While my father dreamed of my growing up to follow in his footsteps and work in the construction industry, I dreamed of growing up to be more like my mother—a housewife. As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was hanging my sister’s doll’s clothes on my very own clothesline in our backyard. I was three and no one in the family suspected it was that big a deal; after all, I was just assisting Mom with her daily chores. Besides I had three older sisters; dolls were hard to avoid in our household. However, my father’s brother Vito felt my penchant for dolls was a huge deal and his animosity towards the situation grew even worse once I began to cheer. All three of my older sisters were members of the St. Pancras School cheerleading squad; my mother was the cheerleading coach. As a result, I spent almost every afternoon in the school gymnasium with Mom and the girls, intently listening to and learning all the cheers. I was good, I mean really good. My limber little legs allowed me to perform perfect splits, cartwheels and aerials. I knew every single step, beat, bounce, clap and cheer, which everyone praised me for and thought was adorable, except for Uncle Vito.
Uncle Vito was short and stocky, gruff and tough, with a sour look on his face and a receding hairline. He resembled Burt Young’s character Paulie in the Rocky movies, fedora and all. He never smiled, was always grouchy and yelled more often than he spoke, constantly clearing his throat mid-roar and hacking up a wad of phlegm without apologies and/or hesitation.
He would arrive at our modest two-story, semi-detached home in Queens (think All In The Family) about once every three months, usually on a Sunday evening shortly before dinner, in his white van accompanied by a middle-aged woman named Peggy, whom he referred to as his “lady friend,” and a massive man who must have been his bodyguard. (Or maybe he was the chauffer since he was the only one who ever drove? I don’t know exactly.) I don’t even remember his name, but then again I don’t think Uncle Vito ever knew any of our names because he always referred to my father as “Bro,” my mother as “Sisa-in-Law,” and I was always “Nephew” or “Neph” for short. My sisters were usually referred to collectively as “the girls.”
Vito never arrived empty-handed, and since I was the youngest, he always had gifts for me but for some reason he never bothered to wrap them. It was usually a metal Tonka truck or a football or something quintessentially masculine, yet nothing I ever seemed to really want. My mother would always warn me to be careful as she snidely remarked to my father how they “must have fallen off the back of a truck somewhere.” Anyway, Uncle Vito absolutely detested it when I cheered. The few hairs that remained on his head would rise as his anger erupted. As soon as I began clapping and shouting out my favorite cheer: “Action, action, we want action, A-C-T-I-O-N,” (a cheer I’m still extremely found of today) he would immediately start yelling in his gruff, gravelly voice for me to knock it off, act like a man and drop and give him twenty.
I was only four years old; I barely knew how to do a push-up. As my arms wobbled and my body arched and ached, Vito would yell, “Come on, show me what you’re made of, Neph.” Well, I wasn’t made of much, but Uncle Vito was determined to change that.
One Sunday evening, he arrived at our house as usual with his posse in tow for dinner. I don’t remember the meal that evening, probably standard fare—my father insisted we always have a traditional Italian Sunday meal of pasta—yet I do remember quite vividly the events that unfolded afterwards.
I was nestled on the sofa with my sisters, watching TV, most likely charting the hits on the latest episode of Solid Gold, Uncle Vito summoned me to the dining room. To Uncle Vito’s left stood a brown leather punching bag about three feet high atop a metal spring secured to a plywood platform. I’d never seen anything like it before and wasn’t sure exactly what it was or where it came from.
As I stood there perplexed and leery of what was next, Vito began manhandling me with his robust hands, forcing my small frame onto the platform, pulling my legs apart and posing me in preparation to punch. Once my feet were solidly planted, knees bent, he impatiently tried to demonstrate how to create a fist, eventually forcing my fingers into formation and demanding I begin punching the bag.
“Come on Neph, punch it like a man. Hit it with your right. Now punch it harder!”
The room became a blur as voices urged me to punch like a man, to hit it harder, throw a right, then a left. I felt disoriented and uncoordinated. I barely even made contact with the bag, but once I did, the stitching clawed at my delicate, dainty hands, scratching and scraping them because Uncle Vito forgot to bring the boxing gloves. (I guess they never made it off the back of that truck.) After a few pathetic attempts, my hands began to swell and my eyes began to shed tears. Uncle Vito could care less though, as he continued to berate me and educate me on the sport of violence.
My mother appeared from the kitchen at once, drying her hands with a dish towel, demanding he leave me alone. My father attempted to make light of the situation, but Vito grew even more irritated and went off on a tirade about how my father should handle this situation. “When he’s old enough Bro, you gotta ship him off to Parris Island, they’ll make a man out of him.”
Although Uncle Vito meant well, his attempts to butch me up left me feeling frightened rather than encouraged. Luckily, my parents did their best to ignore his insults and archaic advice, understanding that Barbie dolls and cheerleading were both simply a phase I would soon outgrow.
And I did. Once they purchased me that red, white and blue baton, I left the cheerleading and dolls behind and began marching up and down our street pretending I was leading a parade…but only when Uncle Vito wasn’t visiting.