Uncle

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Uncle Frank and grandson Frank.

Growing up our closest extended family was my mother’s older sister, Ellen and Uncle Frank.  There were three cousins, William, two years younger than me, Ellen and still younger Maryjo.  We had family dinners, visits, went to school and church together,  vacationed together, exchanged Christmas presents.  When the kids were young, we couldn’t have been closer.  It was the sister’s bond.  My father and Uncle Frank Mignoni were friendly but their interests and personalities were quite different.

Uncle Frank was much more old school Italian.  His father had a garden, including a fig tree; his mother cooked Italian, including cannolis.  After leaving Italy, I  doubt that my Italian grandfather Profy  ever got his hands in the soil; and grandmom Profy didn’t cook once the children were grown.   Grandpop had anglicized his name from Porfirio and had limited interest in Italian culture.   As a kid, I always thought the Mignoni heritage coat was much richer

Uncle could be a tough cookie.  I often stopped at their home on Radcliffe street for a Sunday breakfast after church.  I watched as my Aunt patted bacon grease off the tops of sunny side eggs with a paper towel.  Frank called for her attention, “Ellen, you buttered my toast on the wrong side.”  She looked at me, shaking her head, “Your Uncle.”  My thirteen year old mind reeled, it  was a joke I thought but . .  . but also it was Uncle claim as master of his table.  ( P.S. My aunt may have buttered the other side of the toast but she staked a strong  claim in family decision making.)

One afternoon William and I rode our bikes to Levittown.  At the time they lived off 413 in Winder Village.  We rode through woods to Bath street, into Bristol, up Radcliffe to Tullytown and the Levittown Shopping Center. When we returned, Uncle was home.  He was furious (at William, I was never mentioned).  He knew he shouldn’t ride all the way to Levittown.  I had frightening  images of William being beaten, his bike confiscated.  Uncle expected respect and obedience. No questions.

Years later in the summer of my sophomore year I was leaving Bristol to hitch hike back to Boston. My father was refusing to sign papers so Diane and I could be married. I stopped at Mignoni’s on Radcliffe. Aunt Ellen was in tears, Uncle offered to give me a ride to the turnpike, “Things will settle down,” he said before slipping me some spending money. “Thanks, Uncle, hope I see you soon.”  When he left I thought, I don’t think he’d have given William a ride to the turnpike and money.  Either strict obedience didn’t extend to nephews or he accepted that I was to be married.

My Aunt and Uncle were always generous with me.  Throughout HS, I was part of their family skiing season in the Poconos.  They paid for equipment and lift tickets.  I was treated as a member of the family.  When I started graduate school for a doctoral degree, finances were tight. I met with Uncle.  Over the next few years, he lent me $10,000 with an agreement if I earned the degree, the loan was forgiven.  His agreement was an incentive to not give up.

Uncle Frank was ambitious.  I think he had some of the immigrant, World War II veteran’s hunger for a better life.  Rather than go into the jewelry business with his brother Carmen, he became a real estate salesman.  He worked for an agency with offices at Mill and Pond street.  I think he met Aunt Ellen there.  In a few years he had opened his own office on Mill street.  He eventually hired several salesmen and close friend Gus Cocordus to handle insurance. Mignoni became a name in real estate in Bristol and Bucks County.  At some point he took some assessment workshops at Harvard allowing him to claim, “I graduated from Harvard several years ago.”

I remember stopping in his office quite frequently.  When William and I were younger, it was to get bottles of cold coke from a refrigerator in the rear of the building.  As I got older, I remember stopping and asking the secretary  if Uncle was busy.  I was usually sent through. He’d be sitting at a large desk with phone and piles of papers.  I guess I went to socialize, discuss work, school or other major questions in my life.  I respected his judgement and success.  The Winder Village house was sold and Mignoni’s built a home on an empty lot on Radcliffe street.  They joined the street’s  social scene of successful doctors, lawyers, contractors. Our family entered that world with them.

I think my first job outside of Thomas Profy and Sons was caddying at the Torresdale Country Club.  I carried Uncle’s bag and he introduced me to the Caddy Master.  For several years I was a country club caddy.  Although we had golfing privileges once a week, I didn’t take full advantage and never became a golfer.  Both Aunt and Uncle golfed regularly.  With my father, Uncle was part of the Mill Street Boys Club that went to Penn Relays and NY Millrose game.

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Mill Street Boys Club.  Uncle is fourth on right.  Father is second on left

Uncle also hired me for painting jobs.  I remember painting an apartment over his office.  One summer I painted the interior of their house which led to other painting jobs. For al least one summer after my college Freshman year maybe, he got me a job with a contractor friend.  Roy Butterworth started me hauling lumber, sheet rocking, but by the end of the summer I was doing some wood trim finishing under the supervision of a Cordisco master carpenter.

Uncle Frank was at ease with old friends and new acquaintances.  He drank moderately (whiskey, gin and tonic or small Pony bottles of Rolling Rock) and smoked small cigars.  He would regularly go to the Ninth street market in Philadelphis for provolone, prosciutto, olives, good Italian bread. He always enjoyed fresh fruit and a bag of pistachios or lemon ice was a treat.  At the beach house, he was known for his clams casinos.  For a few years, he packed the kids in a car.  He had bought a farm in NJ and the peaches were ripe.  The land was probably a short term investment but he wouldn’t let those peaches rot.

Uncle and Aunt came to visit Diane and I in Boston.  We took them to Durgin Park for dinner.  We waited in a line for a seat at their signature family style tables.  Uncle struck up a conversation with a couple behind us.  He concluded by giving the guy a business card.  I was impressed with his sociability.

At home after dinner or during a party, Uncle would play the piano.  We’d hum tunes or prompt him with songs we wanted to hear.  On special ocassions he got his 8 mm movie camera with bright lights indoors.  All the kids were lined up off stage.  As Uncle started filming we were encouraged to walk or dance toward the camera, one after another.  The movies are classic 1950s.  Uncle was a story teller.  When we were young he told and retold a war story.  He had a quarter size brown birth mark on one arm. A bullet wound he claimed.  It was a short story.  He was shot by Germans sitting in an outhouse.  We stared in wonder.  At least that’s what I remember.

During those same elementary years, he would end summer dinner stories with a question. “Listen carefully,” he’d begin. “I have a question, listen.  What’s the difference between a duck?”  Listen, what’s the difference between a duck.”  We squirmed.  “A duck and what,” we screamed.  Again, “What’s the difference between a duck?  When you know the answer, you will know it’s correct, and won’t have to ask me if its correct,” he continued.  “Just think about it. He repeated it slowly emphasizing each syllable. “What’s the difference between a duck?”  A week later we’d repeat the routine.  I answered Uncle my sophmore or junior year at BC.  I wrote: “What’s the difference between a duck?  I know the answer.”

Thanks Uncle.

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