Those Guys

Victoria Reggio

an excerpt from a work-in-progress, a collection of essays about Victoria's family entitled, "Poor Relations."

"...memories of recriminating remarks and ensuing arguments..."

For the first twenty-three years of my life, a week did not go by when I did not spend time with some member of my father's family. My girl cousins were my best friends and the older boys were my first infatuations. To my dad, family was synonymous with loyalty, but unfortunately his relationship with his brothers was problematic and that loyalty was not always reciprocated.

Flipping through some family snapshots taken during the late 1950's, I see the obvious: happy people filling themselves with food and drink. However, as I study the pictures, I notice my father glaring at his brother across the table and the sadness in my mother's eyes as she strains to smile for the photographer. It evokes memories of recriminating remarks and ensuing arguments, some of which escalated into physical fights.

The myriad of events leading up to my father's death from cancer in 1979 resulted in my severing ties with my relatives for twenty years. A conciliatory phone call from my cousin two years ago was the starting point for my reconnection with the very people who taught me about love, food, rage, wine, men, music, but most of all, that everything is better with garlic and a sense of humor.

This essay is about my overbearing Uncle Bruno.



My father and his brothers could be compared to a marinara sauce. Like the ingredients, olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, basil, they each had their own properties or personalities, but together and allowed to simmer, they formed a completely different concoction. When my dad and his brothers simmered, it was best to get out of the kitchen.

Uncle Bruno was the oldest and the quintessential "Alpha Male." Big in size and appetites, he walked with a limp resulting from a car accident during his twenties. While the rest of the family lived in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Uncle Bruno, Aunt Lucy and my cousin Roberto resided in this faraway land called the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

"...whiskey induced emotions..."

My Aunt Lucy, a slim, pretty woman who worked as a telephone operator was rarely there for our visits. She seemed to purposely schedule her shifts to avoid the onslaught of family. On the rare occasion when she was home on Sunday, she was reserved and didn't greet me with the mandatory hugs and kisses of my other aunts. I never thought of her as aloof because we had our own way of showing affection to each other. Sometimes she would sit on the floor and let me brush her hair. It was dark brown, not quite shoulder length with a slight wave to it. I was happy to babble on, pretending she was the customer at my imaginary beauty parlor. She'd play along, mumbling back a comment now and then, but mostly she just closed her eyes, enjoying the strokes of the brush and my twirling and "styling" of her hair. Aunt Lucy was different, not just because she was the only adult who would indulge me in my games, but because she worked outside the home and only had one kid. The rest of us cousins had siblings and mothers who were housewives.

I had a crush on my cousin Roberto who was ten years my senior and a drummer. With his best friend Elliot, a trumpet player, they would occasionally perform for us while my Uncle watched, beaming with pride. I preferred their music to listening to my Uncle's endless collection of opera records. They had what was called an excellent "hi fi" system and Uncle Bruno liked nothing more than to blast his Puccini. He would sit down next to the stereo practically caressing it, and with his whiskey induced emotions running full throttle, sobbed like a baby.

Eventually, with Roberto old enough to be left on his own, my Aunt Lucy decided to work most Sundays so my Uncle came to our apartment every week. Despite having the least amount of money, we seemed to be the ones hosting most family dinners. My Uncle would arrive with this great loaf of crusty Italian bread covered with sesame seeds that he bought from one of the bakeries on the Concourse. He also brought his own bottle of Scotch. Immediately, my mother would slice off the end of the bread for me and dip it into the tomato sauce that was bubbling on top of the stove.

"Don't fill up on anymore bread, Vicki because you won't have room for your dinner."

Every week it was the same line whenever she handed me that bread and every week I had no problem finishing off my macaroni and meatballs. There was also sausage, but that was for my father and Uncle Bruno; occasionally I had a small piece but it was too spicy and made my insides heat up. My Uncle's insides were strong enough to consume many sausages and many glasses of red wine.

My dad would try to keep up with Bruno drink for drink. In the kitchen I heard my mother say to my older sister, Emily, "Your uncle has a wooden leg." Fascinated by that image, I asked, "Is that why he walks so funny?" Suddenly my mom gave me her undivided attention, "Don't you dare repeat what I just said to your father." I understood he would have been angry we were talking behind his back about their drinking. I saw more fear than anger in my mother's eyes and promised to keep my mouth shut.

I never garnered any attention from my Uncle Bruno, which was fine with me. He delighted in picking on my sister Emily who had worn glasses since she was seven. "Hey, Cockeyed," was his greeting to her. A shy adolescent, she would pretend to laugh, but her hunched posture and welling eyes revealed something quite to the contrary. Although we fought constantly, she was my big sister, and he had no right messing with her. To make matters worse, I don't recall my father ever telling him to stop. My older brother Ron was already out on his own, a veteran of my Uncle's overbearing personality.

"...performing his version of Swan Lake."

We all walked on eggshells when it came to my father's relationship with Uncle Bruno. He knew how to push all my dad's buttons when it came to struggling to support us: shoving money in my father's hands while my mother, who clearly detested Bruno, provided him with meals. From his obnoxious behavior, one would have thought he was a captain of industry. In fact, he worked as a foreman for a company that manufactured doorknobs and the handles for appliances like refrigerators and ovens. Since his legs made it impossible for him to serve in the army during World War II, he was lucky to land this job that brought in a pretty steady income.

One Sunday night, when I was about six years old, while still trying to digest one of these huge meals, everyone sat half asleep watching Ed Sullivan introduce the Bolshoi Ballet Company. We were strictly an Alan King crowd so we were bored by this cultural invasion.

Suddenly our pasta stupor was broken. Uncle Bruno, fortified by a bottle of Ballantine Scotch, je' ted out of the kitchen in his boxer shorts performing his version of Swan Lake. What he lacked in pirouette power he made up for in his own fancy footwork. The music emanating from the television was drowned out by everyone's laughter, the loudest coming from my mother. I couldn't believe I was seeing my powerful and overbearing Uncle prancing around in his underwear like one of the hippos in "Fantasia."

I was never afraid of him again.





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