On April 9, 1891, my Nano (Luigi Billuni) was born in San Biagio Platani, a small village in the province of Agrigento, Sicily, where our last name was spelled Bellone, but it got changed somewhere along the line. Luigi came to the United States in 1912 and worked in the coalmines of Pennsylvania. He married Rosaria (My Nana) in 1922, and my dad, Simone (Sam) was born in Pennsylvania in 1924.
The family moved from Pennsylvania to Cleveland, Ohio. During prohibition, in Cleveland, Luigi was known to brew a little homemade liquor in a still he kept in the attic of the house. One day, when the still was accidentally left unattended, it exploded and burned down the house. In later years, he enjoyed fermenting his own homemade wine, which he always had on hand to serve to family and guests. On a trip Terrie and I made in 1999, we visited two of Luigi’s other grandsons, Louie and Tony. They had discovered a bottle of the homemade brew under the house after Luigi passed away. We decided to open it and drink a toast to him. Unfortunately, the wine had not aged well and tasted more like a thick cough syrup than it did Nano’s “dago red.”
Known as Louie to his family and friends, he was a short, powerful man, quiet and known by all to be the most honest person in the family. My dad always told us the “family story” about a certain “paisan” who accused Luigi of cheating at cards, and Luigi picked up that unfortunate by the seat of his pants and threw him down a flight of stairs.
The Billuni clan moved to Detroit, Michigan and lived there during the late 1930’s until the 1960’s. Luigi worked for many years in Detroit’s Budd Wheel factory, lifting heavy truck wheels, which gave him his powerful build. Later, in his retirement years, he enjoyed planting and cultivating vegetable gardens and beating the pants off his grandsons in card games and checkers. He never, never “let” them win, which is a Billuni family tradition passed down from father to son.
Nano and Nana would come to visit us when we lived on Lenrey Ave in El Centro. I remember the fun we had going to Disneyland when it first opened in 1955, and Nano would always plant a garden in our backyard. Lenrey was at the west end of town in the ‘50s, and was very near alfalfa and lettuce fields. One day, Nano visited a lettuce field that was being plowed under after harvest, and he returned home laden with heads of lettuce he’d salvaged before the tractor turned them under. Besides gardening, he loved to fish. See the huge white sea bass he caught on a fishing trip to San Felipe. We two grandsons can barely lift it.
Nano passed away in 1967 at the age of 76. I’d still like to be able to sit down with him and get whipped at the Italian card games of “Scopa” and “Briscola” that he taught my brother Rick and me.