by Maria Lagalante Schulz
I really loved my Uncle Don. He was a hilarious character mostly for reasons thoroughly beyond his control. The way he approached life, the things that delighted him as well as the things that enraged him, always made me laugh.
He liked to ask us, “who’s your favorite uncle?” and my brothers and I would name every other uncle just to bother him. But despite giving him fun nicknames like “Uncle Old” and naming any one but him as our favorite uncle, I think he knew he’d already won. Uncle Don was always ready for a little fun.
When I was a kid, a surprise appearance by my uncle (say, his stopping by for dinner on a weeknight instead of Sunday dinner) would be cause for joy.
Uncle Don would arrive with donuts from the bakery or from Dunkin Donuts. When dinner was over, we would sit with him at the dining room table (and yes, without all of the other relatives there monopolizing the conversation, we had Uncle Don all to ourselves) and listen while we munched on donuts and he told hilarious stories about his workday.
There was the infamous job at B. Altman’s selling shoes in the women’s shoe department. Fighting it out with his co-worker Ceile (who he always referred to as Seal) and dealing with the crazy women who made him bring out 50 pairs of shoes before they realized they didn’t really want shoes, or had asked for the wrong size on all 50 pairs, would leave us in tears.
Our stereo was in the dining room, so we would sit there and eat, laugh, and listen to music or comedy albums. One time, when my brother Jude played Steve Martin’s “The Cruel Shoes” for him on our turntable, I thought my uncle would split his sides because he was laughing so hard. Of course, you couldn’t hear Uncle Don laugh without laughing along too.
“I think I served this customer today!” my uncle said, between fits of laughter.
Uncle Don had a penchant for getting himself into ridiculous situations. There was the time he was driving in the Midtown Tunnel and he saw great big plumes of black smoke rising by the cars around him.
He started to laugh. “I wonder who the poor loser is whose car is on fire,” he said to himself. It took him a minute or two to realize that it was his car.
Then of course there was the time he was walking his friend’s dog in Queens when he saw two men driving by in a car that looked remarkably like his.
“Wow!” Uncle Don said to his friend. “That looks just like my new car.”
“Isn’t that your license plate?” his friend said.
That’s when my uncle realized that he was watching the thieves drive away in his new car.
He somehow made this extremely upsetting event sound hilarious when he told us the story. Although my uncle never hurt a fly, he was so aggravated that someone would steal something that he worked so long and hard for that he started to devise all sorts of plans to catch and punish the thieves.
“What would work great,” my uncle said, “is if the car somehow knew that the thieves weren’t the owners, so the doors and windows would lock, the car would fill up with water and then the thieves would get zapped with a million volts of electricity.”
“But then you wouldn’t have your new car either,” I said.
“True,” my uncle replied. “But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
When I think of my uncle, I think of three things: eating, laughing and dancing. He loved to come over for dinner or go out to a new restaurant. Plus, wherever he was, if there was music, he was dancing. And whenever we were in the same room, we were eventually laughing.
At my wedding reception, my uncle asked me to dance.
“You know I’m no good,” I said to him.
“You’ll be just fine with me,” he replied.
And off we went, dancing to “In the Mood.” I could never dance a real dance before, but with my uncle leading me on the dance floor, I felt light and rhythmic for the first time in my life.
Over the years, my husband and I enjoyed taking Uncle Don to any new restaurant we could find. We had him over with my parents and cousin Lorraine for the first dinner party we ever threw, and he raved over the crab-stuffed sole and the lemon meringue pie (my uncle’s favorite) we served that night.
Later, we would take my uncle out for dinner at a nearby Greek restaurant that we loved, and my uncle would feast on stuffed grape leaves and moussaka. My uncle was the skinniest foodie I ever met.
When I was a kid, we watched shows like “That’s Hollywood,” the glamorous show that highlighted movie clips from movies like “Singing in the Rain,” “Casablanca,” and anything with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in it.
So, with my uncle’s love of dancing and my love for the hilarious spectacle, it was only a matter of time before we found something that satisfied us both: Dancing With the Stars.
Yes, the show ranks high on the cheese-o-meter. Yes, its definition of “celebrity” is somewhat elastic, and since I never know exactly who most of these “celebrities” are without doing extensive research on them, I find some of the show’s choices astounding. Yes, it’s over the top in almost every way.
You know what? I don’t care. It’s fun, the judges are a hoot, and the dancers are always amusing—whether they’re great, or even better, if they are not.
When the show debuted in the summer of 2005, I missed it entirely. But my Uncle Don was right there, watching it week after week.
“I’m rooting for John O’Hurley,” he said, of the future runner-up. “He’s so much better than that soap opera star.”
His outrage over O’Hurley “getting robbed” when the crown went to the soap opera star at the end of the season was amusing to me. But I still didn’t want to watch it.
Uncle Don couldn’t believe it. “You should’ve seen it,” he said. “He was great! You’ve got to watch the show. You’ll love it.”
“Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t think it would happen. The premise of the show reminded me of the 1970’s classic Battle of the Network Stars. Nothing good ever came out of that show, and I wasn’t sure seeing loads of dubious celebrities dancing the Fox Trot, Waltz and Jive would be much better.
But Uncle Don was persistent, and by September of that year, he had talked me into giving the show a try. I thought it would be as interesting as those PBS dance-shows, where Juliette Prowse and other judges would whisper while severe looking women were whirled and twirled by skinny, intense men.
Boy, was I wrong! There were show-mances, snarky gossip and constant whispers of sex scandals and outrageous behavior from the contestants. The costumes were flashier than a flock of peacocks and left little to the imagination on both the women and the men. The live band could belt out a tune like nobody’s business, or at times, they could destroy a song you used to love.
The dancers were mesmerizing to watch either because they were so precise and skillful, or because they were the equivalent of a car wreck. So utterly bad and painful to watch, yet you couldn’t look away.
After Week 1 of the Season 2, my uncle and I started talking about who we were rooting for, and why.
“I like Drew and Cheryl.” I said.
“Me too,” my uncle agreed. “But that Stacy Kiebler is a great dancer.”
“Gary is rooting for Jerry Rice,” I said.
“Oh he’s no good,” my uncle replied. “He won’t go anywhere.”
Of course, he was wrong about that, and I was wrong sometimes too. The show had a perverse side to it otherwise known as a popularity contest. Uncle Don was a great dancer, and he could see who had the goods and who definitely didn’t. He didn’t care if they had a fan base. He just cared about who could dance.
Once we both started watching Dancing with the Stars, my uncle would call me at 10 or 11 at night to talk about the crazy happenings from that night.
Dancing With the Stars became a diversion that brought shared joy into our lives when it wasn’t always fun or easy. It got us talking about something other than my mother’s cancer diagnosis in December of 2005 as we got ready to watch the new season premiering in January.
When my mother landed back in the hospital a few months later, I watched the show in the ER while waiting to be allowed into intensive care to hold my mother’s hand. I knew my husband would be watching at home, and I knew my uncle would call me to talk about it later.
It gave us something to look forward to besides my uncle’s upcoming chemotherapy sessions after his own diagnosis of lung cancer in April of 2006.
“Why can’t George Hamilton dance?” I said during one late night call.
“Why should he be able to dance?” my uncle said. “Everyone who’s older can’t dance.”
“Yeah, but you can,” I replied.
“I would win that trophy!” Uncle Don laughed his great booming laugh. He was probably right.
“Did you see Jerry Rice? He should’ve never beat out Stacy Kiebler for the finals.”
As my uncle’s cancer progressed and the treatments became more and more aggressive, he lost his appetite and he dropped weight like crazy. My foodie uncle still loved going out to restaurants, but he did a lot of talking, laughing, and making believe he was eating, instead of actually eating.
But luckily, we still had Dancing With the Stars to distract us.
Season 3 ended on November 15, 2006 and the next day, I was visiting my uncle in the hospital and we talked about the finale. it was great to see him animated and excited about something.
“Mario Lopez is great,” my uncle said, “but that Emmit Smith sure can move! You’d never expect such a big man to be so graceful.”
He was excited when I told him about my latest gift from Gary.
“He got us tickets to see Dancing With the Stars Live at Nassau Coliseum!” I said.
“Oh,” my uncle said. “Maybe I can go with you.”
“Sure,” I said. “That would be great.”
Of course, it would have been great…but my uncle passed away on November 29th, 2006.
I think of him every time I watch our favorite show. I wished I could have called him when Marie Osmond fainted, or heard his gales of laughter from when we talked about Master P’s horrendous Paso Doble. He would have thought Cloris Leachman was a scream, and that Florence Henderson deserved to be on the show longer since she could actually dance. I’m sure we’d still be laughing about Bristol Palin’s last dance, monkey suit and all.
This week, while I’m watching Dancing With the Stars, I’ll imagine my uncle sitting right there with my family and me, munching on donuts, and laughing. Always laughing.
Here are a few recipes for some of Uncle Don’s favorites.
Lemon Meringue Pie
Stuffed Lemon Sole
And here’s an extra treat for all of you Steve Martin fans out there (it will give you a glimpse into my uncle’s tortured retail experience):
Have a fun story about a beloved aunt or uncle you want to share? How about their favorite recipe? Post one here and let all of the other Hungry Lifers in on the fun.