My father is the youngest of 10 children of Italian immigrant parents. His father was killed when he was 8, struck by a skidding car when he got off the bus en route to work one icy February morning in 1936. “Death came in a black sedan” was the flowery way the local paper, The Daily Argus, put it. When my own children were about 9 and 10, I mentioned to my father that he had been a grandfather longer than he’d had a father himself. My father looked at me and nodded, but then added, “Don’t forget that Dinny was like a father to me. He took me to my first ballgame,” referring to the ultimate rite of passage for Italian-American boys who grew up in New York in the ’30s and ’40s: their first Yankees game. My Uncle Dinny, born in 1908, was the second of the 10 Mangano siblings, and the oldest son. He was nearly 20 when my father was born, and the only sibling never to marry; he had no children. A childhood illness left him hump-backed and he could not have stood more than 5 feet tall. He drove a battered green Ford Fairlane for years, and faithfully visited our family once a week. He died in 1974, when I was in high school. During my childhood, Dinny owned a bar called Dinny’s Irish House–“Irish” because when he bought the place it was called Jerry’s Irish House and he was afraid if he changed the name too drastically he might lose customers. Going to Uncle Dinny’s bar was a rare treat when I was a kid. My mother thought it a highly unwholesome place for us to hang out, but my brother and I of course thought it the height of fun. The Irish House was dark and cool and smelled of sawdust and beer. Uncle Dinny would give us dimes to put in the jukebox; we’d play quoits and go back into the kitchen where Uncle Frankie was cooking up a huge pot of meatballs on an ancient, grimy gas stove. I loved pushing the keys on the old-fashioned cash register. “This is my niece, Maria,” Uncle Dinny would tell all the customers.
My favorite cousin, Nancy, the daughter of my father’s sister Connie, once told me a story I’d never heard from my dad. When my grandfather was killed, my grandmother strictly followed the old-world custom of one year’s mourning. This meant for a solid year the widow wore black clothes, the children wore black armbands, there was no laughing or merriment of any sort in the house, no radio could be played and no Christmas decorations or celebration were allowed. According to Nancy, on Christmas Eve, 1936, Connie and my father, Joey–recently turned 11 and 9 respectively–were sitting around the kitchen table wondering whether there was really going to be no Christmas. It was getting late and Joey and Connie were about to give up hope when Dinny, then 28, returned home from his job in the shipping department at Macy’s department store. “Are you kids still up?” he asked, setting a paper bag on the table. “Here, this is for you.” Connie and Joey put their hands into the bag and pulled out two Mickey Mouse watches. It was Christmas after all.
Happy Father’s Day, Uncle Dinny.