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Answer the Phone

February 19, 2016
Uncle Richard

Uncle Richard. He is as cool as he looks.

My Uncle Richard called me today. He’s one of my favorite people on earth. Not just because he’s my father’s brother and a wonderful family man, but also because he’s not afraid to be silly.

He does a version of the Tarantella, an Italian dance they do at weddings (Tarantella means tarantula in Italian) where he bends his knees and dances around hunched over, looking more like a rooster than a tarantula. Then he grabs you, looks you straight in the eye, and locks your arm in his as you twirl around the dance floor. He dances ferociously, like he does most things in life and I love him more every time I talk to him.

I try to call him every month or so, just to catch up, but I’ve been busy lately, so I’ve missed him. A few days ago, I was transcribing an interview for a radio commercial I was writing, when I got a call from him. I thought for a moment about letting it go to voicemail and calling him back when I finished, but decided to answer it because who knows how many more times in my life I’ll be lucky enough to get a call from him. He’s 86, which may be old in normal people years, but in Italian man years, he’s just getting started. Still, you never know.

Aunt Blanche smiling

My sweet Aunt Blanche in their fully equipped second kitchen in the basement.

I’m so glad I did. We talked about life a little. He lives with my Aunt Blanche, who is mostly blind, mostly deaf, and doesn’t like to go out much, so he’s always happy to have a conversation where he doesn’t have to yell.

It may not sound like it, but Aunt Blanche is adorable. She has wild, frizzy dyed black hair, and stands about five feet tall. Her back is hunched over now, but she still wears pants with a belt and a shirt — tucked in– like she did when she was young. She wore blue jeans (before they were cool) and a holster with toy guns back in the ’40s when she was a kid, just like Annie Oakley. She didn’t take guff from anyone and still doesn’t.

When you visit, she grabs your coat, puts it away and makes you sit down just like my mother did. Aunt Blanch is my mom’s sister — yes, two brothers married two sisters.

Then she shuffles back and forth, taking food from the refrigerator and putting it on the plastic covered, dining room table. If it’s in her cupboard or refrigerator, it comes out. Once when I was there, after she’d put out every food item she had, she found a bag of big, puffy marshmallows, put them in a bowl, sat it on the table and said, “Eat some.” Going there is as close as possible to going back to my parents house. I love it.

Bernie with glasses

My brother Bernie, modeling Aunt Blanche’s mega spectacles.

She speaks in a high pitched, rapid fire cadence that’s Italian and Pittsburgh put together. If I sit and don’t eat, I  hear, “France, aint ju gonna eat? Did yinz eat already?”

One of her favorite things is reading the National Enquirer with a pair of glasses that have to be seen to be believed. One lens is convex and huge and the other is normal. You can ask her anything about Prince Charles and Camilla and she’ll fill you in on all the latest gossip. How she manages to read is beyond me, but she does it.

She also likes to ask my opinion on the numerous medications she’s forced to take for her asthma and sinus problems. She reads all the precautions and can tell  you every awful thing that each medication can do to you. And she has the largest collection of animatronic creatures I’ve ever seen, from singing Christmas trees to crowing roosters.

Uncle Richard serving eggplant parmegiano

They move so fast, you can’t even capture them on film. Here’s Uncle Richard serving up Eggplant Parmigiano, while Aunt Blanche brings soda pop to the table.

Uncle Richard goes with the flow. They’ve been married for almost 70 years now and he says, “Well we’ve come this far, what the hell, may as well go all the way,” which is exactly what my dad used to say about my mom.

They are an amazing pair in the kitchen. Even mostly blind, Aunt Blanche can serve food and clean up afterward better than people with 20/20 vision. And just last year, Uncle Richard, at 85, made enough Eggplant Parmigiano to feed all 14 of our visiting Italian family members, plus the rest of us.  There were probably 25 people milling around their house.

After he and I chatted about our equally unromantic Valentine’s Days, and what we’ve been up to, we got into a conversation about when his youngest sister was born.

He and my dad grew up in a tiny town in a mountainous part of Italy called Roio Poggio. They were very poor. My dad said he was so hungry once, he threw a rock at one of their chickens and killed it, so they could eat meat. His mom saw the dead chicken, asked what happened to it and my dad said it must have been sick. She was suspicious, but cooked it anyway because they didn’t waste food.

Uncle Richard told me his youngest sister Sara was born when he was about 7 years old. He was sleeping on the corner of his mom’s bed when he woke up to the sound of crying and saw something moving on the brick floor. He said his mom told him to run up the street and fetch a woman from the neighborhood who was the midwife. He said she came,  wrapped the baby up in towels and helped his mother. I don’t think he even knew she was pregnant.

Grandma and Grandpa Tunno cropped

My father’s parents in Italy.

His mom died four years later, in 1940, and they were left with no one to care for them because my grandmother did everything. She washed clothes in the stream, beating them against rocks. She worked the farm, she cooked, she sewed, she cleaned and she took care of the kids. (I try to remember this when I start whining about how hard my life is.) I’m amazed she lasted as long as she did.

Then the pressure was on for my Uncle Olindo to find a wife. He was 20 at the time, and found a wonderful woman, named Maria who was only 19 when she became both a wife and surrogate mom. Right after their marriage, Olindo went off to war and was gone for five years — for two of those five he was a Nazi prisoner of war. Can you even imagine that?

I heard that, and thought of my 19-year-old daughter — trying to imagine her, caring for several kids, cooking, cleaning and beating clothes on rocks in a stream, during wartime, not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead — for five years. My daughter has no idea how easy she has it.

God bless Aunt Maria.

Uncle Richard said, “I don’t like to talk about it, they’re sad stories.” But I find them fascinating. I love that we have such a rich source of family history still right here in our midst — a man who tells tales that leave me amazed and tearful every time I hear them. I’m always astounded at how far we’ve come, how lucky we are in this country — WITH WASHING MACHINES, INDOOR PLUMBING  and HOSPITALS — how remarkable our ancestors were, and what an incredible source of living history we have in our relatives,  if we just take the time to listen.

I’m so glad I didn’t let it go to voicemail.





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    June 8, 2016 at 8:35 pm

    […] Answer the Phone – 1300 words – February 2016 […]

  • Reply
    Diana Diekmann
    February 26, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    I finally had a minute to read your blog and, of course, it was great!! I, too, have a rich Italian heritage and great family members with great stories. My mom is 86 and is coming up with stories that we hadn’t even heard yet. We all sit in awe and listen to how it was back in Italy and about the boat trip to “land of opportunity” and the stories about us, me and my 4 sisters, as we grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. My great-aunt just died at 101, the last of 3 sisters and 3 brothers in the Di Tomaso family. The girls out-lived their brothers by many, many years. And I suspect that my mom with live many more years with many more stories. I’ve got my tape and video recorder ready to document it all! Priceless!

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 27, 2016 at 11:04 pm

      Oh Diana, I couldn’t be happier to hear you say that you’re recording her. You will never regret that. I videotaped an interview with my parents for their 50th anniversary and to this day, it’s one of my favorite things! One day I’ll post it – but I have to learn some video editing software. Enjoy your mom and her stories. I wish her a very, very long, healthy life! Thanks so much for writing!

  • Reply
    February 22, 2016 at 4:38 am

    Thanks Fran, this was the BEST ever !! So glad Uncle Richard shared those memories and thank you for making them come alive for all of us.
    Love you,
    Cousin Jane & The Duke

  • Reply
    February 21, 2016 at 6:31 am

    Good one Fran. C’mon Uncle Rich’s family. We’d love to hear you chime in on here as well. 😉 Yep, they are our last surviving link to our immediate family. Great food, good laughs and lots of memories. And if ” I” win the lottery, trust me, you’ll be coming on the New York trip! Yes, Chas, I can’t wait!!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Fran, such an amazing post! I found myself thinking how incredible it is that you still have Uncle Richard and Aunt Blanche and you have the presence of mind and heart to honor them with your time and your ear. It makes you all that much richer for your time together. You are gifts to one another. And now I am thinking about which of my aunts and uncles I can reach out to for more stories of my family…
    Oh, and next time you talk to Uncle Richard please tell him there is a girl in California who would pay a lot of money for a piece of his eggplant parmigiana!

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 11:12 am

      Sweet Nicol, responses like yours make me feel so good. If my words can make people think, even for a moment, then, I’ve done something good.

  • Reply
    February 20, 2016 at 7:17 am

    Nice blog Brun!

    From: At Frans Table To: Sent: Friday, February 19, 2016 5:03 AM Subject: [New post] Answer the Phone #yiv8290336322 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8290336322 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8290336322 a.yiv8290336322primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8290336322 a.yiv8290336322primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8290336322 a.yiv8290336322primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8290336322 a.yiv8290336322primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8290336322 | Fran Tunno posted: “My Uncle Richard called me today. He’s one of my favorite people on earth. Not just because he’s my father’s brother and a wonderful family man, but also because he’s not afraid to be silly. He does a version of the Tarantella, an Italian dance they d” | |

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 11:12 am

      Thanks Bern! I know you appreciate the two of them too!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2016 at 1:15 am

    Love this post, Fran–and Uncle Richard and Aunt Blanche. Seventy years-WOW! Sharing the family stories is as much a part of our heritage as the wonderful recipes that are handed down. It’s wonderful that the Tunnos have you to capture these stories. XOX

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 11:14 am

      Thank you Linda. I’m not sure they’re always happy that I write things down, but the Tunno’s will definitely have some memories to fall back on, that much is certain! Thanks for always reading and taking the time to comment!

  • Reply
    February 19, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    What a wonderful treasure! So many families have stories of struggle and you are so right, they act as though they are energizer bunnies. I only wish I had taken notes on my mother’s family and by that I mean taken their story from each of my mom’s siblings. They all had a different perspective on the events of growing up together. This latest entry from you has prompted me to talk to my one remaining aunt and write down what she tells me. I know her story is similar to what my mom shared with me.
    We are indeed all very lucky to have the conveniences technology provides us. But my question is: will we or even our children be the energizer bunnies our relatives have been? I hope so….Marianne💕

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 11:53 am

      Oh Marianne, I knew you would understand! So glad it prompted you to reach out to your aunt. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot and will be glad. I am so glad that something I wrote affected you so deeply. That thrills me!

  • Reply
    JoAnn Jones
    February 19, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Wonderful, sweet blog about two dear people, God bless Uncle Richard & Aunt Blanche. Makes me realize I need to stay more in touch with my Tunno family. Love you all , I plan to call Uncle Richard very soon. Thank you, Frannie. Much love, JoAnn

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 11:57 am

      Thank you Joann! That means so much to me! You will thoroughly enjoy any conversation you have with him…he is a real joy!

  • Reply
    Denice Stradling
    February 19, 2016 at 10:29 am

    What a lovely story … and a lesson learned for all of us who let our phones go to voicemail a little too often (she said, speaking of herself). Thank you, Fran xoxo

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      Thank you so much Denice! I know, voicemail is a necessary evil! Thank you so much for always reading and taking the time to respond!

  • Reply
    February 19, 2016 at 9:05 am

    I think this is one of your finest pieces yet. Mostly because it’s so hard to comprehend how Uncle Richard and Aunt Blanche do it. They are like two Energizer Bunnies that keep going and going and going. Another truly unique part of the family story/history that gets better with every chapter.

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      Thank you Chris, you are wonderful to always read and re-post! I can’t thank you enough. We are so lucky and it’s great that the younger generation (that would be you guys) realizes that.

  • Reply
    Cathy Fishburn
    February 19, 2016 at 8:02 am

    Fran, Thank you for this story! It brought so many memories back. All my uncles have passed. What I wouldn’t give for another Christmas or picnic to sit and listen to their stories. Keep writing I love your stories!

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 12:22 pm

      Thank you Cathy. I’m so glad my stories resonate with you, I always worry that they won’t. Maybe your cousins might have stories you never heard, it’s worth a try. I so appreciate you always reading and taking the time to respond! You rock!

  • Reply
    Chas Madonio
    February 19, 2016 at 6:46 am

    Frannie, best blog you’ve written. There are so many parallels in your family’s background and mine, I guess that’s why Bernie and I are so much alike. All my connections to that generation are dead – in fact, I am now the patriarch of our family, grudgingly. I’ve got a million stories that I keep telling my kids in hopes that they will keep the history alive. I remember your Uncle Richard sing at your dad’s funeral mass, and it gave me chills. PS – it’s a shame you aren’t going to NY with us in October, since Bernie, Bob and Mary are going. Mary is SO excited, I can’t wait for her to feel the excitement and joy the rest of us feel on these trips. Keep up the great blogs – I love them.

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 12:26 pm

      Well Chas, if I win the lottery, and you know the chances are great, I will come to NYC with you! So glad you enjoyed the story. One of these days you will have to accompany Bernie to Uncle Richard’s house. They are so cool to be around, you would love it! Record yourself on video telling all your stories. Your kids and grandkids will thank you, plus you are a wonderful story teller! Just do it!

  • Reply
    Donna Tunno
    February 19, 2016 at 6:13 am

    He’s simply the best – a family treasure! I’m glad you didn’t let the call go to voicemail or I would not have had the joy of reading about Uncle Richard and Aunt Blanche when I woke up this morning. We need to enjoy them NOW! I go crazy over his rigatoni in sauce!

    • Reply
      Fran Tunno
      February 20, 2016 at 12:27 pm

      Honestly, I enjoy both of them so much. It’s one of the reason’s I enjoy coming home so much and why I still call it home, although I have no home there now. Enjoy them as much as you can! And thanks for always reading and responding.

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