tweets or television. Not the way the word gets used and overused now. He was on local television occasionally for cooking segments. But his influence wasn’t like the way we talk about the word now. It was real and real life. It was authentic connection. It was no holds barred relationship, with a side of garlic toast.
Walter’s influence was making amazing pizzas, as well as a host of traditional Italian dishes His restaurant, Nino’s, was the realization of a dream he’d had for many years.
The food though, was the vehicle for something else. For the way he connected with people, sat with them, and listened.
We learned about Nino’s when I tasted a slice of their pizza at a jumpy house birthday party for my son’s friend. I told my dad, born and raised in Queens along with my mom, that this was the kind of place they needed to go. My Dad’s parents were from the Bronx, and he went to college there, and Walter and dad were bound by place. It’s not easy to find slices of New York in Birmingham, Alabama, nor folks who really understand New Yorkers (“You’re not from around here, right?”)
But we immediately found that in Nino’s, and with Walter, who immediately connected with my dad, and dad with him. We all did. Nino’s was like a slice of home for us -- transplanted New Yorkers and Floridians raised by New Yorkers, somehow ending up deep in the heart of barbecue and football land.
Our family was at Nino’s a lot. It wasn’t just for the lasagna, though it was delicious. It was because Walter got to know each one of us, as he did all of his customers. For the kids, “Grab a bag of chips!” and for the adults, an addition of some extra clams to the seafood pasta, with a knowing wink. Nino’s became the place where our family gathered when everyone was in town -- from my son’s First Communion to a celebration after my brother and his husband got married in Italy. I believe even they, who rarely eat a carb or sugar, tasted the lemon cake he brought out in their honor.
My mother and father were there all the time. “Hugs for my Rosemary,” he’d say with his thick New York accent. Dad made it a ritual to eat lunch there at least weekly, if not more. He and Walter talked about everything -- their beloved Yankees, family, and hard things too. About aging and dreams, about illnesses and the future.
Around a table, over garlic bread and a meal.
We weren’t the only customers Walter loved. At the funeral they had to do a second printing of programs -- 1500 people had come through the visitation. Person after person who had walked through the doors of Nino’s, originally there for a meal and having left with much more -- a bear hug, an off-color joke. Love from Walter, and from his wife Chris, faithfully by his side making the ship run.
They celebrated their 20th anniversary the day he died. Sudden, unexpected, and heartbreaking for his family -- his wife and children, his mother, and an entire community of chosen family.
Walter was not a saint. He’d reference his life in befores and after -- before he moved to Alabama, before he met Chris. He’d done things. And he’d committed to making his life better. At the funeral, his son Adam spoke about how his dad had conquered his demons, including getting sober (which, if someone does nothing else, is enough). Adam and his brother Christopher spoke of a father who was always there -- “He told me when he and mom got married that the only steps were at the front of the house. I was his son,” Christopher said.
I broke at the reference to his sobriety, crying uncontrollable tears. “How are you doing,” he asked me the last time we were in as a family during Christmas. “I’m fine, just fine,” I said, though I was really exhausted. “No, how are you really doing?”
I believe Walter was so empathetic in a way that you can only be when you have lived through suffering, and developed a deep resilience and faith. I think that’s part of what drew people to him. Plus he made damn good food. And he worked hard -- so very hard. Not just running the restaurant, but a catering business, delivering meals all over town, and giving a lot to charity too. He expected a lot from other people, and he expected a lot from himself. He lived to serve.
We are so, so hungry. Hungry for connection, for real conversation around a table. Hungry to be in a place where we are seen, heard, and loved. Hungry to share a space with our neighbors. Hungry to make sense of this time we are living in.
Hungry for real influence.
At least I am.
The priest at the funeral said the Walter did some of the things that Jesus did. He gathered people around a table and extended love. He loved everyone, regardless of their story. When asked if anyone had prayers, my dad bravely stood up and said, “I pray that everyone here continue to honor Walter by going to Nino’s and sharing a meal together.”
Influence. Influencer. By sharing a meal. By listening. By showing up. By chasing dreams. By being the best parent you can be. By getting sober. By loving well. By preparing a meal or 1,000 meals. By generosity. By accepting the call on your life.
That was Walter. One-of-a-kind.
But the invitation is open to you too.