He was the uncle that never grew old. Uncle Tony, my mother’s younger brother, would walk into any room, hospital, funeral, living room, kitchen, and begin his jokes before saying, “Hello.”
In a voice made raspy by years of cigarette
smoking, he would say, “Hey, Net Marie…there was a Pollack, a priest and a Dago….” And the room would erupt with laughter before the punchline. Despite Tony’s pride in his Italian heritage, there was always a Dago in his jokes, reflecting his ability and that of his ancestors, to laugh at themselves.
Flashback to a picture of my first Christmas. Uncle Tony is shot using a Polaroid camera as he plays Santa Claus for my siblings and me. I find another picture of him from 17 years ago, from my first wedding, and this is the youthful image I have carried with me. Dark skinned, black-rimmed glasses, a permanent tan acquired from his father’s genes and work outdoors in the concrete business.
Along with his jokes came his steady stream of curse words whenever Art Modell was mentioned. Uncle Tony was an ardent Browns fan. Actually, I could never pinpont the precise adjective used to describe his relationship with the Cleveland Browns. He was a season ticket holder for what seems like all of my life. We absorbed our passion for the Browns from him. I recall sitting with my mother on Sundays watching the game, and I swear, if she weren’t a proper Catholic, she would be cussing alongside of him. She would chastised my father who was a turncoat by half-time, but the rest of us muddled through the lean years, the Brian Sipe era, the Bill Bellichick times, and the present day, which would simply be called miserable.
Soon after college, my older siblings and I met for a Browns game, my brother Paul with his flask, me with my Browns blanket purchased a cold day in December. My then fiancé Devin was in tow, never having been to a Browns game. The wind blew off the lake that day, wouldn’t expect anything else. And I recall thinking Uncle Tony must be crazy to sit through this weather constantly. And so were we. My mom called the weather on Sundays Modell weather because if you waited a minute, it would change to blue skies. But I swear that never happened to me.
During the Browns’ seasons of winning, 1986, the year of the dreaded loss to the Broncos, my sister Laura and I camped out overnight at Sears for playoff tickets. We were successful only in that we got the tickets, but had persevered through what was probably frostbite, dirty jokes and taking turns driving to McDonald’s to pee. Uncle Tony was surprised, and proud.
When Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore, in the middle of the night no less, Uncle Tony was devastated. Laura and I composed poems to this dastardly deed. Her poetry won third place. Mine went into oblivion. I can no longer locate either of those poems, but our fervor was derived straight out of Sundays with Uncle Tony. Being a fan of Cleveland always required a heavy dose of stamina, a bit of faith and Uncle Tony smoking his cigarettes cussing out Art Modell.
Sundays with Uncle Tony was typical in most Italian families of our generation, we spent weekends with our extended families. Uncle Tony’s house was on 17th street. Grandpa DeLuca, who still lived there, would smoke endlessly in his chair. Uncle Tony, high strung, couldn’t sit still when the Browns were on. The cousins played out back, ran to the Lorain Creamery for ice cream and drank orange and grape Ne-Hi out of the frosted metallic glasses, playing cards in the basement. At the time, we were absorbing the meaning of family.
Uncle Tony appeared at my wedding, and funeral of my first husband Devin. He loved my father-in-law Don, and often traded barbs with him. Tony was the only one who put Don in his place when it came to joke-telling. No one could resist a good Dago joke, and Tony knew them all.
Q. How come Italian’s don’t like Jehovah witnesses?
A. They don’t like any witnesses
Uncle Tony passed away last Thursday, from complications following surgery. I hear his voice in my head as I type, “Hey, Net Marie…did you hear the one about….” Why he called my sisters and I by our first and middle names remains a mystery.
I am disappointed my new family did not know him. My son did not experience the joy in having him as our Uncle. I am saddened my mother, now advanced in her dementia, cannot connect to the emotion of the loss of Tony in our lives.
But tomorrow, when the Browns play the Bengals, I will watch it on TV before traveling to his funeral. I will hear him in the stands, “G.D. this and that…” still be invoking Modell’s name. Every raucous in the crowd will be Uncle Tony. Despite the rain over the Ohio skies as of late, I pray the day will turn to Modell weather.
Even if I wait a minute for the weather to change, Uncle Tony never will.