It once was lost, but now it’s found…

As my sister and I were working on our family home last year, preparing it for the estate sale, we were, naturally, overwhelmed by all of the ‘stuff’ in the house.  Stuff that needed sorting; stuff that needed to be thrown away; and stuff that needed to be saved.

The more we worked, the more we realized that the “saved” pile needed to be the smallest.  There was just no way either of could take everything; and frankly, neither of us really wanted everything.  So we had to pick the items that we REALLY wanted the most, and leave the rest behind for the sale.

As time wore on, we knew what we wanted.  We marked those items off and set them aside.  Beth took a few smaller items, and I took a table that was my Grandma’s that I really liked a lot, along with a number of smaller mementos and a few handy kitchen items.  It seemed pretty easy at the time, but in reality, it was quite overwhelming. And even during that time and long afterward, I kept wondering if there was something else I was missing.

When the sale came around October, I knew it was too late– I had to accept that whatever I took was what I got– everything else had to go to the sale.  And truly, that was the most important thing about it: every penny we sold went to Mom so she could pay for her assisted living care.  So whatever we could contribute to further that cause was the best for everyone.

After the sale, however, and after the sale of the house, I finally realized there was one item I wished I had kept: My Dad’s budding box.

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Roses by the house, 1974

Dad was an avid rosarian.  At one point we had over 250 rose bushes in our backyard, and that was largely due to his skill at budding and grafting rose bushes. Each summer, he budded close to 30 roses from bushes he either already had or that his friends had in their yards.  I’d watch him as he’d carefully perform the steps of budding new roses, and eventually he taught me how to do it.  It was one of those things that he and I enjoyed doing together– something we shared.

So this box meant a lot to me. But as far as I knew, it was long gone.

Until today.

My Aunt Rita held her annual family and friends picnic at Simmons Island earlier in the day, and we had just finished everything up.  I had my camera with me, so I decided to take some pictures around downtown Kenosha before heading back to Chicago.  I’d walked around for about an hour and was getting warm so I got back into the car for a drive around.  I was getting ready to “scoop the loop” down 6th avenue, when I suddenly turned onto 56th Street.  I saw the old Leader Store, where we used to buy our school, Cub Scout and Girl Scout uniforms when we were kids, and something caught my eye.  I hit the brakes and quickly did a u-turn and parked.  I couldn’t believe it… but it was my dad’s budding box, in the window, with his name clearly showing.  It was marked with a price tag: $20.

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Dad’s budding box in the window of the former Leader Store in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Dad built this box in the early 1970s, along with a few others for some of his rosarian friends. I believe he got the idea from another friend, or an article in The American Rose magazine; but in any case, he built it himself, painted it, and even painted the rose and his name in a distinctive script.  He used the box to carry all of his budding tools and supplies, so he could quickly set up shop when he was ready to work.  And use it, he did.  A lot.

It’s one of the last remaining items that showcases his art talents.  Many of them were lost or destroyed over the years, including a beautiful set of budding instruction charts that were wrecked when our basement flooded a couple years ago.  It truly is a one-of-a-kind, priceless item that we really cherish.  So to have it back would mean so very much.

There were no phone numbers in the window, indicating who to call if one had a question about one of the items.  The store was empty, so clearly someone was using the window space just to display these items.  I snapped a picture of the box in the window and sent it to my sister.  And then I posted it to a group on Facebook called “You Know You’re From Kenosha If…,” where current and former residents of Kenosha reminisce about things, places, and people they grew up with and remember fondly while living in Kenosha.  There have been some great, lively discussions and a lot of really great history shared in this group, so I figured it was the best way to find out some information about where the box was displayed.

Almost immediately, I started getting comments with ideas of who to contact, as well as a lot of support and wishes for me to get this box back.  By the time I got back to Chicago, the woman who placed the item in the window had sent me a private message on Facebook with her number saying to call her back about the box.

I called her once I got settled, and told her the story behind the box, and how I discovered it in the window.  She barely could recall how she even got the box, but she knew she liked it and thought it was interesting — and she wondered why nobody was interested in it or wanted it.  So in the end, she graciously offered it back to us, no charge.  I was moved by her generosity– even though it’s ours in heart and in history, it’s technically hers right now.  But I’ve discovered with people who deal in antiques or collectibles– it’s not so much about what you make on an item: it’s more about how the story is told, and what it means to someone.

Beth will pick it up later this week.  I’m excited to have it back in our family again.

A really nice example of the power of the internet, and specifically, the positive power of social media.  When good people are involved, it can do pretty awesome things.

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I’d like to add a plug for Janet Steinmetz at Black Sheep Mercantile.  Janet is the wonderful lady who has the box and offered to return it.  If you’re in Kenosha, please stop by and visit her store at 6227 22nd Avenue.

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This used to be our playground

Peanut on the front porch of our house, 1970
Peanut on the front porch of our house, 1970
Mom coming out of the house, 1969
Mom coming out of the house, 1969
Uncle John and Peanut in the living room, 1968
Uncle John and Peanut in the living room, 1968
Me on the swingset and Peanut in the grass, 1973
Me on the swingset and Peanut in the grass, 1973
Dad and I in the backyard, 1972
Dad and I in the backyard, 1972
Summer with lawn chairs, 1971
Summer with lawn chairs, 1971
Roses by the house, 1971
Roses by the house, 1971
Dad and I watering the grass, 1972
Dad and I watering the grass, 1972
Mom's crab tree, 1984
Mom’s crab tree, 1984
Christmas in the living room, 1968
Christmas in the living room, 1968
Dad with me and Beth by the roses, 1978
Dad with me and Beth by the roses, 1978
Me with Beth on the swingset, 1974
Me with Beth on the swingset, 1974
Mom with Beth outside - 1973
Mom with Beth outside – 1973
Mom and I when I came home from the hospital - 1970
Mom and I when I came home from the hospital – 1970
Grandma on Dad's chair, 1970
Grandma on Dad’s chair, 1970
The family in front of the house for Beth's first communion - 1982
The family in front of the house for Beth’s first communion – 1982

Last night, my sister went up to Kenosha for the closing on our family home, where our family has lived since 1966. It’s the only home Beth and I knew from our growing up years until today.

Last year, after we moved my mom into her new home, we spent months cleaning (and cleaning) the house, getting the things we wanted out of it, and planning and executing an estate sale with the incredible help of The Balderdash Collection. In November we put the house on the market, and yesterday it was sold. Pretty incredible when you consider the market today.

A few weeks ago, I stopped in at the house and took one last walk around. Although it was completely empty, I still could see everything the way it was, and I could remember things that happened in every nook and cranny. Where I’d listen to my music. Where my mom would sit and look at the crab tree in the front yard. Where we sat at the dinner table. Where we’d sit and watch TV as a family after dinner. Where my sister and I played together and made up silly games. Where fights happened. Where good and bad news was learned. Where my Dad died. They all happened there.

It’s hard to say goodbye to a place as special as this… but it’s time. We have a lot of wonderful memories there, and we’ll never forget those. But now it’s time for new memories.  In new places.  And now, someone else can make memories in our old home.  I hope it has as many good things in store for them as it had for us.

Remembering Uncle John

Uncle John with me as a baby, 1971

He was calm, cool, and easygoing.

He was the member of my family we would turn to for sound, sane advice, and a clear vision of what was going on in our lives.

He never raised his voice.  He never lost his temper.  Oh sure, he got angry a time or two, but if he did, I never saw him grow red in the face or take it out on anyone.

He was an eternal pessimist.  Oh yes, he was.  If his beloved Cubs were doing well, or on their way to winning it all, he’d be the first to say, “They’ll screw it up.”  We’d scoff and say he’s just being negative again, but doggone it, he’d be right.  The Cubs would mess up and we’d be crying in our handkerchiefs all over again.  He may have been a pessimist, but he was almost always right about it.

He loved his family dearly.  And we loved him.

And now he is gone.  And we miss him terribly.

My Uncle, The Rev. John D. Aiello, died on July 15 after a relatively brief but nonetheless extremely brave battle with cancer.  He was 70 years old.

School Portrait

Uncle John was my dad’s younger brother.  The middle child of three, he was destined for the cloth at a fairly early age– after my dad finally gave up the dream himself.  He entered the Seminary after graduating from grade school, and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1969.  Shortly after his ordination, my grandfather, “Nanu” Louis Aiello, died; and never got to see his son say his first mass.

Over the years, Uncle John officiated at all family events– weddings, funerals, baptisms.  It was a no-brainer– we always wanted him to do them, and he always accepted graciously.

Uncle John walking Beth down the aisle, 2002

He officiated both my cousin’s wedding in 2001 and my sister’s wedding in 2002, and, in a bit of a change of protocol, walked her down the aisle because my dad wasn’t able to do so.  They met my dad at the front of the altar, and he, with his cane, walked her the rest of the way.  It was a moving and touching moment for all of us, and one we will never forget.

Probably the most difficult thing he had to do was say the mass at Nana’s funeral.  To this day, I don’t know how he did it.  Perhaps it was because he loved her so much, and cared for her all the years she suffered.  But whatever the reasons, he did it, and he got through it fine.  I always thought he was so brave for doing that.

Uncle John says "hello," 1983

My fondest memories of Uncle John come from his visits on Thursday nights.  Because he worked in Milwaukee or Racine (his choice– he never wanted to work in Kenosha), he would always make Thursdays his family “day off.”  He had dinner with my Aunt and her family, and would come to our house afterward to spend time with our Dad and our family.  After our dinner ended, we’d eagerly anticipate his arrival.  And at around 7:00 every Thursday, he’d walk in the door.  Peanut, our dog, would greet him at the door, and he’d give my sister and I big hugs and kisses and ask us, “What’s new?”

My sister reminded me that we would always ask him for gum.  Uncle John always carried sticks of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, and he was always willing to share.  I also remember he’d give my sister a kiss hello and say, “Oooh that tastes like Sarsaparilla!”  or “Hmmm, I think that’s cherry pie!”  They were just silly things he’d do with us kids, and we loved it.

Uncle John had a wry, dry sense of humor.  He was never one to be the “life of the party,” but every so often he’d just say a few words and have us all laughing so hard we’d start crying.

Uncle John was Nana’s main caretaker after her cancer surgery, and stayed by her side through seven painful years afterward.  It was hard on all of us, but hardest on him, because he saw firsthand how much pain she was in.  When Nana finally died, a part of Uncle John went with her.

Dad and Uncle John

My Dad’s death in 2006 was equally painful.  Dad and Uncle John were inseparable as kids and as adults.  They were brothers and best friends.  In preparing photos for Uncle John’s funeral, I found countless shots of Dad and Uncle John sitting together, eating, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company.  That’s just what they did.

When the news came that Uncle John was sick with cancer, it was a shock to all of us.  Throughout his life, he always seemed so healthy– why did this have to happen to him?  It didn’t seem fair.  He fought for as long as he could against it– trying different kinds of treatment and new, innovative strategies to stop the spread, but eventually nothing worked, and he decided to let nature take its course.

Uncle John with Emily and Abby

He did get to meet and spend time with my nieces, Abby and Emily, a few times before he was too ill to do so.  I’m glad he did that, and I’m glad they met him.  They never got a chance to meet their Grandpa.  I’m sure Uncle John have great things to say about them when he sees Dad again.

My last conversation with him occurred at the funeral of another cousin, late last year.  He was walking slowly, with a cane, but still getting around okay.  We sat together and had a long talk about life, things that we’ve experienced, and how he was doing.  I didn’t know at the time that this would be our last real talk; but it’s one I will treasure and remember for the rest of my life.

On Thursday and Friday of this week, our family will gather to say farewell to Uncle John, with hundreds of others who will come to say farewell to “Father John.”  That’s the one thing I always admired about my Uncle.  He was a man of great spirit and faith, but when he was with family, he was never “Father John.”  He was “Uncle John,” from the day I was born to the day he died.  His faith and spirituality was always a part of him, but he made sure to keep it separate from his family life.  He loved us unconditionally.  And that was never in doubt.

Five Years

Five years have passed by so very quickly. And yet, every July 3, I recall that day, vividly.

I recall the surreal, foggy morning in Saugatuck.  I was camping with my friends, and decided to call my dad for the first time that weekend.  The calls went unanswered.  I recall seeing “The Devil Wears Prada” with my friends because it had rained that morning, and not being able to enjoy the movie because I kept checking my phone to see if he had called me back.  And then, after the movie, getting the news that tore through my heart.

The ride back to camp, and arriving to find my tent taken down and my car already packed.  I will never, ever forget the kindness and love from my friends as they worked so hard to get me out of there as fast as possible.

Getting my friend Rafael to drive my car so I didn’t have to drive it myself was another blessing.  I don’t remember much of anything from that trip.  I just wanted to get home.

Sitting in my mom’s kitchen that night, hearing fireworks going off in the distance.  The low thuds of each explosion marking the celebration of the holiday that was, on that day, dead to me.  What was there to celebrate?  I was mourning. Independence Day would never be the same for me, and hasn’t since.

The planning, meetings, dinners brought by from friends and family.  Lots of decisions, and lots and lots of tears.  That was all part of it, too.

As rough as that day and the days that followed were, it somehow made our family that much stronger.  We never broke under the pressure and kept on going.

There was immense sadness, but also immense relief.  Dad had suffered for so long, and by the end of his life was so miserable, that he made us miserable, too.  I guess what kept us going (and sane) through all of that was knowing that he was finally at peace.  And consequently, we, too, were at peace.

I wrote about all of this five years ago, so I don’t want to re-hash every detail… but in the five years that have passed, so much has happened.  My nieces were born, and have given such joy to our lives.  How I wish he could have met and known Abby and Emily.  Part of me believes he does know them, and is watching over them closely; but had he been alive to meet them I know he would have loved them dearly.

But on the other end of the spectrum, my uncle– my dad’s brother– is nearing the end of his battle with cancer.  Unlike dad, his suffering is lingering.  I hate what’s happening to him, and how cancer has robbed him of not only his ability to live his life, but his will to live.  Once again, when the time comes, we will have sorrow, but also thankful he is no longer suffering.

So this year I am spending the holiday with my family.  I’m sure we’ll share some tears, but many more happy times.  And we will celebrate Independence Day.  Because although I thought it was dead to me five years ago, eventually, I have to move on.

Dad, wherever you are– I love you.  You’ll always be in my heart.

Farewell, Grand Viagra!

It’s been a great run, but this week I decided to retire my little white putt-putt– my 1999 Suzuki Grand Vitara, lovingly known as the “Grand Viagra.”

I got the Grand Viagra in 2006, shortly after my dad died.  My old car took a dump and became scrap shortly after his funeral.  When my cousin’s grandma died later that year (my long-time readers — all 2 of you — will recall that 2006 was a terrible year for my family), I had to rent a car to come home for the funeral.

I bought the car from my co-worker, and it was in really great shape when I got it.  But I am tough on cars, and this one is no exception.  The fact that it had a manual transmission probably didn’t help matters.  I can ride a clutch like nobody’s business, and I wrecked two on this car.  Maybe I never learned how to drive a manual correctly– but two clutches in the span of 5 years is a lot– and a lot of money.

Still, the little Grand Viagra was a great car.  I loved that it was a mini-SUV– mini enough that it could fit into tight parking spots that you would never have thought it would fit into.  It transported tons of camping equipment and even my bike a few times; and I don’t know what I would have done without it when I moved last year.

But time took its toll, and earlier this year I did a bunch of major repairs that probably cost more than the car was worth.  Last week, the final nail was tapped– the “Service Engine Soon” light came. on.  The damage was somewhere in the $800-900 range.  I decided that it was time to retire the girl.

I’ll still have the car until I find something new, so I can use it– for what it’s worth– as some sort of trade-in.  So tonight after work and the gym, I will pick up the tired old girl, drop a few gallons of gas in her tank, and drive her home, where she will sit and wait for the day when I either decide to trade her in or sell her off; only being moved for street cleaning and to avoid tickets for being abandoned (they do that here in Chi-Town, you know).

In the meantime, I’m a total public transportation guy.  Which is probably a good thing.  I needed to start being smarter about that anyway.

Snowy car

My car in a huge hole!

Autumn street