Tom Burns: Uncle’s special gift came from the heart - The Buffalo News

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Tom Burns: Uncle’s special gift came from the heart

My father grew up in Hornell. As kids we would pile into the family car a couple of times a year, four or five of us in the back seat, and make the trek through the Southern Tier to visit his relatives who still lived in that little town.

For some of my father’s relatives I remember only names, like aunts Bett and Molly. But my entire family remembers Aunt T and Uncle Clare.

Aunt T’s given name was Matilda. Nobody called her that. Occasionally someone would call her Til, but it was almost always T.

I’m certain hearing “Hornell” brings back fond memories for my brothers and sisters. We would pull up to that little white house on Grand Street and be excited to see T and Clare. My father’s father passed away when Dad was 12, and his mother died in the 1960s, so this was the closest thing we had to grandparents on Dad’s side.

The house was a duplex, but T and Clare lived in both sides. Even though it was the ’70s, going to Hornell seemed like stepping back in time. For a long time they didn’t have a telephone. There was no cable TV. There was not much to do for kids, except sit around and listen to my parents catch up with stories, and relive memories.

We would also ask T, a wonderful piano player, to play for us. She was trained at an early age, but her real gift was that she could play anything by ear. Dad once brought a cassette recording of “The Entertainer,” and T nailed it after hearing it just once or twice.

One memory we all have was going to the creek. We would walk through their back yard, past the hanging laundry (there was no dryer) and go through the garage to a small stream. We would try to catch minnows, crayfish, tadpoles and toads to bring back to Buffalo. They didn’t always make the trip.

After our creek adventures, we would attend Saturday afternoon Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church across the street. Aunt T was a devout Catholic. She attended Mass daily. Later in life, after Clare had passed, T would get up and attend the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Ignatius. She had a key to the church, and sometimes she would open it up for the priest. She would then walk across town to another church to attend the 8:30 a.m. Mass, and maybe return to St. Ignatius to catch the 11 a.m. Mass.

Clare wasn’t Catholic, and his marriage to T was his second. I don’t remember details or stories from his first marriage – whether it was a divorce or he was a widower – but I knew that their love story had started later in life, which may be why they had no children.

Although Clare wasn’t Catholic, he would attend Mass with T. One Christmas morning in the late ’70s was no different, until it came time for communion. When T stood up, Clare stood up as well. T, as only she could, told him to sit down. Clare then told her that earlier in the week he had been baptized, made his first reconciliation and on that Christmas Day he was going to make his first communion. Then he said, “Merry Christmas.”

T could barely walk up the aisle that morning. When she got home from church, she called my father to share her emotion-filled story about the most beautiful gift she had ever received.

Uncle Clare passed away in 1986. Aunt T passed away in 2000 at the age of 92. There are many memories of Hornell in our hearts. The piano, the creek, Clare’s recliner and that special gift one Christmas morning.

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