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by Fred Vogel
Anthony and Vera Russo had flown in from Los Angeles to attend the annual Russo Fourth of July reunion, an event now celebrating its twentieth year. They grabbed a cab at JFK and headed east to Old Westbury.
They were greeted at the front door of the ranch-style home by Anthony's mother, Sofia, his sister, Alice, along with Don Corleone, the arthritic terrier who somehow continued to fight on despite being a medical disaster.
“Where’s dad?” Anthony asked.
“Taking a nap,” Sofia said.
“He likes his nap time."
“How ‘bout you, big fella?” Anthony said, turning his attention to Don Corleone. "You need a nap?"
Don Corleone wagged its tail and looked up at Anthony through sad, watery eyes but didn't feel the need to respond.
For dinner, Sofia and Alice made peppers and sausages, with a minor assist from Vera, who was more adept at choosing the right wine than she was with any culinary skills. Also arriving were Anthony’s younger brother, Michael, and his partner, Kevin, who had driven out from the city, where they owned a pastry shop. They had been together for three years, much to the chagrin of the father, James.
“At least they'll bring cannoli,” James would have remind himself.
Everyone agreed the meal was wonderful and the wine Vera had selected from James’ humble cellar was the perfect choice. After cannoli and coffee, Anthony and Vera excused themselves and went to Anthony's old bedroom where they proceeded to make love for a good two minutes before Anthony prematurely flopped onto to his back, citing jet lag and major heartburn.
No visit home was complete without a pilgrimage to the cemetery to pay respects to the dearly departed. The following morning Anthony, Alice, and Michael drove out to visit grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, along with a handful of distant cousins.
After stops at the deli, the liquor store, the beer store, and the bakery, the trio were greeted back at the house by the raised voices of James and Kevin, embroiled in a heated discussion over gay rights and the Catholic Church.
“Perfect. Just perfect,” a frustrated Michael said, carrying an armload of groceries through the living room and into the kitchen.
Anthony and Alice followed, without comment.
“Who’s ready for lunch?” Sofia said, sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette.
“I’m starving,” Anthony said. “I thought you quit.”
“A million times," Sofia said. "I’ll make up a platter.”
“Let me help,” Vera volunteered, surmising a platter shouldn't require much skill.
The rest of the afternoon was spent by the swimming pool with Anthony trying to coax Don Corleone into the water and the terrier wanted nothing to do with it. You don’t get to be my age by being stupid, Don Corleone barked out.
The big day arrived with a steady stream of relatives, ex-relatives, and old friends, parading through the front door, toting casseroles, platters, and desserts. The Fourth had always proven to be an exhausting day for Sofia and James. They enjoyed getting everyone together, but once a year was more than enough. The food prep, the conversations, the political and religious debates, the grudges simmering just under the surface, all took their toll. Twenty-seven personalities, some larger than others, all expected to remain civil. Twenty-seven worlds attempting not to collide.
Everyone noshed, chatted, and drank Margaritas. The youngsters avoided the soaring heat by playing Marco Polo in the pool, while the adults gathered in the living room or escaped to the air-conditioned den to watch the Mets game.
While Sofia and the other ladies concocted a half-dozen side dishes, James began his meticulous preparations for the evening’s main event of burgers, kielbasa, chicken wings, and corn on the cob. James took great pride in his spatula skills and wore his King of the Grill apron like a crown.
Except for Uncle Sal getting into a heated exchange over climate change with his “know-it-all son, the scientist", the day was deemed a rousing success. When the last goodbyes were said and the final dishes dried, Sofia plopped onto the rattan sofa in the lanai and lit a cigarette.
“Well,” Sofia said, taking Vera's hand. “We made it through another year.”
“I don’t know how you do it, Sofia.”
“It’s all about family, you know.” Vera said, failing in her attempts to blow a smoke ring.
Anthony wandered into the backyard and was watching the blinking lights of an overhead jetliner when he saw his father lying face down near his sacred grill.
“Call 911!” Anthony yelled out.
“What on earth?” Sofia said.
After two hours in the ER, James was released after the heat stroke abated. Five stitches above his right eye, along with numerous bruises, were the reminders of the evening’s scare.
Next year’s reunion will be different, of course, just as each year brings its fair share of changes. Two of this year’s attendees will have found new homes at the cemetery, as will have Don Corleone. Michael and Kevin will be married, with the blessings of the slowly-evolving James. And Anthony and Vera will be showing off the newest addition to the family's Fourth of July reunion, young grill master-in-waiting, James Michael Russo.
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