I received a text message yesterday that my Aunt Ida passed away. It was my 60th birthday, and already a day ripe for reflection. At dinner with my kids, I spent the entire time telling stories of my Aunt Ida and Uncle Lou. I have my favorite tales [which I’m certain I embellish], and they frame the love I had for both them.
My Aunt Ida was my father’s older sister, and he always kept that in mind. Looking back, I think he always listened to her [although I doubt you could find anyone to testify that he listened to anyone]. But my Aunt Ida was no one to mess with, especially when I was a little kid. Frankly, she scared me. Back then it was my Uncle Lou who I gravitated to.
I have two distinct pictures in mind of my Uncle Lou. The first is him leaning back in his recliner after Sunday dinner, and the second is him pulling up the driveway with his grandson Ronnie in his little Fiat convertible. If ever there was a more universally loved guy than my Uncle Lou, I never met him. He was a perfect compliment to his sisters, Aunt Sally and Aunt Ann, who, along with Lou, were probably the three most enjoyable people any of us knew. And while there seemed to be Battaglias all over Thunder Bay, it was my Aunt Ann who drew them all together. It was an extended family that grew up together, and, from time to time, I got to share in their restive spirit. My ‘Battaglia’ cousins Leon, Larry, Gary, Louis, Ronnie, and Maria where all larger than life to me.
One night at dinner at my Aunt Ida’s, my father started picking on my Uncle Lou because he had on his favorite old shirt which was, by then, left hanging by a thread. He kept saying ”Lou, why don’t you throw that damn thing out?” But no one could ignore my father better than my Uncle Lou, his best friend and partner in everything he did. Eventually, the frustration of no reaction compelled my father to reach over and rip the pocket off the shirt. The shirt ended up shredded. It was the only time I saw my Uncle Lou really mad. Sometimes I think all my dad wanted to do was aggravate Lou [and I’m sure that’s exactly how my Uncle saw it].
After they sold Twin Fair, my Uncle Lou retired young. I think he was most happy just driving around with his grandkids, playing gin rummy, or helping someone out. He was the guy who would always help out. He’d just show up. But my father was always working him to get back into business with him. He’d cajole him into taking a Valu store or something like that, but it was only his son’s Valu Liquor store that he’d enjoy running. My brother-in-law Frank and my cousin Lou opened a Valu liquor store that my father was convinced was the start of a family and friends chain of liquor stores. It was actually a great idea. One night, after my Uncle Lou closed up the store, he was rushed to the hospital. The next morning, in a haze, he kept telling my father to make sure they didn’t throw the garbage out at the liquor store. My father thought he was just a little off because he was sedated, but my uncle use to leave the safe open at night and hide the day’s deposit in a brown paper bag in the garbage. It was his favorite ruse [and I have to admit one I used quite often in the early days of the Stereo Advantage]. Frank and Lou did some dumpster diving that morning, and the night’s deposit was safely recovered.
Whenever I hear “only the good die young,” I can’t help but think of my Uncle Lou. My Uncle Lou died young, and it changed my aunt forever. Her kids were grown. My cousin Maria, who was like an older sister to me, was in college, and the boys were married and raising families. I think this is when my Aunt became a full time grandma, and she filled the role marvelously.
She became my advocate and defender as I briefly entered the family business. One day we were having lunch at the snack bar of the Big R, and I started kidding her that she was in love. And although I knew she would never love anyone other than my Uncle Lou, she had found a nice companion in Steve [a gentle soul, but, admittedly, sort of a noodge]. I started telling her I knew she was getting married, and she started crying. She hugged me and said, “I knew you would know.” It was the closest I ever felt to her [and you should know that I am crying like a baby right now]. From that moment on all I could recognize was the love in my Aunt Ida.
Although I drove her nuts as a kid, she watched over me with the love of a mother. My mother died when I was nine, and my aunt insisted that my father move down the street from her so that she could help raise me. His plan was to buy the Williamsville Inn and take up residence there. It was a plan that only I endorsed [while everyone else told him he was crazy]. My Aunt Ida provided the discipline and security that a wayward kid like me needed [but never appreciated until I had children of my own]. I can’t even imagine where I’d be without my Aunt Ida.
She had a little dog named Tammy that really didn’t like anyone that came to the door. It would always nip at my father’s ankles, and one day he belted it pretty hard. After that, every time my dad would show up at my aunt’s, the dog would see him and piss the floor. My aunt could never figure it out. For as tough as my father thought he was, he was always being yelled at by his mother and older sister. Looking back, it’s quite comical. Basically, he was still their Little Tony.
The women that raised me are now all gone. I am a motherless child, but fortunate to have had their love. My Aunt Ida knew me best and knew what was best for me. She was the port in the storm, and I will love her forever. She lives on in my children. Her spirit is irrepressible.
I will fly home Friday to share in the joyful remembrance that is the Battaglia way. For as Ragusa as she was, she truly became a Battaglia.