A phone call from my sister Francesca is always like a summons even the ring has an imperious quality.
"You have to be there," she said. I knew exactly how her mouth would look as she said this, like a nun's mouth, all pruney and prissy. The mouth of a woman who still keeps a stack of gilt-edged holy cards, earned by grade school good behavior, in the back of her bureau drawer.
"I can make up an excuse."
"His last birthday you said you had chicken pox. You had chicken pox twice as a kid."
"Like he's going to remember."
"He's seventy-one. How many more years do you think we're going to have him?"
How many, I wondered. How damn many. People like my father were capable of living to ninety-six out of sheer spite.
It was a Monday morning in late July, and I was standing in my shop, going through a new consignment. While Francesca went on about the details, I inspected a 1941 French blue twill jacket with sixteen covered buttons down the front. I wanted it for myself, but suspected it would look better on my sister Cynthia. Cynthia was as different from Francesca as I was from both of them, and the thought of what she would say about Francesca's scheme cheered me as I listened to Francesca debate menu, guest list, and whether or not to set up a tent in the backyard. I am woefully undomestic, while Francesca can spend twenty minutes comparing the merits of competing brands of vacuum cleaner bags.
This party was not a family tradition, but part of the clumsy process of consoling my father for my mother's death two summers ago. Before, we'd never made much fuss over my father's birthday. He was the sort of man who discouraged fuss. And after all, people on his side of the family lived to a ripe old age, driving their nearest and dearest crazy and finally dying peacefully in their sleep.
You wouldn't have thought my father needed much consoling. Our parents' marriage had not been a happy one. My generation may be marked by the common observation that all our parents loved each other once a brief shining moment over long before our memories started, like the Kennedy administration. But no one can ever understand what holds a marriage together. And of course, for American Catholics who married in the 1950s, divorce was a tragedy. It was an end to your standing in the church, a disgrace to your family. In the parish where I grew up, wife beating and child abuse were not unknown, nor was the sort of "benign" repressed homosexuality of the gym-teacher and choir-director variety. But it was the few divorces that elicited the most shocked whispers. And my mother and father felt it as a personal betrayal when Jackie Kennedy married a divorced man.
My parents had shared some variety of affection, but it was so far from what I wanted or hoped for that I didn't dare to contemplate it. Simply said, my mother's death had been an awful shock to my father's system. Ever since, he had been dwelling on his own inevitable demise. He would sigh an exaggerated southern Italian sigh, and hope we'd pray for him after he was gone. He'd wonder out loud if he'd be permitted into heaven, given that three of his children, myself included, had fallen away from the church.
He visited my mother's grave every Sunday afternoon to complain about us. No effort at sympathy or affection got through in fact, he gave the impression that he'd been saddled with us by my mother, although all his children were independent and he rattled around his big square brick house in the Maryland suburbs like a pea in a tin can. My brothers Dom and Joey and my sister Annette paid weekly visits of homage. Francesca stopped by every few days in her role of Devoted Catholic Daughter. I went only when cajoled by my brothers or bullied by my older sister.
A party, Francesca had decided in her numskulled way, was just the thing to cheer my father up. I knew how she'd go about this. She'd get on the phone to all his paesan buddies, his old clients (my father was a retired, never-very-successful real estate agent), and several widows with whom he played cards. She'd bully him into purchasing a new shirt. She'd cook four huge pans of manicotti. And she'd extract a hundred-dollar contribution from each of us for this extravaganza. It was a contribution I could ill afford, since my business, a used clothing shop called the Second Time Around an unimaginative name given it by my predecessor was on its last legs.
Pleasing my father was easy for Francesca. She was married to a pillar of her parish and had three strapping boys my father adored. I was my father's least favorite daughter, and he was a man who should have had only sons. I was like my mother's side of the family: pale, quiet, slow to anger. My father was a fine father for his robust, contentious children, and uncomfortable in the same room with me.
"Just what I need, Francesca, a family occasion to dread."
"How can you talk that way about your own relatives?" said Francesca.
Because they exhaust me, I wanted to tell her. Because after a few hours this Campanella family gathering would feel like a siege in its tenth month. I didn't say this to my sister, of course. She had never encouraged the exchange of sisterly confidences. All I knew about her was what she showed the world: a good Catholic wife and mother, who worked in a doctor's office four days a week.
"I'll bring a salad," I said, "but I'm not coming early."
"Did I ask you? You're useless in the kitchen anyway."
I'm all right in other rooms of the house, I thought but didn't say. In our whole lives Francesca and I had never once talked about sex.
Now she said, "Dad told you to buy him something practical for a change."
"Nothing I get him makes him happy. I could show up with a piece of the True Cross and he'd fuss about it."
She sighed, the annoyed little sigh she'd been emitting around me ever since I could remember.
"Just be there, okay? Bring what's-his-name. I'll call you with more details."
She rang off, and I stood for a moment trying to regain my equilibrium. The place was empty, as it was nearly every weekday morning. I'd bought the Second Time Around nearly a year before, and wasn't making much of a go of it. Faithful old customers and lovers of vintage clothes still wandered in, regulars from the woman who had owned the shop before me, but you couldn't build a business on those few stalwarts.
Summer had come to complete the slump. The heat drained people of the desire to do anything but get out of town. Today was the sort of glaring summer day that reminded you that the city of Washington was built on a swamp and used to be considered a hardship assignment by foreign diplomats. The sun came white through the windows and a siren whined in the distance. Another hot one, the announcer on the classical music station said, then fell silent in favor of three Chopin preludes.
When the last note had faded into the still air, I called Philip, who was, technically speaking, my fiancé. In other words, the matter had been mentioned, but there has never been a slower amble to the altar.
"Francesca's organizing this big party," I said. "My father's birthday."
"That's nice of her."
"No, it's not. It's just another club to beat me with. Francesca lives for that."
"She cares about your dad, that's all."
At least she cares, I could hear him finish silently. Philip has always been shocked by my dearth of appropriate family feeling. I could picture him at his desk at Anthony, Truitt, Marlow and Strouse, wearing one of his excellent suits (light gray gabardine), making his steady way through a stack of papers, examining them through the tortoiseshell glasses that made him look like Clark Kent.
Philip was good at his job. His clients thought of him as priest, psychiatrist, and white knight rolled into one. They called him at all hours. They valued his opinion. They felt that if Philip believed in their essential innocence, the forces of outraged justice (usually in the shape of the IRS) would understand, too.
"Remind me of the date," said Philip. He was hoping against hope he'd have an ironclad engagement. Philip seemed unnerved by my family and treated them with a gingerly politeness that they made fun of behind his back.
"You're not getting out of this," I said.
"Just tell me the date."
"Will Cynthia be there?"
My sister Cynthia and Philip didn't get along. He disapproved of her career choices.
Cynthia had left home for New York at seventeen to become a serious stage actress. Three years of waitressing and roles in student films, off-off-off Broadway plays, and B movies followed. In one movie she played a space alien. In another, called Love Crazy, she was knifed in a shower before the opening credits.
It was in Love Crazy that she caught the eye of a photographer for Purrr magazine. Six months later she was voted Kitten of the Year. She was one of the most popular centerfolds in the history of the magazine. She guested on radio programs where the prize for the lucky caller was a date with her. She flew around the country attending auto shows and charity softball games. The magazine put her on retainer and supplied her with a closetful of flashy evening gowns. Every time she spent a day signing autographs or had her picture taken with storm-window magnates at the storm-window company convention, they paid her an extra one hundred fifty dollars.
She'd said good-bye to all that when she got a lucrative contract as the RosePetal's catalog girl. RosePetal's was one of the most successful purveyors of sensuous lingerie in the country, and Cynthia was its star model. An icon of sexuality, one young men's magazine had called her. Philip hated her notoriety. Or was it her fame?
For her part, Cynthia could never forgive Philip for having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was the son of Hood Traynor, the former senator from Montville, Alabama, fourth of the Traynors to serve in Congress. Philip had gone to a private boarding school, then on to Harvard and Harvard Law. He had stepped into his current lucrative job rather than applied for it. He worked hard. But he'd never had to work just to win the chance to prove himself, which made all the difference between his class and ours, ours being what you could call the scrappy lower-middle class. Cynthia felt Philip didn't acknowledge his advantages, and treated him with a brisk contempt.
"I just wish we could skip this," I said to Philip.
"It's your family. Of course we have to be there."
A minute later, his other line buzzed.
"I have to go, okay? Something light for dinner tonight if you don't mind. It's so hot."
The new consignment had filled four grocery bags, which had been dumped on my counter by a frazzled middle-aged woman disposing of her late mother's things. I explained the policy: a sixty-forty split, with prices reduced twenty percent every month that the garments didn't sell. She looked dubious.
"But these will sell," I reassured her. "These forties jackets are very hot right now." So hot, I thought to myself, that it doesn't matter that you didn't have them dry-cleaned the way I usually ask for them. They smelled of cedar and some faint perfume probably not even bottled anymore.
"If you say so," she said.
"Your mother had wonderful taste, Mrs. Piewtrotski."
"They've been lying around the attic. I couldn't persuade her to get rid of them."
Get rid of them! After she left, I wondered how her mother, a woman who so obviously loved clothes, could have had a daughter like that, someone who would actually leave the house in a bright pink polo shirt and madras plaid shorts that pulled at the hips. Someone who at forty tied her graying hair back in an enormous grosgrain bow, with that sickly girlishness that afflicts women's dress in this town. But then it was often that way, glamorous mothers with dowdy offspring. A lot of my consignments arrived on the wings of daughterly resentment.
I didn't deal in vintage couture stuff, to my deep sorrow. People were too aware of what's valuable nowadays, collectors too avid. But I got good modern secondhand designer stuff, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Valentino. And vintage American fashion, the kind with yellowed ILGWU labels inside and tags that said "Roxbury's of Detroit" or whatever upper-middle-class department store originally sold the line back in 1948. It was a weird mix, the modern designer clothes and the vintage garments, hanging side by side. So weird that perhaps it put people off.
Besides the French blue twill jacket, there was a brown-and-black miniature plaid with a black velvet collar, a bias-cut peach satin nightgown, and an evening blouse of black net, pin-tucked down the front, with a flat silk collar. Hardy yet delicate old beauties, made back when hems didn't fall out and buttons stayed put.
Looking at the pale silk stockings saved in their original flat cardboard boxes, I thought the dear departed must have been like me, marking each milestone in her life by what she was wearing. If I were ever drowning, my life would flash before my eyes as a series of darling outfits, from my dotted-swiss First Communion dress to the hideous mint-green Qiana floral I wore to my junior prom. Not only can I chronicle my own history this way, I can remember what my sisters were wearing on all their big occasions, too. For example, I could still embarrass Francesca by mentioning the lilac sateen Empire-waisted gown she'd chosen for the St. John's Military Academy Winter 1975 Regimental Ball.
I got this talent from my mother, who was raised in a tenement in Boston. When she was a child and my carpenter grandfather was out of work, my mother had been dressed in castoffs from the Salvation Army barrel or the Baptist church donation pile. At fourteen, she'd sit on the Boston Common and instead of looking at boys, dream of owning the fancy dresses she saw on rich women walking by. When she was nineteen, she got herself a job at the Raytheon factory and saved up enough money for charm school courses at John Powers, where they taught her how to dress and how to walk. On the advice of a teacher there, she freed her voice of its slum-cockney accent by listening to tapes of Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Longfellow. When I was a child, she would recite "Evangeline" to us at bedtime. I can still hear her intoning "This is the forest primeval."
She came to Washington in the late fifties, as a grade-three secretary at the Pentagon. When she stepped off the train, she owned only three outfits: a black dress, princess-seamed with a white Peter Pan collar; a turquoise silk coat with a matching sheath in charcoal shantung silk with turquoise accents; and a full-skirted, tight-bodiced wool challis printed all over with autumn leaves. I had often heard her describe these clothes, in the fond tones of one remembering friends who have passed on. She also owned two bras and a girdle, specially fitted at the best lingerie shop in Boston, and three pairs of lace-trimmed silk underwear, which she washed out in the sink at the Dolley Madison Hotel for Women every night. She would eat at Sholl's Cafeteria for a week to pay for a new pair of stockings.
All her life, my mother saved for months for one new dress. While other mothers were content with polyester pantsuits from Sears, my mother insisted on things with pedigree. Who could blame her for clinging to Chanel No. 5 and restrained little suits from Lord and Taylor's when her own mother had worn a cheap perfume called Evening in Paris and baggy flowered housedresses with grimy string belts?
The phone rang again.
"Is it too damn hot or what?" said a trained, throaty voice. On the phone, Cynthia sounded like some ballsy forties screen heroine. In person, this image of feminist assurance was dimmed by her blinding sex appeal.
"Cynthia! What's up?" She rarely called me in the middle of the morning, usually waiting until midnight or three A.M. whenever the urge took her.
"Nothing. Everything. Did Francesca call you yet?"
"Well, I'm pissed, Diana."
"About the party?"
"No. It's Simon. He has no time for me these days. No time at all."
"Well, Olivia did just come back, Cynthia."
"We all knew she was coming back. I mean, her body was lost in a swamp, for God's sake. I don't know how a mortician stays in business in that town."
"The point is, Simon's like all men. They think work is where they have to prove themselves and they can coast on credit with you."
Simon, Cynthia's lover, played Brice Covington on Covington Heights, the second most popular soap opera in the country. I watched Covington Heights. All my friends watched Covington Heights. Executives installed tiny televisions in their offices on which to watch Covington Heights and secretaries gathered in conference rooms to watch, breathless. Recently, the Post Style section had done an article about college kids who skipped class to watch Covington Heights.
Brice Covington was the oldest Covington son, a tortured, Byronic soul. For ten years, Simon had portrayed Brice's struggle to free himself from the stifling burden of his family's wealth and position. To do this, he had become a reporter, then a seminarian, and then an agent for a benevolent worldwide spy organization. Brice had been on the scene of more international catastrophes than NATO.
Brice's wife, Olivia, had returned from the dead a week before. Now his faithful audience was wondering when he'd notice his resurrected spouse wasn't really the beloved Olivia, who had been his childhood sweetheart and who had supposedly died in an explosion during a Latin American revolution. It was her evil twin, Charmaine. Brice, who for plot reasons was frequently required to be criminally stupid, hadn't caught on yet.
We never saw Simon down in D.C. He had a grueling schedule, especially when his storyline was on the front burner. I'd met him once in New York, though. In person, he was paler and less forceful than on the show, but still invested with a powerful, sad charm. Over the years as Brice, he had acquired a slight British accent. The character of Brice had gone to prep school in England, for which the child actor had departed at the age often and from which a new, fully grown actor (Simon, in his first and only big break) returned at nineteen, only two years later. In real life, Simon hailed from Toledo.
"It's not just the show. I can take the schedule, the hours, all that. It's Delia," said Cynthia.
Delia was Simon's real-life wife. Cynthia had met Simon two years ago on the set of a margarine commercial, the day after Delia moved out. Simon and Cynthia were similar in that way to the characters on Covington Heights while most of our lives have breathing spaces, lulls, and finger-twiddling time, events follow thick and fast for these children of fate.
"Delia's dragging her heels on the settlement. One minute she wants to break his kneecaps, the next minute she wants to have his baby. And he's putting up with it! He's putting up with all her antics 'because she needs me more than you do, Cynthia.' We had a huge fight last night."
"He should watch it. Doesn't he realize that you could have anybody you want?"
This was the simple truth.
"I don't want anybody. I want Simon. But let's not talk about it. I'll get upset, and I have a callback in an hour. Anyway, how's the business?"
Cynthia was the only person in my family who took an interest in my shop. The rest of them were mortified that I'd quit a perfectly good job as a policy analyst in the Department of Nuclear Energy's Nonmilitary Radioactive Waste Storage Division in order to sell what Francesca called "other people's nasty old clothes."
"The shop's lousy."
"When I come down for Dad's big wingding, you can show me the new stuff."
Cynthia was one of my best customers. Of course I gave her everything at cost. She looked especially beautiful in vintage clothes. They brought out the integrity of her bone structure, the heartbreaking shape of her mouth. But then, Cynthia looked beautiful in everything, even the leather bustiers and polyester negligees she wore as the RosePetal's model.
As the RosePetal's girl, Cynthia had appeared all over town in bus-stop ads the previous Christmas, wearing a red velvet bodysuit and a little Santa cap. This past spring she'd been on subway billboards in a bra and panties constructed entirely of silk violets, with the tag line "Give her flowers that won't wilt." She had her own infomercial. There was even talk of a calendar.
At least the RosePetal's stuff was tame enough for my father to know about. No one had told him about the spread in Purrr, and since the only periodical he subscribed to was the Catholic Standard, he wasn't likely to find out. The Purrr business was pretty mild Cynthia strictly by herself, in a variety of time-honored poses. But my father wouldn't have seen it that way. So the family kept quiet. It was part of our tradition of not telling my father things that would make the vein in his forehead throb.
"Although after all," my mother had said when Cynthia did the first spread, "it isn't so different from being an artist's model."
"Artists' models don't usually have their tongues between their teeth and their hands between their legs," I said.
"It's very tasteful, considering," said my mother, who had always been awed and delighted by Cynthia's glamour.
Cynthia began describing to me a fight she had had with a salesgirl at Bendel's.
"I said, This is not an irregularity in the fabric, this is a grease spot. I know a grease spot when I see it. And she says in this snooty voice, How do I know you didn't get that on there yourself? So I told her to let me see her manager. And then when the manager came she said, Well, madam, you should have checked this item before you purchased it. And I said, Don't you call me madam in that snotty tone of voice. Let me see your manager if you can't give me satisfaction. By the time I left they were all crying."
Life for Cynthia was a constant battle, between living in New York and holding her own in a business that broke gentler spirits and more delicate talents than hers. Luckily, she brought unbeatable stamina to the fight. Her voice on the phone was as reviving as a glass of cold lemonade. Being related to her made me feel like a more interesting person, just as being related to Francesca made me feel exhausted and colorless.
"So about Delia," I said, "why don't you put your foot down?"
"He's in such a panic right now I can't risk it. He's overwhelmed with guilt at ending his marriage."
"He's done it enough on TV."
"TV is different. He's not the same as Brice Covington, even though people always mix them up. Remember when I was seeing Dracula?"
She had had a brief affair with a man playing Dracula off Broadway. She had been attracted by his toothy masterfulness until she realized he was nothing at all like the character he played with such sinister perfection. In fact, he organized his sock drawer by color and worried about dietary fiber. He also had what Cynthia referred to as "a mushy behind." Physical perfection in men was important to Cynthia. She was beautiful. It was understandable that she would want a beautiful man. The trouble with most of the beautiful men she had fallen for was that by the time they reached adulthood and learned how much their beauty would let them get away with, they were of no use to any woman who wanted more than the honor of being seen with them. For real value, give me a guy whose face has character and who had to wear glasses at an early age; that's the sort of thing that instills sweetness and empathy.
We talked awhile. She asked me to save the French blue jacket for her. Then she said, "Diana, do you ever miss Mom?"
"Yeah. But then I missed her when she was alive, too."
"I know what you mean. We took care of her more than she ever took care of us. Still, I miss her so much. She was only fifty-eight. Talk about being cheated."
"You can go crazy trying to figure that part out."
"She used to get such a kick out of birthday presents. Not like Dad. Well, anyway, you buy whatever you want to for him. Buy him an enema bag; that's what he deserves, the way he treats you. I'd better go. I want to call Michael about redoing my head shots. I told him to go for a vampy effect and he made me look hard."
While I ate my lunch, tuna on a bagel, I thought about my mother. She had always been frail the family euphemism for "alcoholic." We'd spent most of our childhood caring for her, watching to see that she didn't fall downstairs when she was drinking, bringing her tea and toast during hangovers, making her excuses when she failed to show up for school plays and mother-daughter lunches.
My mother's death was not simple and swift. One May night my father had found her unconscious on the bathroom floor. At first he thought it was just the usual thing. When he couldn't wake her up, efficient men arrived in an ambulance and sped off with her to Georgetown Hospital. It turned out she had a bleeding blood vessel at the base of her skull. They patched that one up, then found another one, and another. All that June and July the doctors discovered time bombs in her head. She underwent three "successful" operations that were later written up in an article for the New England Journal of Medicine, and finally a heart attack her exhausted body's way of avoiding further well-meant torture.
But in between, there were many weeks in the hospital. I'd visit her every day. She always asked for the latest fashion magazines. I bought Vogue and Bazaar and Women's Wear Daily, then I started getting the foreign fashion magazines from the international newspaper shop on Dupont Circle British and French and Italian Vogue, French Elle, and British Elle. We would go over them page by page, my mother approving or disapproving, examining every detail. After the magazines were consumed, we watched soap operas. She liked to criticize the way the actresses looked. She particularly admired Erica on All My Children because Erica was short like my mother, dressed so well, and had such good posture. "That Erica," my mother would say, "she's got them all fooled."
One afternoon I brought her the Australian Vogue. I was wearing a khaki-green trench coat, I remember, because it was a summer of sudden storms. After the second operation, my mother had had a stroke that played hell with her speech, but I still knew exactly what she thought of the Pre-Raphaelite look favored in the fall runway shows. She thought it was sloppy and ridiculous, while I liked the emphasis on wild hair and pale, pale skin, since my own skin is very pale and my dark hair is curly and unmanageable.
We had a wonderful afternoon. The nurse brought us two Jell-O parfaits on the lunch tray. The soaps were full of incident. When Cynthia came to replace me and I was about to leave, my mother tugged my arm urgently. I leaned down. She whispered, "Green not good on you," in her stroke-garbled voice. Those were the last words she ever spoke to me a final motherly gesture.
At the Gallucci Brothers Funeral Home ("Tasteful Funerals for Catholic Families Since 1932"), Cynthia and Francesca quarreled about what my mother's body should wear, even though the coffin was closed. People who have had brain surgery don't make the prettiest corpses. Francesca wanted the brown crepe shirtwaist that my mother kept for funerals. Cynthia favored the ruby-red number my mother had worn for our sister Annette's wedding. It draped scandalously low in the back. No mother-of-the-bride dress for Grace Campanella!
Francesca left orders for the brown dress. But Cynthia sneaked back to the home and countermanded Francesca's instructions. Francesca didn't find out until the night after the funeral. What a commotion that was, Francesca and Cynthia putting away the leftovers and screaming at each other.
They buried my mother at Fort Lincoln Cemetery out in Prince George's County, in a new section at the edge of a field. It had the barren look of a subdivision under construction. Sometimes I worry about her alone out there, with all those newly bought, untenanted graves around her. Sometimes I think about our last afternoon at the hospital, how in the shadow of death my mother had been happy reading her fashion magazines, as if she were about to spring up from bed and go shopping. I try not to think of these things. I hope heaven is a cocktail party full of incident and that my mother is there in her red dress, the center of attention just as she loved to be, holding a perfect martini in her hand.
Copyright © 1998 by Christina Bartolomeo