Monday Nights growing up in my house were fairly ritualistic. We almost always had meat loaf, and my dad would go to the bank. Dad worked in New York City, so banking during the day wasn’t an option for him. His bank, HUB in Cliffside Park, was open on Monday nights, so that is when he did his weekly deposits and other important financial business.

We usually had meat loaf because my mom was in a Monday night bowling league over at Feibel’s Bowling in Teaneck. I figure we had meat loaf because it was an easy meal to prepare ahead of time, so that dinner was all set for us when dad got home and she left for an evening of flying pins and no children. I hated meat loaf for the longest time because it meant dinner without mom which always sucked. It’s not that dinner with dad alone was torturous or anything. It’s just that as a little kid life was always better when your mom was around.

After dinner dad would get ready to go to the bank, and he hated going anywhere alone. I mean he really hated it. Every Monday he would ask who wanted to come with him to the bank. Sometimes bribery would be involved, especially in the summer when Ho-Made Ice Cream was open. But tagging along with dad usually had its advantages – you rarely came home empty-handed.

The drive to the bank wasn’t just around the corner. We had several banks in Leonia, but my dad didn’t use them. He grew up in Cliffside Park after coming here from Czechoslovakia when he was four. Perhaps this was the bank his parents used and he felt a sense of loyalty towards it. In any case we made the lengthly trek each week in order to keep the Bucek finances in good order.

Inside, the HUB bank was nice. It had beautiful, high ceilings and an old-fashioned feel to it. While dad waited in line for the next available teller, I would busy myself by filling out withdrawal slips for one zillion dollars, and imagine what it I would do with all of that money if I could ever withdraw it for real. Other times dad would need to visit the safe deposit box. This was a real bonus for me. Some nights dad would hand me some change and let my buy some candy at the corner store across from the bank.

Once the banking was done, more times than not we went visiting. My dad didn’t have any bothers or sisters, but he had tons of Slovak cousins and aunts and uncles who all lived in the same general vicinity in North Jersey. Each Monday we would call on one of them. I never knew who we were going to wind up visiting, but I usually didn’t care. There was something good about every relative we frequented, and I was always served sugary tea with milk and some sort of wonderful Slovak pastry. Sometimes you even came home with a dollar in your pocket courtesy of a generous and doting Aunt.

Aunt Margaret’s home in Cliffside Park, NJ

The two relatives we visited the most were my Aunt Margaret and my Aunt Steffie. Margaret’s house was right in the center of Cliffside Park, and was just around the corner from where they filmed a lot of the young Josh scenes in the movie “Big.” It was a two story house with a big living and dining room on the first floor.

After I had eaten my fill of shishky and tea, I would examine all the little statues and photos that decorated the rooms. It was fun to look at all the pictures of my cousins Carol and Nancy when they were young and image them growing up in this house. I would also spend a portion of every visit staring at the cuckoo clock in the foyer. Every quarter hour a little bird would pop out and chirp, but every hour the real show began. The clock would chime the time with a “cuckoo!” for each hour and then a little door would open and a lederhosen clad man and a Dirndl clad woman would come out and dance to a sweet little tune.

My Aunt Steffie lived in the upstairs portion of a little 2-apartment building in a town called North Bergen. Her husband, my Uncle Frank, was a grumpy man who never seemed to smile. But Aunt Steffie was always smiling. She was short and fat and had a heavy Slovak accent.

We spent every visit in the back of the apartment which held a small kitchen and living room. The front of the apartment that overlooked the street was a bedroom, I think. Once in a while I would venture up there because there was a little table that had a couple of metal antique cars. It was fun to play with them and imagine little stories, but I didn’t get to do that often because Aunt Steffie wanted to visit with me and I guess it was kinda rude to wander off into someone’s bedroom.

Mean little angry dog

Mean little angry dog

The best part of visiting Aunt Steffie was her dog Cocoa. Cocoa was a mean little chiwawa who couldn’t be played with because it had such a nasty disposition. But there was one way to have fun with him. While sitting at Aunt Steffie’s kitchen table eating your cookie and drinking your sweet, hot tea, if you tapped your foot even slightly, Cocoa would run over growling and start to bite your feet! He’d stop as soon as you were still and then trot back to his post where he kept watch for any twitch in your toes. It was fun to torture poor Cocoa throughout the visit with the occasional ankle twist, or until my dad told me to cut it out. Anyway, when you went to Aunt Steffie’s you wanted to make sure you had on heavy shoes.

I miss those nights. My dad made a real effort to keep us connected with our extended family, and I truly appreciate it now. While in reality most of my relatives are distant cousins (with a few great aunts and uncles mixed in), they feel so immediate to me. There are times when I’ve asked the lineage – “how are we related to cousin X?” The answer was usually long and involved at least one Slovak relative I had never met. Hell, I could probably legally marry half my relatives – we are that far removed. But they don’t feel removed…my dad saw to that.

And as for meatloaf? We never eat it. Not because I don’t like it. I’ve grown to appreciate a good meatloaf. But my kids? They hate it just like I did.