A bittersweet story.
It’s true: I have a nightshirt with a Flying M logo on it. But there’s a story behind it and I thought I’d take a moment to tell it.
It all started back when I made a visit to my family back in New Jersey. It had to be in the early 2000s, but certainly after I got my first helicopter, an R22. This was back in the days when my mother’s brother’s family was still on good terms with all of us. It may have been when my grandmother was still alive or not long after her death in 2001 or 2002. (I don’t remember death dates; I see no reason to.)
My Uncle Frankie and Aunt Julie lived in Bergenfield, NJ in a typical suburban home on a narrow street. My uncle, who had been in the army during the Korean War, based in Alaska, had worked in a print shop before getting certified as a 100% disabled vet due to a back injury he’d suffered while in the Army. His wife was a typical old-school Italian homemaker. In fact, their household was very Italian in the New York kind of way, despite the fact their families had been in America since at least the 1920s.
They had two kids, Ernest (named after my grandfather) and Madelyn (named after my mother), who were a little younger than me and my sister. Ernest had been in the Marines right out of high school, married someone he’d met when he was in boot camp, had two sons, got divorced, left in the middle of his second tour of duty, and promptly got into serious trouble with the law. Madelyn married and had two daughters.
My Aunt Julie and her daughter Madelyn never really liked me or my sister. Simply said, our grandmother favored us over my aunt’s kids and she did a pretty poor job hiding it. I’m sure everyone has family dynamics like this and they always cause jealousies. My aunt and cousin were jealous of us and there was nothing we could do to head it off. They manifested their jealousies by talking down to us, criticizing us, and ridiculing us whenever they could. We dealt with it. They were family and although we didn’t like it much, we let it slide like water off a duck’s back.
We — I think I can speak for my sister, too — really loved our uncle, who was loud and outrageous and a lot of fun. I remember him staging a mock fight with my cousin Ernest on a visit I made with my first boyfriend back when I was about 18. Ernest had gone down into the basement and my uncle was yelling at him from the door in the kitchen at the top of the stairs. Then he pulled out a gun and fired a round down the stairs. It really freaked out my boyfriend, but the rest of us just laughed and laughed. The gun was filled with blanks.
But because of the friction from my aunt — which got worse and worse as time went on — I didn’t visit often.
We did visit one day in 2001 or 2002 and sat around the kitchen table for a nice Italian meal. My aunt was a good cook, although in later years she was a bit heavy on the spices. (The Italian word agita comes to mind.) She made a great eggplant parmesan, which might be one of the reasons it’s my favorite Italian dish. Making a good Italian eggplant parmesan is a lot of work, but if you want to taste one that’s just like my aunt’s (or mine), try Michael Angelo’s in the supermarket freezer section. I’ve tried a lot of eggplant and this is, by far, the best.)
I was likely wearing one of the Flying M logo shirts I’d had made. The logo was designed by Gary-Paul Prince, based on a idea my wasband had come up with that incorporated my first initial in the design of a helicopter. Gary-Paul had managed to get both initials in. Back in those days, I was near the height of my writing career and had a lot of money to burn so I’d had the logo embroidered on a bunch of henley t-shirts, which I really liked to wear. My uncle liked the shirt and asked me for one.
Now at the time, my uncle probably weighed in at 350 pounds — at least. I obviously didn’t have a shirt at home that would fit him. So I told him I’d have one made and send it to him.
I got back to Arizona (where I lived at the time) and had another batch of shirts made. I made sure the embroidery people included one sized 3XL, which I was pretty sure would fit my uncle. After a week or two, I picked up the shirts, which came in a plastic shopping bag. I likely set it down near the door to my home and it likely sat there for a few weeks — I’m terrible about putting things away.
And then I forgot about them. For years.
You see, back then I had a cleaning lady who came every two weeks. She had apparently seen the bag near the door and decided it was better off about six feet north, on the other side of the door to the garage. She’d moved the bag into the garage where it was quickly hidden under other things that wound up in the garage. Out of sight, out of mind. I completely forgot about the shirts.
Time went on. My uncle died. I went to his funeral. It was the last time I saw my aunt and cousins. My aunt died a year or two later but I didn’t go to her funeral. I don’t think she would have wanted to see me anyway. I think my sister has been in touch with Ernest, but I haven’t communicated with either of my cousins since my aunt died.
One day I was looking through a pile of stuff in the garage and came across a grocery bag with its handles tied tightly around something soft. I opened it up and found the shirts — including the gigantic heather gray one I’d had made for my uncle. I knew immediately what had happened.
I don’t throw away anything that has a use. Since I didn’t know any 3XL sized people, I decided to put the shirt into use as a nightshirt. It was comfortable and soft and very loose fitting.
And it’s still in my nightshirt rotation to this day.
The fabric is thinning and it isn’t quite as soft after so many trips through the laundry. The embroidered logo is puckered and there are tiny holes starting to form here and there in the cotton t-shirt fabric. I suspect that one of these days, I’ll have to throw it away.
But until then, it’s a reminder of my Uncle Frankie and some crazy good old days with family in New Jersey.