Aunt Rose was Dad’s little sister who lived with her husband Jimmy in an apartment in Brooklyn. She was a small woman with a big heart, a woman who never completely left Italy. One of the sweetest people I have ever met, she would always welcome us into her apartment and shower us with tasty homemade Italian baked goods, stuff you just don’t see too much anymore, probably because they took all day (like a good sauce) to make. She loved to share her love, and I don’t recall ever seeing her angry or ever hearing her utter the slightest disparaging comment about anyone. She was usually dressed in a drab housedress but was never without her charming pink lipstick.
Some called her naïve, some called her a little simple, we called her Aunt Rose and we loved her for the person she was.
Now, Dad, of course, was her big brother and that position held great responsibility in an Italian family (forgetting Michael and Fredo); He was super protective of her; offering advice (I know – don’t say it), on his frequent visits to see her. I don’t recall ever seeing Aunt Rose out of Brooklyn; Manhattan was another continent to her so Dad would make the trip to Brooklyn regularly.
She was alone a lot of the time, so her sons thought it was a good idea to get her a dog for her protection and company. In fact, they got her two dogs for her protection and company. And I am not sure about the company part, but they aced it on the protection part. Both were large German Shepherds with large teeth and knowing untrusting eyes. They were always by her side, and if you dared to approach without her giving them the word you were ok, you were going to have a very bad day. They must have sensed the goodness in her, as this diminutive little woman was the only person they would obey religiously. Even Uncle Jimmy would have to call for assistance when he told them to heel, and they simply bared their prominent teeth and growled. They took orders from no one save Aunt Rose, husband or no husband. I always used to think, pity the poor burglar who chose their apartment to break into.
Dad would call from a telephone booth across the street and tell Rose he had arrived and she should lock up the dogs in the bedroom as she always did. Now as previously stated, Dad was no animal lover, not that he would do anything to bring harm to one; he just didn’t like them around him. So the idea of these two monster dogs being in the same room with him was not exactly ideal.
The telephone call heralding his arrival and locking the dogs in the bedroom worked like a charm.
Until it didn’t.
And the time it didn’t as fate would have it, was one time when he brought Don and me along on a Saturday afternoon in late winter. As usual, he pulled into a gas station directly across the avenue from her apartment building and after depositing a dime, did his usual:
“Rose- it’s me – Tony – put the dogs away Rose- you hear me? Lock em up will ya?”
We, of course, couldn’t hear her answer and really don’t know where the communication broke down. We entered the front door of the little apartment building, a steep staircase just inside, and with Dad in the lead me next then Don, we proceeded to climb the stairs, I am sure with Don and I thinking about the treats that lay ahead. Dad on the other hand was I am sure wondering if Rose had done what he had asked.
And this one time, for some reason, it seemed she hadn’t.
We had made it almost to the top of the first flight of stairs (Aunt Rose lived on the third floor) when we heard it. First, the loud thuds, shaking the foundation of the building itself, then the ferocious barking, something out of The Hound of the Baskervilles!! And the three of us, trapped in a narrow stairway waiting to become lunch.
Dad’s eyes went wide, his mouth curled into that “What the..” expression, quickly followed by a pretty good rendition of pure panic. He started to yell:
“Rose! Rose!” but his voice was drowned out by the barking. So he went into Marine mode.
He spun around to look at us and said in that voice that you automatically obeyed said firmly:
“Turn around now… go down…now go…go….go!!!”
Don had a momentary dumbfounded look on his face but knew enough to listen to Dad when he heard that tone, even if he didn’t fully understand what was happening. He spun around and started down. I needed no further convincing as being the smallest, I would be the easiest bite when the first jaw opened. Hell one of those dogs could take me in one gulp!!
Dad, of course, kept up a constant chatter of commands:
“Rob Don Rob Don” He always mixed us up when he got excited, but finally he settled correctly on Don:
“Help your brother…watch out for Rob!”
And then in the same breath:
“Go faster….go faster!!”
Poor Don didn’t know what to do – run like hell or turn back to help me. Being Don, he, of course, opted to help me, reaching back to make sure I didn’t fall. And Dad just as expectedly thought this was stupid, as we were under imminent attack.
“Whaddaya doing?? Go! Go!”
“But you said…..”
“Shaaaa….just run….go go go!!!”
Man- a Shaa and that tone all in one day!!
Lord knows what some poor bystander must have thought to see three people crashing out of a tenement doorway, stumbling over each other, shouting!
When we were clear of the entrance, Dad turned and slammed the door shut, making sure it stuck. Only then did we catch our breath. Moments later we heard the two dogs slam against the inside of the door, growling, barking and scratching at the wood, frustrated at having missed out on an extra meal.
I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, but Don and I always went with laughter when a situation this absurd arose. So as usual, we collapsed in hysterics, and Dad with his usual sense of humor, or lack thereof, started muttering under his breath about his “stupid kids”.
All, of course, turned out ok, as Dad told us to stay put, ran across the street, deposited another dime in the pay phone and had a conversation that kind of went like:
“Rose! Rose! Whaddaya doing Rose! The Dogs! The Dogs! Ya didn’t lock up the dogs – they almost killed us!!!”
Ok a bit of an exaggeration, but maybe not. Who knew what would have happened if Dad’s reflexes weren’t so well honed. Thank you United States Marine Corps!
Years later, when little Aunt Rose had grown old (she would leave us years before Dad joined her), I remember visiting again, and even her beloved dogs had grown old, no longer the threatening figures of their youth. They sat at her feet as Dad and she shared coffee and Danish and Dad brought up the memory:
“Rose you remember the time you didn’t lock up the dogs?”
And she laughed an embarrassed laugh, apologizing yet again for her forgetfulness. Dad reached over and gave her a hug, a big brother embracing his little sister.
“I’m so sorry,” she said for what I am sure was the thousandth time. And Dad laughed, holding her.
“Rose..” he simply said…”My Rosie..” and they hugged even harder.
When she died, he was devastated. He spent his whole life protecting his little sister, but even he, Marine or no Marine, couldn’t keep her safe from the cancer that took her.
We would see that look in his eye, know he was somehow for no good reason, feeling that he had failed her. We tried to console him; nothing he could have done could have prevented what happened; there are just some fights you can’t win. We told him not to be sad; his little Rosie was in Heaven waiting for him, knowing he would be with her again someday.
But nothing worked. Until Don said:
“Remember the day we went to visit and Aunt Rose forgot to lock the dogs in the bedroom?”
And he remembered, shaking his head, his laughter mixing with his tears.
“We must have looked pretty funny eh?” he said, and Don and I smiled in agreement.
After a minute more, he said.
“Ya know – they were good dogs – boy did they love Rose”.
And they were, and they did. They both died shortly after she passed; their job on this earth done.
You see, if anyone could appreciate devotion, Dad could. That is what he did his whole life, devoted himself to his family.
I always had the silly thought that when Dads time came and he set off to rejoin his beloved little sister, he would have to make a call first. He knew the dogs would be there, right by her side, for all eternity.