The Memory Keeper

Every family has its stories, its legends, its folklore.    Mine is no exception.

I was raised in a big Italian family.  On my mother’s side, the stories focused on the earliest days after my grandfather immigrated from Sicily.  They were stories of how he met and fell in love with my grandmother, a first generation Sicilian American. We heard about the years when my grandfather sold vegetables in Boston’s North End market. How he worked in a local candy factory.

But on my father’s side, the family folklore has only two real themes.  The sheer size of the family (12 children!) is the dominant story.  Six brothers in one bed, sleeping head to foot.  Babies born in the tiny living room. The matriarch, my “Mammanonni” stirring gigantic pots of tomato sauce on the small gas stove.  The crowd, the numbers, the list of aunts and uncles; those are the stories of my childhood.

But there was another theme that was inextricably wound throughout the first.

That theme was baseball.

I grew up hearing about the exploits of all of my uncles, but the most famous stories belonged to my Uncle Lennie, the baseball Uncle.

Of the twelve children of Carmine and Angelina, Lennie was the only one who was born in a hospital. He was frail, somewhat sickly as a baby. But he grew up, he grew tall. He was a gifted athlete who excelled in baseball. He was handsome and charming and filled with a natural confidence.

Uncle Lennie played baseball in prep school, and went on to Villanova University where he was a standout on the field.

And from 1941-1947, he played shortstop for the Chicago Cubs.  I grew up on the stories of those years.

Uncle Lennie was famous to us; we loved hearing him talk, feeling the thrill as he casually mentioned Phil Cavaretta, Jackie Robinson, Mr. Wrigley.  And then there were the World Series Stories. So much fun to hear those tales of fame and fun and excitement.

Family gatherings for us always involved a cluster of our Uncles, laughing their big booming laughs, trading stories of life in East Boston in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Tricks they played on their Mother, exploits with friends and girlfriends, memories of those crowded years in that tiny apartment. The Uncles would be in the center of the room, and all the rest of us would be scattered around them, eating, drinking wine, listening in on the familiar tales.

Now the years are passing.  The Uncles and Aunts are gone. Now only Uncle Lennie remains from that huge gang of twelve.  He is the last repository of all that lore, all those shared memories.  The last one who lived in that little house in East Boston.

Now the years are passing, and baseball is changing.  Now only Uncle Lennie remains from the last Chicago Cubs team to play in a World Series.  He is the last man who remembers taking the field to try to bring a Championship to the Windy City.

He is the last.

Life moves forward. Every day is a new adventure and there are new family stories being lived out everywhere.  Somewhere a young girl is listening wide eyed as her larger-than-life Uncle teaches her how to field a grounder in the backyard.  Somewhere a handsome, charming Uncle is regaling his relatives with stories of his famous friends, adding little details that may or may not have happened, making everyone laugh and sigh and feel just a little bit closer to an exciting world that they will never know.

So here’s to Uncle Lennie.  Here’s to family history and baseball history and honoring the past.


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