Since Hubby D and I were going to our lake house for the Memorial Day weekend, we paid our respects to the local cemeteries a few days early. This year we added one new grave—that of D’s 92-year-old Uncle J, the last of his late mother’s siblings, the only one of five children to be born in America and the only son. Uncle J had served as D’s surrogate older brother and father whenever the need arose, whether following D’s sports activities or those of our offspring or sharing insights into the ever-changing baking industry that at times consumed both of them. I considered J my uncle too since he’d been part of my entire adult life and always referred to me as his niece. “None of that in-law stuff,” he often reminded me.
Fifteen years ago after Uncle J’s British war bride passed away, we began including him in more of our family activities. Not just certain holidays but those sports involving the offspring of our offspring—soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball. Wherever the event took us, he was happy to ride along, perched in the backseat of our car and telling stories about the making and bootlegging of wine or his years during WWII and how he met Aunt A in England. What a memorable way to pass the time while driving through the rural areas of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. And fodder for my Italian/American sagas, in particular, The Family Angel.
One year Uncle J traveled with us to Italy, along with my brother. Returning to Italy was a journey Uncle J had vowed never to make again, not after the boring experience he’d endured as an 8-year-old traveling with his immigrant mother and aunt. While the two women were taking care of family business, little J roamed the Piemonte villages around Colleretto Castelnuovo when he should’ve been sitting in a classroom. Too bad his mother didn’t enroll him in the local Italian school. As it was, she’d taken him out of school in Illinois before the year ended and by the time they returned, the new school year was well underway. For that oversight, he wound up two grades behind. And half way through high school, Uncle J’s father yanked him out for good, ending his formal education before he was ready for it to end.
Ah-h, but our trip to Italy was nothing like the one Uncle J made in 1930. Our trip he enjoyed every minute and thought I was a genius for finding the best places to eat, however remote the area. I tried to explain the credit belonged to my faithful guidebook but he’d have no part of that.
I can still see Uncle J in the village of Colleretto Castelnuovo, standing outside a two-story apartment house and calling out to his boyhood friend from long ago.
“You’re sure he’ll remember you?” I asked.
“Of course, he will,” Uncle J said. “We roamed these hills together.”
Uh, yeah, about seventy years ago, but who was counting. Apparently, no one but me because the man came out on his balcony and without hesitation, invited us to come upstairs. Of course, he remembered the Americano boy who took so long to return. Or perhaps he heard about the four adult Americani who’d been strolling around his village, standing in front of this house and that house, observing dairy cows grazing on a distant hillside. Seated around the kitchen table we drank the elderly man’s wine and listened to Uncle J and him reminisce in their Piemonte dialect. His wasn’t the only table we sat around with Uncle J. One woman brought out a box of old photographs, people Uncle J recalled from his trip as a boy. Another woman, an elderly distant relative, insisted he stay the afternoon, knowing they’d never meet like that again. Priceless, a cliché, I know, but there’s no other way to describe those moments.
This past October Uncle J took a bad fall and could no longer manage on his own. So he moved to Nebraska to live with his daughter K and her multi-talented, entrepreneurial family. In February, K and her husband brought Uncle J back home to celebrate his 92nd birthday with extended family and his beloved Knights of Columbus, an organization that had provided him years of camaraderie and countless opportunities to help those in need.
Uncle J returned to Nebraska a very tired man and six weeks later took his final breath surrounded by his loved ones. In accordance with his wishes, he came home one last time.
At the funeral home visitation Fourth Degree members of the Knights of Columbus served as an honor guard and presented Uncle J’s daughter with a communion chalice and paten. During the cemetery interment, the U.S. military honored him with a flag-folding ceremony and 21-gun salute. Uncle J would’ve been touched. I know I was, sitting there thinking about his service during the war, how his young bride A left England, her family still grieving over another daughter who had died during a bombing raid.
Later that day Uncle J’s daughter told D and me that the K of C chalice would be engraved with her dad’s name and could be placed in any Catholic church in the world.
“How about the family church in Colleretto Castelnuovo,” I said. “We’re going there this summer.”
“Perfect,” K said.
When we explained our plan for the chalice to Aunt A’s niece M and her husband J who live in England, they decided to meet us in Italy and participate in the delivery of the chalice. How sweet is that—the American niece and nephew getting together with the British niece and nephew to reminisce about the Yank and his war bride.
I think Uncle J would’ve been pleased, Aunt A too.