We come across so many influential people in our lives, don’t we? Sometimes their presence is loud, obvious and boisterous and at other times it is more subtle and gentle, like a summer breeze. Those subtle presences are sometimes so barely perceptible that we don’t even realize how they permeate our lives, influence our thinking and mold our character that it is often years before we are able to realize their impact. Such is the case with my aunt and uncle, Jerri and Joe.
Jerri is my Mom’s sister. She was a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx for over thirty years. When we left our Bronx apartment in 1965 she moved into it; it was in the same building where by paternal grandmother and grandfather lived and about six blocks from the apartment on Addams Place where she grew up and my maternal grandparents lived. She grew up in the Belmont section – the Little Italy of the Bronx – where the neighborhood was rich in Italian heritage and culture. It remains an enclave of history and an oasis of exquisite Italian food, music, festivals and tradition. Anyone who knows anything about Italian culture in the Bronx knows about Arthur Avenue!!!
I remember trips to the Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo, both of which were within a few minutes walk from the neighborhood. Aunt Jerri would accompany us on many of those excursions. I also have fond memories of being in her apartment with friends of hers from the neighborhood and from college. There was always lots of singing, laughing and camaraderie!
She married my Uncle Joe in the early 1970’s. Uncle Joe loved the sea. He served in the Coast Guard in WWII (he lied about his age). They were always game for adventures – taking trips up to Cape Cod or Florida or upstate New York. After my parents split their role became evermore important in my development. I recall trips to the dunes on Cape Cod with Uncle Joe and my siblings spending hours exploring and running up and down the giant dunes. There were also adventures to Pelham Bay and exploring various ships that wrecked and washed up on the shores. There was snorkeling in the Florida keys and building model rockets and firing them off into the sky at the high school football field. I particularly relished the times when we would sing his favorite Irish sea shanty at the top of our lungs! (http://youtu.be/1uUVxwDwc_s)
Both were very strong in their beliefs, both politically and spiritually. I didn’t always agree with their points of view but I always respected their positions. I always knew where they stood and I appreciated that steadfastness. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were one of the few people in the world that I could count on. In fact, Uncle Joe once told me that if I was lucky, I would be able to count on one hand the number of true friends I would have in life. I never forgot that.
They now live in the Keys and we keep in touch every so often. Uncle Joe is very hard of hearing now due primarily to an injury sustained in WWII. I got the chance to speak with him over the phone not too long ago – a rarity these days. It was oh so nice to hear his voice.