My Uncle Junior, born Gerard Rotonda, Jr. was the apple of his father’s eye and he was my mother’s brother….he was actually the fifth child, as Marie was the fourth, Anna was the first and somewhere in between was a set of twins who passed away.
My first recollection of him was he was responsible for picking me up from Jay Street Nursery as my mother, Anna, was working, Grandma Columbia was working in Clark’s Thread Factory, Grandpa was working for Public Service, Aunt Marie was working, my father was in the service, and the War was just ending, so everyone pitched in. I do recall, as young as I was, that I thought the nursery school was wonderful and he used to have to chase me up onto the monkey bars to catch me to take me home. He picked me up on his bike and often would take me to Branch Brook Park to watch the ducks. As I think back, this was a big responsibility for a boy, only 9 years older than me…but he did it and never complained.
Then at four years of age, I entered into Kindergarten at Abington Ave. School. He was just an 8th grader and again he was responsible for taking me to school and bringing me home, and making sure I ate my lunch in the cafeteria. I went to kindergarten all day and went at this young age because the Sibilia and Rotonda Families were well-known to the administration and they knew my father was away in service, so they took me for full day Kindergarten. I hated Kindergarten and cried all the time….the Principal kept calling Junior downstairs to make me stop crying….the other kids bullied me and I was afraid as I was younger. One day as we came home and I was crying….he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck on my dress, put his face up against mine and said, “You stop crying and fight back or you will never grow up and make it in this world”….such wisdom for a 13 year old….I did and I listened to him as he was bigger than me, and was smart!! So I was in Kindergarten for two years until I turned 6 years of age and survived with his words ringing in my ears.
My summer going into first grade, I spent living with my Aunt Minnie and Uncle Joe out in Jamaica, LI, as my mother was ill and could not take care of me. When I came home, Uncle Junior declared, “You are going to learn how to ride a two wheeler”….OMG….He made me get on the bike, would run with me, holding the back of the seat until I either crashed into the trees at the curb, or the garbage cans on the sidewalk, and he kept saying, “look ahead, don’t look at the wheels” and finally I listened and, he let me go. I felt like I was flying on the two wheeler Schwinn Bike…my mother’s with the fat and white-wall tires. To this day, every day that I get on my bike, I think of how he taught me how to ride.
When my father came home from service, we continued to live upstairs from my Grandparents, Aunt Marie and Uncle Junior. No one had a car, we either walked, rode a bike, took a bus or a trolley from 6th St. Station. Finally in 1951, my father bought a car and we all traveled to Seaside Heights….for a couple of weeks or sometimes just for the day. Uncle Junior was always with us, always spent time with his family, his sisters and was a typical teenager.
Going to the beach, riding in a car, going on the boardwalk, winning stuffed dolls for me always brought giggles and laughter to my heart because Uncle Junior was always there to hold my hand, win the stuffed animals and make me feel safe.
Then he started to date, dressing up to go out, same with my Aunt Marie….they were so grown up….it was fun to watch. His friends would come over to hang out and I was always in the middle as he continued to be responsible for me with my father working nights and my mother working days. Even though I was just a kid, I was tolerated by his friends.
We subsequently moved to the suburbs and those days of supervision changed as I now became the one to supervise my younger sister, but we gathered in Newark for New Year’s, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter; and Uncle Junior was always there.
As I moved through High School and started dating, I still remembered what he had said to me, “Fight back or you will never make it in this world”….as a result, I went through a lot of ‘boyfriends’ in high school! During my Senior Year, I waschairman of the Prom and I didn’t have a date….as that time, you didn’t go to the Prom in groups and I was between boyfriends. I remember my mother crying to my Uncle that I was going to miss going to the Prom…so what did he do…he offered to go with me…..so I wouldn’t miss it…can you imagine…..? In the end, I met a guy from Bloomfield, Don S, who became my first true love, and he took me to the Prom….Uncle Junior was so happy for me and happy for himself that he did not have to rent a tux and mingle with a bunch of high school kids….but that was the kind of person he was.
While I was in high school he had gone into the Army as the draft was in existence, and while he was there, I sent him cookies, sent him paperback books and as I learned recently, so did my Cousin, Sarah. While he was overseas he visited our family on my Grandfather’s side in Avellino, Italy and had a great time connecting. This photo is from 1956 in Italy and appears now on an Italian cookbook that my Aunt Dr. Anna Marie Rotonda, his wife had edited.
He came out of the Army and was in the reserves and then was called up again for the Hungarian conflict. So once again, while he was overseas, I sent him books, cookies and treats to him and his fellow soldiers and wrote long letters.
My last story was from the summer of 1967, I was at Syracuse University as a fulltime graduate student and he had just joined the Newark Fire Dept. I recall all our conversations on the phone as this was the summer of the Newark Riots and I worried about him so we would be on the phone at least weekly….I still remember him telling me, “It is not the fires I am worried about, it is about the people shooting us with guns while we are on the Fire Truck”. He served in the Newark Fire Dept. for 30 years.
He was like a brother to me and he always felt responsible for me up until the last time I saw him when I was in NJ….because of his illnesses, I felt as if the roles had reversed.
He always liked a good time, loved his Motor Cycle Group, the Blue Knights, in NJ and in FL, married a wonderful woman, who lived across the street, my Aunt Anna Marie and went on to have five children and lots of grandchildren.
He lived a good life, worked hard for it and my sadness is that he died alone as my Aunt had passed almost 5 years ago. Due to his contagious disease, Coronavirus, he was only able to Facetime with his children the day before he passed away. He is now at peace and has joined his Wife, Anna Marie, Mother and Father, Aunt Marie, my mother, Anna and all the Great Aunts and Uncles and Grandparents that passed on before him. We were all so very fortunate to have had him in our lives and I especially was the ‘winner’ of his time, his kindness and all the lessons he taught me.