It was no secret to Lee Kearney that her Aunt Mary Carbone was a natural for that title.

“If anybody wants to learn to be a good aunt, she was the model,” as Kearney, of Linwood, puts it.

Or, as Kearney wrote in the obituary for her aunt, who died last month at 79, “Mary was a treasure to her family, the joy of every holiday ... the angel on top of the Christmas tree.”

Kearney, 65, her now-deceased brother, Tommy Perri, and their mother, Elaine Carbone, shared a Pleasantville home with Aunt Mary. The kids’ uncle and grandfather — both named Joe Carbone — lived there, too.

“It was a small, Italian family, and we all stuck together,” Kearney said.

Mary was the youngest of five siblings who grew up mostly in Egg Harbor City. A sister, Katherine, died young. The younger Joe Carbone, who never married, owned that house the family shared. The other brother, John, was a well-known chef throughout Atlantic City for decades.

Elaine Carbone, the only one of the five siblings with children, also worked in restaurants, as a waitress. So she mainly worked nights, and left her kids with their Aunt Mary.

“She would play games, hopscotch or jump rope,” Kearney said. “She put me to bed and read to me every night.”

And Mary was a “stay-at-home aunt,” Kearney said, who never worked because of something that mostly was a secret, kept behind the family’s shared walls.

“Mary was schizophrenic, that’s why she was protected by her family,” said her niece, who co-owns Shore Monuments in Egg Harbor Township. “She was very, very intelligent, but she ... had her little imaginary people I had to grow up with.”

Aunt Mary was so smart, Kearney likens her to the Russell Crowe character in “A Beautiful Mind,” a mathematical genius battling mental illness. But Mary’s life was far less dramatic.

“She was never rich, never famous, never ran a business. She was just good. Totally good,” her niece said. “She never made a big impression on the world, but she did on her family.”

Sue Robbins was a family friend — her late husband, Don, worked with Uncle Joe Carbone at Pleasantville’s old Acme. Sometimes Joe would invite his friends over to Italian dinners.

“Mary was there all the time,” said Robbins, describing her as “lovely, but not too talkative.”

Mary’s illness “wasn’t discussed, but we knew. ... You meet someone and just know they’re different. But she was always nice,” Robbins added. “We were never uncomfortable with her.”

Mary outlived all her siblings. Kearney, her only surviving relative, became her guardian. They shared Kearney’s home until Mary needed a nursing home a few years ago.

“I promised to watch over her and protect her,” Kearney said. “You see so many people end up homeless because they’re mentally ill, and Mary had family to protect her.”

And that protection for “the original ... at unconditional love,” included being honest here — in public, in print — about her illness. Here’s why:

“For many years, Aunt Mary was invisible,” Kearney said. “And now it’s time for her to be recognized and honored.”

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Press.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237

Worked as a reporter for various weekly newspapers in Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties before joining The Press many moons (and editors) ago as a business copy editor. Passionate about journalism, averse to serial commas.