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.

Schlameel, Schlamazel! Hassenpepper Incorporated!

A couple of weeks ago I joined the gang from Feast of Fools for a trip to Milwaukee for PrideFest.  It was my first time in Brewtown in over ten years, and I was really looking forward to it.  

I had visions of us exploring the city a-la Laverne & Shirley, soaking in the charm and the love of one of the Midwest’s most unappreciated gems.  I wanted the weekend to be memorable and fun, and to leave with a sense of pride in my Cheeseheaded heritage.

Sadly, the weather was absolutely atrocious.  

Group Shot!Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time. There were some really great moments, lots of good laughs, and we met some really nice people- but that weather was a real downer!

Surely by now you’ve heard about the draining of Lake Delton and flooding in Racine and other Wisconsin cities, and have seen the video of the houses falling into the raging waters

Thankfully nothing like that happened in the Milwaukee city proper, but it was still a near-complete washout.  Call it unfortunate timing.  It certainly wasn’t the city’s fault.

Milwaukee and I have a lot of history.  So it seemed sort of unfair that I’d forgotten about it while living in the much bigger, much busier city to the south.  I was really looking forward to getting ‘back to my roots’ a bit and seeing how much Milwaukee has changed in the last 10 years.

I remember visiting Milwaukee many times in my youth, and nearly every visit was the subject of a really good time.  As a kid there were numerous trips with my family and friends to Festa Italiana, German Fest and, of course, Summerfest at the Summerfest grounds (later renamed the Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds in homage to the late, long-term mayor of the city).  There were tons of Milwaukee Brewers games at old County Stadium, concerts at the Bradley Center or the Marcus Amphitheater, scads of visits to the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Wisconsin State Fair, and a great number of trips to Marquette University when my good friend Mark was going there for his undergrad.  

I’m happy to report that Milwaukee has changed a lot — in some ways for the worse, but in most ways for the better.  

For the worse, it seems that Milwaukee has gone the way of many smaller municipal areas and lost a lot of its gay-identified spots.  Places I used to visit in the early to mid 90s like Club 219, M&M Club and C’est La Vie are long gone.  Although LaCage is still there, I probably wouldn’t recognize it since it’s constantly being remodeled; and I think the venerable Triangle bar is still there.  I don’t know if this is the result of gays and straights co-mingling more, or the further loss of any sort of gay ‘neighborhood’ in Milwaukee; but it seems like the choices are a little more slim than I remember.

However, that doesn’t mean that Milwaukee is a bad place to be gay.  No other city in the nation holds a PrideFest like Milwaukee.  And whether it rains or shines, it’s always an amazing event.  

For the better, Milwaukee is a large city on a smaller scale, and from what I’ve seen, it’s really become much more cosmopolitan and chic than I ever remember it being.  There are so many great clubs and restaurants to visit, cute shops and walkways, and their riverwalk through downtown puts Chicago’s to shame.  And of course, the people are as friendly as can be.  There’s tons of entertainment and culture – from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts to the Pabst Theater to the absolutely spectacular Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum on the lakeshore- MIlwaukee is prettier and even more memorable than I ever remember as a kid.

So once everything dries out up north and I get a free weekend, I think a return trip is in the works.  I need to re-orient myself to my former neighbor to the north.  I’ve done a lot of growing in the last ten years– and so has Milwaukee.  It deserves to get a second look. 

Live! Sort of! on Feast of Fools!

Just a quick note to let you know that I joined Fausto Fernos and Marc Felion on today’s epsiode of Feast of Fools! Check it out by clicking here:

Originally uploaded by feastoffools

Rick on Feast of Fools!

I’ll be heading up to Milwaukee with them for Milwaukee Pride Fest. I haven’t been there since probably 1997 or so, so it’ll be fun to go “back to my roots” a bit. Plus the weather should be hot and steamy, which means lots of pictures of hot boys. 🙂

Avenue Q Touring CastI saw Avenue Q on Tuesday and LOVED IT LOVED IT LOVED IT! I’ve been enjoying the cast recording for a few years now but had never seen the show on stage, and it was so much more wonderful and adorable and cute on stage than just the cast recording alone. I want to see it again and again, but sadly it’s leaving Chicago after this weekend. I’m hoping it comes back for a repeat appearance or maybe even a long run very soon.

So that’s what’s been happening… more to come soon. Hope you have a great weekend!