This essay is really more about my wife’s cousin Gary rather than her uncle Lenny even though the episode ended with the same unpleasantness for me. This event happened at least 35 years ago before we were married. We come from very different families and this was on her home turf.
My wife Theresa is full-blooded Italian. While in my family, the elders were more interested in a newcomer’s political bent, hers would be expected to ask, “What part of Italy are they from?” As a matter of fact my in-laws had a pretty bad marriage ending in divorce. I was told that was typically the result when a Napolitano marries a Sicilian.
We were attending some sort of event at Theresa’s Aunt Virginia’s house in Rochelle Park, NJ. I can’t remember what it was for as parties and funerals all looked pretty much the same in this family. My mother-in-law, Marie, had two sisters, Chic (actually Frances) and V (Virginia) as well as three older brothers, Matt, Lenny, and Gabe. All were married and most had children around Theresa’s age. It made for a good crowd.
One of Uncle Matt’s sons was named Gary. Gary was what was called in the day, a goombah. While all of the other cousins melded nicely into American melting pot of the 1980s, Gary was a bit of a throwback. His hair was always combed back. He wore a pinky ring. He always seemed to be wearing a suit made of some shiny material. I’m not sure I ever saw him in anything other than a white, button-down shirt.
Gary also communicated like an extra from The Godfather wedding scene. Beside the extreme use of hand gestures, conversations were peppered with a frequent assortment of “ay”, “watchyagonnado”, and “fuggetaboutit”. No one was ever quite sure what Gary did for a living and nobody seemed to be in a hurry to find out.
As a Jew, I was somewhat of a curiosity to Theresa’s family. This was noticed by Aunt Flo, who was the wife of Uncle Gabe. Aunt Flo was the only non-Italian in the older generation and knew what it was like to be an outsider. She suggested that keeping a low profile was the best approach. She explained that in this group, what was not said was far more important than anything that was said. This was the polar opposite of my opinionated lot.
When we arrived at the party, Theresa ran off to bring something to her Aunt V. I was left behind on a sort of receiving line to greet the uncles. I had no idea if this was an important protocol, so I stayed in line. It turns out that I was right behind Gary, who was wearing a metallic gray suit to a barbecue. Gary walks up to his uncle Lenny says something along the lines of, “Ay, Uncle Lenny, ah, gabagool, rigott, schcarole, how long has it been?” After this, he grabs Lenny on both sides of his head and kisses him on both cheeks as well as on the mouth.
I was standing there a bit shocked as Gary runs off to greet the next aunt or uncle. I begin to stammer a greeting to Uncle Lenny at which time he grabs my face and plants a wet one on my lips. I’m not completely sure that Uncle Lenny even had any idea who I was.
Later, when I got Theresa alone, I mentioned to her that her Uncle Lenny had kissed me on the mouth. I really only wanted to find out exactly what the custom was. Theresa assumed that I was mocking her family and gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the day. Aunt Flo was right. The important stuff apparently is not to be discussed. Uncle Lenny and I would have to go on sharing our tender moment in silence.