Cousin Ronni

A selection from the Pie Bar

A selection from the Pie Bar...

My cousin Ronni is so dumb she thinks you file your taxes with an emery board. She thinks a football coach has four wheels. She thinks…okay, perhaps I’m being too harsh.

The truth is Cousin Ronni doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body. As a rather jaded adult I often find myself thinking that I would be better off being more like her. For Ronni, everything is a surprise, everything is new, and everything is amazing.

Ronni, (short for Veronica) and I grew up together. Even though she’s my first cousin and she lived on the next street over, our family experiences were very different. Ronni is the oldest child of my Mom’s older sister, Aunt Polly, and her husband, my Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank wasn’t Jewish, he was Roman Catholic. I’ve always assumed that he and Aunt Polly must have been a pretty daring match back in the day. She was a nice Jewish girl who ran off with an Italian trumpeter. My Grandmother wasn’t pleased, and never quite got over the match. Through the years she would continue to say Uncle Frank’s name in a way that sounded like she was telling you the milk in the fridge had soured.

I always liked Uncle Frank. He taught me how to shake hands “right”. This probably started when I was three or four. He’d stick out his hand for me to shake, I’d offer mine, and if my grip wasn’t firm enough he’d say, “Aww, c’mon.” As I got bigger and stronger the “Aw, c’mon” was followed by an approving, “…ehhhhre ya go”. It always seemed like the bigger I got the smaller he got, and when he grew elderly we’d shake hands and he’d pull his away, shake it as if in pain, and say, “Cripes, whaddaya trying to do to me?”

When I say he and Aunt Polly “ran off” I’m not exaggerating; their first years of marriage were spent travelling with an orchestra that specialized in playing debutante balls and society weddings. Aunt Polly wasn’t particularly musical, so her job with the band seems to have been keeping her eye on her Italian Trumpeter. I don’t think she had all that much to worry about. Uncle Frank was kind of a quiet guy and, while he wasn’t a bad looking guy, he never stood taller than about five-foot-four.

After some years of travelling they decided to settle down and start a family. Uncle Frank became a high school music teacher and taught trumpet in a little knotty-pine paneled studio that he and my Dad built in their basement. Unfortunately Aunt Polly and Uncle Frank had trouble starting a family—I never found out if it was her fault or his, but at some point I guess it became obvious it just wasn’t going to happen.

They adopted Ronni the year I was born, and a few years later they adopted her little brother Frank junior. (Yeah, Frankie and Ronni.) This has always fascinated me. I know nothing about her biological family, but Ronni always seemed like a little half Jewish, half Italian kid. Maybe that’s why as an adult I always think Jews and Italians are so much alike. Except, Italian food is better than ours.

On the other hand, Little Frankie had ice-blue eyes, and wheat-blond hair. I swear that from the cradle he sensed his displacement and acted accordingly. Aunt Polly’s most frequent epithet was, “FrankieFrankie…gawddammitFRANKIE!”as he squirmed, flailed, and wriggled out of her grasp. If you were nearby you were usually enlisted to try and wrangle him.

By the time we reached High School I had become adept at pretending that I had no connection to Frankie, and even better, developed “Frankie Radar” which enabled me to always be at the opposite side of any room—or building—or city—from him. My Mom would just shake her head, and tut-tut, “Poor Polly. At least she has Veronica.”

True. I never knew Ronni to be anything but bubbly, happy, and blithely unconcerned with…well, anything. She’d just roll her eyes and with a soft giggle, say, “Frankie…”

I get along with Frankie pretty well now, although this status is aided and abetted by the fact that we rarely see each other more than once a year. I think he’s given up on me ever joining him in his thug-dom, and I actually find him kind of funny in his ridiculous but admirable fearlessness. (Frankie likes to jump out of planes. If god meant me to fly I’d have feathers.) Actually it’s Frankie who taught me all the “Ronni is so dumb” jokes. It’s okay, she laughs at them too. Like being able to decipher hieroglyphics or some other hidden language, she “gets” Frankie like no one else can.

One day Ronni announced that she was getting married. I think Frankie took the news badly. Maybe he thought she wouldn’t be there for him anymore? Maybe he didn’t like her fiancé? I don’t know, I just know he looked grim.

“Wait ‘till you see the dessert…” she warned me about the wedding. I hadn’t been to that many weddings at that point in my life, so I had nothing to compare it to. I just expected to be given a slice of a big white cake to take home in a little waxed paper bag imprinted with wedding bells and the names “Veronica & Carl.”

What I got was a “pie bar.” This was Ronni’s proud invention. You lined up, took a plate, and a man in a chef’s hat filled a little pie shell with whatever you wanted. They had hot apples, fresh berries, chocolate Bavarian, ice cream, lemon curd, meringue, and a bunch of other stuff.

As Ronni walked around to each table, she glowed with pride as her guests congratulated her. I think she was glowing more about the little pies than about anything else.

Even Frankie was his old self that day. He said, “I love you, Sis,” and as he went to hug her he tilted his pie plate and slipped a scoop of vanilla ice cream down the back of her dress.

As she let out a loud, “Hooooahhhh!” I heard my Aunt Polly yell, “AwwwwgawdammitFrankie!”


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