Memorial Day & Uncle Frank

We had this Memorial Day tradition in my family.  Memorial Day morning was for the town parade, with wreaths laid at the memorials for the Civil War and World War I.  Then in the town cemetery wreaths were laid at the graves of everyone who served, from the Revolutionary War onward (growing up in Massachusetts was cool if you liked history).

After the parades we’d head to the cemeteries in Clinton and Fitchburg, laying wreaths at the graves of my father’s parents and my mother’s parents.  The morning was for honoring those who served, the afternoon was for remembering those who brought the families to the U.S.

My uncle Frank wasn’t in the military, but he proudly wore a different kind of uniform – that of a tradesman – for most of his adult life.  He was a small child when his mother (pregnant with my Dad) and father sailed from Italy to Boston in the spring of 1912.  He was a lot taller than my father, and the tip of his right index finger was at a 45-degree angle to the rest of the digit.  He had a few stories as to just how it came to be that way, ranging from chopping it off with an axe to having it bit off by a horse.  I think he loved making up stories, just to mess with me.

And he never got tired of his own jokes.  Every time I’d see him during my “long-hair” phase it was always the same: “Why don’t you let me cut your hair?  I’m a Barba, you know…”

My Dad always said his brother was one of the best heating men he knew – and was an absolute artist with diverter-tee systems.  And both he and my Dad did plumbing when plumbing was work – cast iron soil pipe, poured lead joints, threaded brass water piping.

Working with Uncle Frank was always a treat.  He was a master at needling you until you snapped.

“I’ve been in this business over 40 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done like that before.”

I don’t think he meant it as a compliment.

I did get him back one day, though.  He told me one day in his Uncle Frank wise-guy voice that plumbers in his day were real craftsmen, and that today all you needed to do DWV was a handsaw, a level and a can of glue.

“Uncle Frank, who the heck uses a level?”

For once, and I mean for the only time in my memory, he was speechless.

Uncle Frank also had a dog named Waldo – if you knew my uncle, you’d know that’s exactly what he’d name a dog – just because he liked saying the name.  And that dog was the king of “Where’s Waldo?” years before the books ever came out.  You’d find that dog wandering the streets of Leominster, miles from home, like he owned the place.

He and my Dad have been gone a long time now, but the work they left behind still stands in hundreds of homes in Central Massachusetts.

I got a haircut today.  Somewhere I think he’s chuckling to himself…

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