I call him Uncle Tony. The business world addressed him as Mr. LoMonaco. To my mother, he was Fratuzzu Nene. Nene was one of my mom’s favorite people and one of my childhood heroes. Born on November 21, 1911 in Mazzara del Vallo, Sicily, he is a certified centenarian.
I looked forward to his visits during my primary school days. On most weekends after he parked his classic, ebony sedan, he strolled into my home embracing giant paper bags. Those brown bags spilled over with freshly baked semolina bread, a diversity of olives, pumpkin seeds, cannolli and biscotti. His eyes usually fixed on me and nonverbally directed me to pick-up a bag. I enthusiastically helped, knowing that a reward of a quarter of a dollar, plus delicious culinary delights awaited me.
Growing up during my sweaty Brooklyn trolley car summers, in the midst of Jackie Robinson’s and Joe DiMaggio’s heydays, baseball became my passion. Uncle Tony understood that. We also shared a religious devotion. St. Anthony’s statue stood in a prominent place in my mom’s living room. A flickering candle always illuminated it. Unfortunately, the rudeness of time frayed one of the statue’s hands. Five fingers no longer remained. Feeling sorry for my damaged saint’s statue, whenever I walked near it, and no one was around, I’d scan the room, say a quick prayer, then kiss that fractured plaster hand.
On a wintry New York Saturday, as the Arctic snows piled like small Mt. Etnas outside my bedroom window, I glanced back toward the living room and thought I’d seen my uncle sidestep, look in both directions, touch his forehead and heart, then kiss the tattered hand on my mother’s St. Anthony statue. That single gesture moved him to the top level of my pre-teen list of favorite relatives. I knelt in front of that statue every day. Yes, he followed my ritual of looking both ways, probably not wanting anyone to notice his devotion. Years later, I would learn that he repaired that icon’s hand.
My uncle was a rare breed. During the Sputnik Days, an adult, who actually thought that a child’s opinion mattered, seemed like an anomaly. He appreciated and understood children. That may have been because he had a son of his own. His only son, my cousin Peter, was only two years older, but stood two feet taller, a decade more mature than I. Despite my naiveté, Uncle Tony patiently tolerated my boorish baseball dreams.
When visiting my mother, Nene occasionally slipped away from the adult chatter, endless playing card games of Briscola and stealthily stepped into my concrete alley way where I spent countless hours diving on the hard pavement, chasing balls, collecting raspberries (reddened, scraped skin) on my knees, in preparation for my career. He would wait patiently for my attention.
Once I noticed him, he’d gently take the baseball that seemed attached to my hand and talk to me about my life, dreams, and goals. After suggesting my sitting down on a milk box, the man explained the rewards of hard work. His dollars came wrapped in his valuable advice about serious study. “Anthony, life is more than ballgames,” he’d say. Of course, not much mattered to the selfish little boy me, except his generosity with money, and my dreams of playing before cheering crowds, in a major league baseball arena. Little did I realize that my little league’s most valuable baseball player trophy I’d earned those days would be the last award that I’d ever collect in that sport.
Uncle Tony never stepped on my impossible dream. He encouraged me, while simultaneously stressing real world situations. That man, fatherless as a child, quit school and supported (along with his brother) his widowed mom and younger siblings. Tony left school before confirmation age, in fact, at about the same age that I foolishly chased rubber balls in the alley.
To his credit, my uncle never quit on learning, or on life. With the help of his loyal wife Margaret, Anthony LoMonaco opened a doll manufacturing business, went nose to nose with mobsters and toughs trying to extort protection money, fought off competition from major corporations, and finally hit the jackpot when awarded the contract to produce the I Dream of Jeanie Doll. The I Dream of Jeannie television series became an extremely popular sitcom in the USA. It ran from 1965-1970. Anthony LoMonaco’s doll was patterned after that show’s star, Barbara Eden.
Several years ago, I was reminded of his bigheartedness. After telling him about my planned visit to Mazzara, he asked me to deliver an envelope to an order of nuns who lived outside the gates of his hometown. One of my first goals after arriving there was to visit that convent and drop off his donor envelope. When I arrived, my mouth was agape in astonishment. I’d never been to a place like this. I wondered how in the world Uncle Tony ever found this dedicated order of cloistered nuns.
I knocked on the splintered and weathered door. It took a few minutes to rouse a response. A voice ordered me to enter. I faced a ridged, careworn screen that reminded me of a confessional from medieval times. The screen slid open a tad and a woman, covering her face, asked my business. When I mentioned that I had a note from Anthony LoMonaco, I detected emotion, even from behind all those face shielding cloths. I left his donation, and I sensed that somehow, his envelope made their day. That Mazzarese man revealed his generosity throughout his life.
I called Uncle Tony LoMonaco on his 97 th birthday to wish him a Happy Birthday. Brandishing a smug smile, I added, “A cent’anni (I wish you 100 years)!” The telephone went silent. I feared that my connection severed. Then, I worried about him. My smile deserted me. “Are you okay?” I kept repeating. After a long moment, my uncle finally spoke,” What? You only wish me three more years?”
Somewhere between his 97 th and 99 th birthdays a criminal accosted him in a shopping center parking lot. The thug demanded his wallet. Just a decade earlier, Uncle Tony would have likely knocked the young, long haired loser out. Instead, he patiently said, “Look, you probably need this money. Take it! But, you’d better give me my wallet back. If they find you with that, you’ll be arrested.” The cowardly crook, snatched the cash from the wallet, threw the wallet down to the ground and sprinted off. My uncle calmly picked up his wallet, started his car, and drove home. What did I expect? This was the same man who had stood up to the mob when he was in his twenties; should I have anticipated less valor from him in his nineties?
I telephoned him a month or so after his 100 th birthday. He told me about all the projects he was involved with, such as carving wood models, mixing paints for and creating replicas of famous bridges, buildings, and brave policemen and firefighters. I mentioned that I was sorry that I’d missed the party celebrating his 100 years of life. He told me not to worry. He suggested that I visit him for his next birthday. That grittiness, spirit, simpatico and strength explains why the man from Mazzara remains my hero. Ussa benedica, Zio Antonio.
F. Anthony D’Alessandro