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The good old days

My sainted Aunt Millie used to say that everything repeats itself. At the time I first heard her say it, I was 12 years old and had just burped at the dinner table. It was a little play on words by Aunt Millie, whose wit might not have been confused with Shakespeare, but hey, she gave it a shot.

Aunt Millie used to have more sayings than Ben Franklin. "What goes up must come down" was another one — a commentary, no doubt, about her reflections on Newtonian laws of physics. You didn’t dare stumble around Aunt Millie without her commenting, "Did you enjoy the trip?"

Come to think of it, her entire family seemed as if it stepped from a vaudeville stage. At holiday dinners, you got caught in a crossfire of one-liners that would have done George Burns and Henny Youngman proud. When Aunt Millie and her family really got going, you felt as if you were at a reunion of old burlesque comics. No joke was too old or too obvious that it wouldn’t be used in their efforts of one-upmanship.

Aunt Millie was not above a bit of larceny. One time on the boardwalk, my little sister was admiring a pair of kids’ sunglasses that my mom thought were too expensive. After we walked away, Aunt Millie suddenly slipped the sunglasses out of her handbag and gave them to me. When Mom protested, Aunt Millie sounded as if she had just done her civic duty by pilfering the sunglasses. "They’ve got a lot of nerve charging that much for children’s sunglasses," she said with high indignation. Aunt Millie did not look like Errol Flynn, but she had a bit of Robin Hood in her.

My aunt also was known for being frugal. Once when the doctor prescribed cod liver oil for her daughter’s ailment, Aunt Millie felt it was awfully wasteful to buy a whole bottle for just one dosage. So after using it, she merely put the cap back on and returned the cod liver oil to the pharmacist, telling him she had purchased the wrong thing.

Aunt Millie was great at returning things. If you ever got a gift that you didn’t like, you just gave it to Aunt Millie and she returned it to Lit Brothers. It didn’t matter where or when the item was purchased; Aunt Millie was always accommodated at Lit Brothers and refunded the full purchase price. Sometimes she got back more than you paid for the item. I was not surprised when Lit Brothers finally shut its doors, but Aunt Millie was extremely disappointed. It took her a full six months before she was back in the "exchange program," this time at Strawbridge’s.

Aunt Millie also had this theory that the more food you put on the table, the more everyone ate. And of course, the more food that was eaten, the more it cost, and the fatter the family. Aunt Millie had a solution that was unheard of in the kitchens of most Italian cooks: She put out less food. You never went away from her kitchen table with a bloated feeling. When we used to visit her and Uncle Nunzi at the Shore, my folks would bring her a nice-sized roast so there’d be enough food for all of us. But Aunt Millie would serve only half of the portion, and the rest went back in the freezer for another meal.

No one could slice Italian bread any thinner than my Aunt Millie. All during dinner, if you wanted more bread, you had to ask Aunt Millie. She kept the loaf near her and sliced it as needed. My father gave Aunt Millie the nickname "Seven Loaves and Seven Fishes."

Yet if you really needed help of any kind, Aunt Millie was always there for you. Her thriftiness really was never anything more than a quirk left over from the Depression years, when she had come of age. No illness ever dampened her enthusiasm for life. "I’m afraid I’ll live" was what she’d say if you inquired about her health.

And she didn’t mind laughing at herself. She had a terrible time pronouncing certain words and names. "Villain" became "villian." "Pregnant" was "pregrant." She’d look at us with a grin on her face after butchering a word, and that was enough for all of us to wind up laughing hysterically, Aunt Millie included.

Uncle Nunzi was pretty much content to stay in the background — offstage as it were — while Aunt Millie took the spotlight. He knew he was George Burns to Aunt’s Gracie Allen. He’d chew on his stogie and roll his eyes as Aunt Millie would explain how she charged a visiting priest $1.25 to use the outside shower at their Shore house.

"We had fun in our day," Aunt Millie would always say. "They were the good old days."

They certainly were.

Tom Cardella can be heard before and after the Eagles-Cardinals game Sunday on 94-FM WYSP.

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