On January 23, I received a 13 second voicemail from my uncle Bobby. In typical fashion, it seemed random and his delivery was slightly agitated. Almost like I was in trouble.
“Erin, it’s Bobby. I’m just checking to see how you’re doing in all this snow. I’m in my hotel room watching the weather. You don’t need to call back, honey. Love ya.”
For those who know Bobby, you know that it actually sounded more like this:
“ERIN, IT’S BOBBY!!!! I’m just checkindasee how yah doin’ in all DIS SNO. I’m in my hotel room watchindaWEATHA. You don’t need to call back, hunny. LOVE YA!!!!”
I saved the voicemail. I’ve been replaying it.
Unlike many of his friends and family, I grew up with Bobby but he did not grow up with me. I had a very uncomplicated relationship with him. He never yelled at me (well, never in anger...always when he screamed “Love you!” and yanked me off the floor into a bear hug), he gave me things when I didn’t ask (money, clothes, impossibly good seats at concerts) and let his guard down about the things he held close to his heart. Let me be clear, I was one of MANY nieces and nephews. I was not his child. And now I realize that all these things he did for me, he clearly did for a wide swath of people who I probably don’t even know. Simultaneously, I feel unoriginal and so lucky.
Bobby and my dad met when they were 14 years old, in the summer of 1963. Obviously, I did not know them when they were teenagers but I will state, unequivocally, that they were very different from each other. VERY. And they married sisters. My mom and my aunt, despite being Irish Twins, are pretty far apart on the spectrum of possible human personality types.. So between my mom, my dad, Bobby and Gail, there was a pretty good sampling of the human form. And I benefited from a childhood rich with a Jackson Pollack-like composition of colorful family members - disorganized and chaotic but quite beautiful.
I was in love with my older cousins, Tony and Chris. I remember to this day one time when I wore a pair of brown New Balance sneakers in 1982 and Chris told me they were “cool” or “rad” or whatever was the “awesome” of that year. I was embarrassed to wear them because they were brown and I’m sure my mom bought them on sale because of the color. But she convinced me to wear them and Chris’s comment turned them into ruby slippers in my eyes. Tony organized Michael Jackson dance parties for his little cousins...and I’m a dancer and choreographer….so...well, there’s really not much more to say about that. I had stars in my eyes for them.
But one of the reasons that I spent so much time in Bobby’s home when I was a kid was because he and my aunt Gail had taken my cousin Meaghan into their home and raised her like a daughter. And Meaghan was 10 months older than me. She was like a big sister. And by opening his home to her, Bobby opened up his home to me and my sister Kirsten as well. He had little girls in his business all the time. And I see everyone’s sweet words to Gail, Tony, Chris and Rob. Please don’t forget about Meg - he called her his daughter. He swooped her underneath his wing and never thought twice about it. She has lost the only father she knew.
So we had this older generation - Tony, Chris, Meg, Erin, Kirsten. Tommy was kind of in between generations - completely bewildered by his obligation to kiss and hug his uncle every time he saw him - but that no doubt informed his adult life as he mastered the bear hug and is a close second to Bobby in that department. Then came Gretchen, Rob and Danny. As Gretchen attests, the only person on this planet that she would wear a dress for was Bobby DiGangi. If he brought her to an Italian Restaurant, it was an affair - he made it an event, she willingly wore a dress for him, much to my mother’s dismay. Gretch, Rob and Danny were the next generation -- bonded at their childhood hips. Rob and Danny, younger than their brothers, found best friends in each other. Freddie, Priscilla, Gail and Bobby churned out all kinds of colorful personalities and the relationships between them are strong and unreserved.
Beside my father, Bobby was one of the first men I loved. And I had the invaluable experience of learning that not all men were like my dad:
Bobby dusted (or rather showed his children and nieces and nephews) how, what and where to dust. It was a revelation to me.
Bobby was famous. I mean, he wasn’t famous famous but he was famous. He had so many people coming in and out of his house. I am not Italian but trust me, I know what it means to be Italian from spending so much time with my uncle.
Bobby cried. He cried from happiness far more often than he cried from sadness but I saw him cry.
I remember coming to his house after one of my first summer afternoon dates when I was 14 or 15. I knocked (“always knock”) and gently pushed the door open. I thought Gail or Meaghan or someone would be home but everyone was at the beach.
“Who is it?” his booming voice echoed around the corners from the family room. I had seen other people come in when they were not expected and Bobby had not been in the mood. I was nervous.
“Come in here, sweetie.” Although his tone might as well have been, “come in here, you numbskull.”
I walked in and he was alone, watching an Elvis marathon - a documentary? A biopic? I can’t quite remember. In any case, he was thrilled to be able to share it with me - he had a deep love for Elvis. It blew my mind. My parents never talked about Elvis. A curtain had been raised on a new window in my life. He cried. He said, “can you believe that?” We watched it, just the two of us. And for the past few months, he has been on my mind because I’m choreographing a dance to an Elvis song: “Devil in Disguise.”
Around 1993, Bobby moved a few blocks away from my parents in Stoneham. He offered to drive my sister and me to school every day. The drive to Cambridge was between 40-60 minutes each morning. I have no idea if it was on his way to work - most likely it was not. But it was at a time that he needed to feel connected to family. I’m not sure if he ever asked and I would not be surprised to find out that he just told my parents that he was going to drive us. He took a route through his old neighborhood in Medford and stopped to get coffee each morning, always asking us what we wanted and we always said “nothing” so when he returned to the car, he would have something for us. Those morning drives with Bobby were unforgettable - he had a tiny car (a Ford Escort or something) and his huge frame looked like he was driving a PlaySkool car. He told us stories and listened (and talked back) to talk radio. The walk from his car to the entrance of our private school was an invaluable lesson in transition. There were no Bobby DiGangis at our school, that’s for sure and a quick appreciation and adjustment was necessary before getting swept up into the daily prep school life.
When my husband and I started dating, Bobby was one of the first relatives he met. Chris, my husband, had mentioned that he gave up pork and cheese for lent. So, of course, Bobby was ecstatic and made him sit with him on Easter to split an entire Pizzagaina (basically a ham and cheese easter pie). The enthusiasm he had for meeting new people and eating was epic...I mean, unmatched by anyone I have ever met. And that was Chris’s perfect introduction to Bobby DiGangi. The following year, he asked what our Valentine’s Day plan was and we said, “nothing, yet.” So without asking us, he picked up the phone and called his cousin Frankie who owned a restaurant in the North End of Boston and told him in no uncertain terms that he had to find us a table for Valentine’s Night. I had never met Frankie before but when I showed up, he hugged me and told me my cousin Butchie was down the block and that I should say hi. “My” cousin Butchie was not my cousin. He was Bobby’s cousin. But, again, with these Italians, if you were one of their cousins’ nieces or cousins, you were their family too. We had a lovely dinner, supervised by watchful eyes of “cousins.” My WASPy boyfriend from Texas kept referring to himself as Mickey Blue Eyes (watch the movie with Hugh Grant for reference).
Bobby once interviewed someone for a job over breakfast:
“Erin, as soon as the plate was on the table he put salt and pepper on his eggs.”
“What do you mean, RIGHT?!?!”
“Well, I put salt and pepper on my eggs too.”
“Not before you taste them. You gotta taste ‘em first so then you know how to season ‘em.”
“I couldn’t hire him.”
I have treasured this piece of advice for years and hold it close to my heart. He taught me to look at each plate, each person, each situation as though it was the first time. That they could surprise you.
The last time I saw Bobby was, of course, at Rob’s wedding. He was in a happy stupor, tears in his eyes the whole day. But the last time I spoke to Bobby was the day before the wedding. I had just landed in Tampa with my husband and baby and we arrived at the hotel. I called my sister to find out what room number our hotel suite was and one of the first things she said on the phone was, “Bobby’s here!” When we walked in, Bobby and my brother were deep in a boisterous conversation. Quickly, my 10 month old battled for the spotlight with her family but my husband spoke with Bobby for the next hour - about politics and business (a distinct pleasure exuded from each of those conservatives in a room full of liberals). One of the last things he said to me in that hotel suite was: “Erin, if you ever need anything, I know the Hell’s Angels in Brooklyn.” Typical. Making sure I was taken care of.
My stories are endless.
And let me restate: I am ONE niece. I am not his brother, his son, his daughter, his wife, his friend. He may have not grown up with me but I certainly grew up with him and he helped shape me into the person I am.