Antonio Barbagallo: A Teller of Tales

My Uncle Tony insisted that he came to America on a banana boat. I never quite understood what that meant or if it was even politically correct, but I knew it couldn’t be true. Anyway, I looked it up. Apparently, a banana boat was a nickname given to ships involved in the banana trade, designed to transport easily-spoiled bananas rapidly from the tropics. In addition to fruit, sometimes they carried people. Also (and to my surprise), it’s a perfectly non-derogatory term. So maybe it’s true. For all I know, my Uncle Tony was packed between crates of over ripened produce on his maiden voyage to America. And if it is true, I don’t think he would have minded. He liked fruit.

My Uncle Tony never lost his Italian accent. Sometimes I wondered if he went out of his way to preserve it or even if he was playing an elaborate joke on all of us. It’s entirely plausible that my Uncle Tony had a finely polished English accent (with perfect enunciation), but chose to mess with us for five decades saying, “ahhmma-noshuure” instead of “I’m not sure,” “ees-a-alrye” instead of “It’s alright,” “hows-a-you?” instead of “How are you?” To add to suspicion, the accent seemed to get thicker with time. Even after half-a-century of exposure to the American dialect, my Uncle Tony sounded like he just stepped off the boat…a banana boat, I guess.

My Uncle Tony told me that he left a goat farm in Italy. It wasn’t so much that he left the goat farm under someone else’s supervision, but rather, he left the farm and the goats to fend for themselves. It was implied that both the farm and the goats were eagerly awaiting his return, and that he would tend to them when (and if) he ever felt like it. I’m not sure whatever happened with that.

My Uncle Tony liked pasta, but not just any pasta. Apparently, the best pasta is the kind found on top of a heaping mound of pasta. I never really understood what was so special about those top strands. Maybe the increased air exposure allowed faster cooling, yielding a more al dente pasta. Or maybe it was an aesthetic thing, of course taking from the top preserves the structural integrity, making for a nicer presentation. Or perhaps it was for absolutely no reason at all, except to arouse curiosity. I’d like to think it was the latter.

My Uncle Tony taught me how to make tomato sauce. I’m not sure if there was a non-disclosure agreement, but I’d like to share it with you. It’s not because I want you to have it, but because I could never seem to get it right on my own, so I could use some second opinions. Olive oil, garlic, onion, fresh cut tomatoes, basil, (here’s where it gets tricky) canned pasta sauce, water, salt/pepper, and let simmer. His sauce always tasted extraordinary, mine just tastes ordinary. I wish I could have had one more lesson on that.

My Uncle Tony enjoyed the simple things in life, like suspenders and vegetable gardens and hardware stores and McDonald’s coffee. I’m pretty sure he liked me too, I’m pretty simple. He definitely liked my grandfather, he’s really simple.

Greetings were always important to my Uncle Tony so when I saw him last week I wasn’t really sure what to do, but I’m sure I did it wrong. He asked me “hows-a-you?” and how my trip into town was, what route did I take, how my family was doing. I told him I was sorry to hear he was sick. “ees-a-alrye” he said “whenny godda-go, ye-godda-go,” waving his hands side to side. He told me I could have his undershirts.

Goodbyes are always hard, but much harder between friends. I sometimes referred to my Uncle Tony as my paisan (or “friend” in Italian). Like, “Hey paisan how’s it goin’” He always returned the greeting. Goodbyes are always hard, but much harder between paisans. I’m sad to see him go but I’m grateful for his friendship.

So here’s to tall tales and those who tell them, fabled or otherwise. In the end, the characters are always more important than the stories themselves. So long old friend, maybe now you’ll finally get around to those goats.


Featured image by Lewis Hine

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