I’m not sure what I expected while I waited in line at the P.J. Adonizio funeral home last August to pay my respects to Marlene Insalaco. But I know what I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to view the saddest eyes I had ever seen. They belonged to Sandy Insalaco, Marlene’s husband of 51 years.
I always was aware Sandy Insalaco knew how to make money, I thought as I drove home, but I never realized what Sandy Insalaco really knew was how to love.
That was more than five months ago and not a week has gone by since that I have not thought about that sadness in Sandy Insalaco’s eyes and wondered if he’d be willing to share with me, so I could share with you, the love behind those eyes.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, I decided this was the time to find out, and got a message to Sandy asking if he’d be interested in sitting down to talk about Marlene and the love they shared. I’ve known Sandy for close to 50 years and know he is a very private man, so I fully expected him to decline. But he did not.
“You know the type of man I am,” he said, as I took a seat in his office at U.S. Hydrations, where he serves as chairman of the board. “You know I normally wouldn’t do this. But I want to do it for her.”
He pointed to a framed photo of Marlene sitting on his desk at such an angle we both could see it. As he did, he handed me a smaller framed photo of him and Marlene, she looking radiant, as always, in a stunning evening gown and he in a tuxedo. “This was taken at a wedding not long after my heart attack and triple by-pass in 1992,” he said. “That bigger one of Marlene was blown up from this one. It’s my favorite picture of her.”
He took the smaller one and put it back in its place, right near his phone. “Whenever I pick up the phone I look at her,” he said, adding he has an even bigger photo of Marlene on a table in his TV room and another in his bedroom. “I get to look at her 4,000 times a day,” he said, “so I tell myself ‘why should I be sad?’ Every place I go she’s there.”
Sandy said Marlene, 72 when she died, passed away exactly 53 years and 53 days from the first time they met.
That was in the Insalaco Market he helped run with his brother on South Main Street in Pittston. “She came in with her mother,” he said, “and I was struck by how perfect she looked, her hair perfectly combed, her clothes perfectly pressed. I never forgot that.”
They had their first date on June 21, 1964. “When I came home my sister Providence was still up,” he said, “and she asked how was my date. ‘I’m going to marry this girl,’ I told her.”
Marlene was 19 and Sandy six years older. “I told her mother I wanted to get married on Labor Day and I think she almost had a heart attack. She wanted us to wait and we did. We got married on Thanksgiving Day in 1965.”
He said they chose Thanksgiving because it was the one day the market was closed.
“I was taken by her beauty, obviously,” Sandy said, “but what really impressed me about Marlene was her kindness. She had the world’s greatest heart.”
That’s vital, he said, to be the spouse of an entrepreneur, a person who loves his work. “She was perfect in that respect,” he said. “She was never greedy when it came to my time. She was always understanding.”
With Marlene’s support and understanding, everything Sandy touched turn to gold, it seemed. By the time he and his brothers left the supermarket business 24 years ago, they had 1,700 employees. This from that little market on Main Street his brother Mike started in 1947 when he was just 16 years old. Sandy, 8 years younger, joined Mike as soon as he graduated high school.
Sandy got involved in commercial real estate with the Insalaco Development Group and in banking with Landmark Bank, of which he is chairman of the board. And in recent years, U.S. Hydrations, a 300,000-square-foot bottling plant producing water and enhanced water products with 170 employees.
While this success provided an enviable lifestyle for Sandy and Marlene and their family, Sandy emphasizes it was not the key to their relationship. “If my income had been 10 percent of what it was, we would have lived on it and been just as happy,” he said. “It was simple things that she enjoyed most.”
When Marlene became gravely ill in 2014, suffering from kidney failure and heart issues, Sandy had the information technology folks at U.S. Hydrations set up a remote office in his home. And for the next three years he rarely left her side.
“We had nurses, of course, for the things I couldn’t do,” he said, “but Marlene was a very private person. She was more comfortable with me caring for her. And I was happy to do it.”
Sandy said that time spent with Marlene brought them even closer. “Everybody thinks they know what love is,” he said, “but usually what they envision is only a dream. Love is being there when your loved one needs you. Marlene kept saying ‘look what I am putting you through,’ but I’d tell her I actually appreciated being able to care for her. She worried that she was a burden but that thought never entered my mind. I wish she were still there in our home so I could keep on helping her.”
Sandy said none of his entrepreneurial success compares to the experience of caring for his dying wife. “My sense of self worth went up. Yes, there was a feeling of obligation. This was what a spouse was supposed to do. But it was more than that. Seeing the direct benefit to the recipient of my actions, made me love her even more. She was grateful, but so was I.”
Sandy, who will turn 79 in July, said his biggest fear during those three years was that he might die first. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I did not want to see Marlene go. But she needed me so much. If I would have died first, I know with my last breath I would have asked about her.”
He said they survived Marlene’s ordeal and he is coping since her death by relying on the three most important things in life: faith, family and friends. “For 40 years a group of us old grocery store guys used to get together every Wednesday for lunch. They called us ‘The Wednesday Lunch Bunch.’ But Marlene had dialysis on Wednesdays. So rather than meet without me, they changed to Thursdays. I needed them more than ever and I really appreciated that.”
Sandy said he continues to lead the simple life he enjoyed with Marlene. He rises early and spends the day at the office or in meetings, many of which involve the charitable endeavors he and Marlene supported. He rarely dines out, preferring to stay at home in the evening and cook for himself, just the way Marlene taught him. The day before we met, he made spaghetti sauce and beef barley soup.
Every Saturday without fail, he visits Marlene’s grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Carverton and then attends Mass at nearby St. Frances Cabrini Church.
At night he typically chats on the phone with family members. Of his seven brothers and sisters, only Providence has passed away. His surviving siblings, along with his two sons, Sandy Jr. and Michael, grandchildren (Sandy Jr. has a set of twins and a set of triplets) and nieces and nephews, “keep checking on me,” he said.
And finally, before retiring, as he looks at Marlene’s photo one more time, he reads a framed copy of a homily given to him by Father James Alco. It’s the poem “Remember Me,” attributed to English poet David Harkins:
“I can shed tears because she is gone, or I can smile because she lived.
I can close my eyes and pray she will come back, or I can open my eyes and see all she had left.
My heart will be empty because I can’t see her, or it can be full of the love that we shared.
I can turn my back on tomorrow and live in yesterday, or I can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
I can remember her only that she is gone, or I can cherish her memory and let it live on.
I can cry and close my mind and be empty and turn my back, or I can do what she would want … smile, open my eyes, live, love and go on.”
Sandy Insalaco goes on. Not without Marlene, but with her. And because of her.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.