Valerie Sayers, The New York Times Book Review Sacred Time offers its own version of hope in the face of despair, of truth in a new era of secrecy and evasion.
Sacred Timeby Ursula Hegi
The bestselling author of Stones from the River delivers her most ambitious and dramatic novel yet the unforgettable story of an endearing, but also flawed, Italian American family.
In December 1953 Anthony Amedeo's world is nested in his Bronx neighborhood, his parents' Studebaker, the Paradise Theater, Yankee Stadium and in his imagination/i>
The bestselling author of Stones from the River delivers her most ambitious and dramatic novel yet the unforgettable story of an endearing, but also flawed, Italian American family.
In December 1953 Anthony Amedeo's world is nested in his Bronx neighborhood, his parents' Studebaker, the Paradise Theater, Yankee Stadium and in his imagination, where he longs for a stencil kit to decorate the windows like all the other kids on his street. Instead he gets a very different present: his uncle Malcolm's family.
Malcolm is in jail for stealing once again from his latest new job, and Anthony's aunt and twin cousins settle into the Amedeos' fifth-floor walk-up. Sharing a room with girls is excruciating for Anthony, despite his affinity for the twins. But the real change in Anthony's life comes one evening when he causes the unthinkable to happen, changing each family member's life forever.
Evoking all the plenty and optimism of postwar America, Sacred Time spans three generations, taking us from the Bronx of the 1950s to contemporary Brooklyn. Keenly observing the dark side of family and its gracefulness Hegi has outdone herself with this captivating novel about childhood's tenderness and the landscape of loneliness. Ultimately she reveals how the transforming power of a singular event can reverberate through a family for generations. With gravity and poise, Hegi turns her astute yet forgiving eye on the essential frailty and dignity of the human condition in this elegant and fast-paced novel.
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Sacred TimeA Novel
By Ursula Hegi
TouchstoneCopyright © 2003 Ursula Hegi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnthony 1953 Elsewhere
That winter of 1953, stenciled glass-wax decorations appeared on nearly every window in the Bronx, and Uncle Malcolm was sent to jail for stealing stamps and office equipment from his last new job.
My parents were so busy fretting over Aunt Floria - who looked like a widow because she was married to Uncle Malcolm - that they got impatient whenever I told them how much I wanted a stencil kit. "Not now, Anthony," they'd say, and they wouldn't even glance at the commercial of the girl and her mother who opened their kit, pulled out stencils of comets and bells and Christmas trees that were cut from thick transparent paper. While the mother held a stencil against the window, the girl soaked a sponge in pink glass wax, dabbed it against the stencil, and they both smiled at the comets and snowflakes they'd created.
"All the other kids got stencil kits," I lied on the drive to Aunt Floria's.
Fordham Road was slick, and my father was steering cautiously in the icy rain that pelted our Studebaker. "Floria is my sister, after all," he said.
My mother tapped one painted fingernail against the St. Christopher medal that was glued to the dashboard. "Maybe you need to figure out who the hell your real family is, Victor."
"And what is not real about my sister?"
"Don't tempt me. Please."
"We already got glass wax for cleaning windows," I reminded her as we passed beneath the Third Avenue El. "So we only need to buy a stencil kit."
"Quit skutching, Anthony."
"Kevin has a stencil kit."
"Kevin always has everything you're trying to get. And when I check with Mustache Sheila, it's not true." My mother was always making up names that fit people just right, like the three Sheilas in our neighborhood, Pineapple Sheila, Bossy Sheila, and Mustache Sheila. Pineapple Sheila was Jewish; Bossy Sheila was Irish; and Mustache Sheila was Irish and Kevin O'Dea's mother.
"But all the kids have stencil kits."
"Basta! You know I detest it when you skutch. It's always the same. First you try getting what you want by being charming. Then you skutch."
I slid close to the wing window behind her, propped myself on the armrest to be tall. Inside my left mitten was Frogman, green and hard, and I curled my fingers around him. Frogman was a prize from a box of cereal I hated, but Kevin had finally traded Frogman for my two favorite baseball cards, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra.
Kevin lived in the building across from ours on Creston Avenue, next to the back wall of the Paradise, where movies were airconditioned and movie matrons shined their flashlights into your face if you talked. Summer evenings, when it was too hot and sticky to be anywhere else, our families would be at the Paradise, no matter what was playing as long as it wasn't banned by the Legion of Decency. At church, their movie chart was tacked to the wall of the vestibule: A-1 was morally suitable for all audiences;
A-2 was morally suitable for all, with reservations; B was partially condemned; and C was condemned. Though we took pledges against condemned movies - not just to stay away from them, but also to boycott theaters that had shown them - Father Bonneducci still screamed from the pulpit that it was a mortal sin to see a condemned movie, and I could hear his voice inside my head whenever I passed the Ascot and tried not to glance at the posters of the condemned movies. Next door to the Ascot was a Hebrew school, and I wondered if the rabbi screamed at the boys about not looking at the posters. I liked the Swedish posters. Especially Summer with Monika.
I wished we had enough money to go to the movies every day, but at least Kevin and I could stand in the polished recess by the ornate ticket booth of the Paradise and feel the cold air, and retell the plots of our all-time favorite movies: It Came from Outer Space; Invaders from Mars; and, most of all, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. We'd roar like the beast - "uuuughhh" - as it burst from the ocean near Baffin Island with its huge lizard teeth and lizard arms - "uuuughhh" - getting ready to squash Wall Street and the Ferris wheel at Coney Island. One day the movie matron came out and yelled, "Scat, you noisy kids, or I'll call your mother."
Some afternoons we'd spread Kevin's old quilt on his roof, and we'd spy on communists who might walk down Creston Avenue. So far we hadn't seen any, but we knew how to spot communists because they were mean and wore red uniforms. That's why they were called reds. They carried Jell-O boxes so they could find each other and trade secrets about the bomb. While Kevin and I waited, we'd read our Tarzan and Bugs Bunny comic books, or we'd scrape with Popsicle sticks at the tar along the seams where it bubbled in the heat. Some tar would get on our skin, our clothes, but we'd pretend we were getting a tan at Orchard Beach, even though we could see the Empire State Building from up here.
"I was talking about helping Floria too much while Malcolm is Elsewhere," my mother was telling my father. Elsewhere meant anything from jail, to England, to being on the run. Elsewhere meant never staying in one place for long because you're moving outside the law.
My father stubbed out his cigarette. "And who decides what too much help is?"
"You think you're just like Jesus walking on water. You think you can do anything without getting your feet wet."
"Well, let me tell you that Jesus got his feet wet. Plenty wet."
Feet wet. Wet feet. Feet cold. Cold car. Our car was so freezing cold, I could barely smell the leftover trays of veal scaloppine and eggplant rissoles next to me on the backseat. They were from the golden anniversary my father had catered, and he'd covered them with white towels that had the name of his business, Festa Liguria, stamped on them.
"What am I not understanding here about wet feet?" he asked.
"No, no. Educate me. Me and the boy. We both may learn something from you that we've missed at mass."
I stared past our Palisades Park decal at the White Castle, gray now in the rain, where the twelve-cent hamburgers were as thin as Uncle Malcolm's playing cards; and as I thought of him being Elsewhere again, I pictured him running, his lanky body tilted into the wind, one of his hands holding on to the green accordion he's strapped to his chest, the other to his ginger-colored hat.
"I find it enlightening, Leonora, how you only quote the Bible to point out my shortcomings. Somehow I doubt the Bible was written for that purpose."
My mother jiggled two cigarettes from her pack of Pall Malls, lit them both, and stuck one between my father's lips. "It means ... whenever you help Floria, you deprive your own."
"And are you my own then?" Though he grinned at her as if trying to joke her out of her mood, his voice was harsh. "Are you then, mia cara?"
She snatched a folded newspaper page from her purse. "If you're like that, I'll do my crossword puzzle."
She couldn't sit still, my mother. Invariably, one crossed leg would bounce, or her hands would fidget for something to move. That's why she was too skinny, Aunt Floria had said to my father at my seventh birthday party a few weeks ago.
"I wonder if that's why Leonora can't hold your babies. Thank God she carried Anthony almost full-term."
I'd seen my mother hold plenty of babies and carry them around, but when I told Aunt Floria so, my mother came up behind her.
Eyes wet, she yelled, "Dropping a double litter does not make you superior."
But Aunt Floria yelled right back. "My twins are not a litter. At least I'm not starving my body to fit into a size six."
"That's the truth, for sure. If you quit eating macaroni for a year, you wouldn't get down to a size sixteen."
My aunt reached back and turned her black collar inside out. "I want you to check this label. Fourteen, Leonora. And I did not sew this dress. I bought it at Alexander's. Size -"
Quickly, my father turned on WNEW. "Listen ... Frank Sinat -"
"Size fourteen. See?"
"You just sewed in a smaller size tag."
"Alexander's keeps getting bigger," I said, "just like -"
"Anthony -" My mother looked startled. "Don't you -"
"You told me Alexander's keeps getting bigger, just like Aunt Floria."
"I said nothing like that," my mother lied. "Floria -"
But my aunt was running up the stairs of my grandparents' house, and my mother was chasing after her.
"Floria, please -"
My grandfather reached into his pocket. "How about a peppermint, Antonio?" Just like the nuns at school who could whisk holy cards and erasers from their sleeves, my grandfather could produce whatever I might need from his pockets: rubber bands, money for paper candy or Nik-L-Nips, cat's-eye marbles, a whistle, peppermints, kite string. As a boy in Italy, he'd won a kite flying championship. Riptide Grandma complained that his pockets were always stretched out of shape, and the one thing he'd get angry about was when she cleaned them out.
I slipped his peppermint into my mouth. "The Alexander people keep knocking down apartment buildings to make their store even bigger."
"At home in Italy, people preserve old buildings instead of knocking them down."
"What if the Alexander people knock over the monkey bars in the playground?"
"In St. James Park? They're not allowed to build there."
"Promise?" I followed him into his music room below the stairs to the second floor. It smelled good in here from when it used to be a closet. On the floor lay wood specks that bugs had chewed from the beams.
"Promise. That park belongs to the city. Which means it belongs to you."
"To you and every child who plays there."
The window to the alley was on one wall of the music room, and on the other walls my grandfather had mounted candle-shaped lamps from his job at the salvage yard and a small picture of himself as a boy with a kite.
"I think it's funny when Americans talk about their historical buildings." He started cleaning a record with a folded undershirt. "Eighty years, Antonio? A hundred? Two hundred?"
Though he was a big man, the voice that came from his neck sounded little, as if it had to fight its way out, and I was sure that's why he loved opera so much, those big voices that came through the woven fabric in front of his golden-brown Victrola.
"In Liguria, we talk about thousands of years." His fingers curled a bit toward his palm, and he motioned with that hand as if asking me to come closer, to go way, way back with him, maybe a thousand years. "When I was a boy in Nozarego, a little younger than you, I helped my father in his vineyard that had belonged to his father and his father's father and so on ... centuries of Amedeos, Antonio, before your time and mine."
"I almost got squashed at Alexander's."
He sat down on the wider of the two chairs. "Oh Dio. How did that happen?"
Upstairs, my mother and aunt were screaming at each other like opera divas, even though my mother had told my grandfather that opera was melodramatic. "They're always screaming, and it takes them half an hour to say, 'Come into my embrace,' or to recognize a long-lost brother. Then they scream the same thing again, and you can't even understand the words." My grandfather had listened closely, just as he always did, without rushing you, even though my mother went on and on, and when she'd exhausted herself and said she admired drama that relied on the power of words, the power of silence, my grandfather had smiled and said, "I like silence, too."
I climbed on his knees. "The Alexander people had their birthday sale and Mama and I were waiting for the doors to open but firemen were guarding them and people started shoving and squashing me."
"Some people got pushed through the windows and cut and mannequins got knocked over and then I heard sirens. I don't like Alexander's."
He nodded. "Have you considered trading time with your mother?"
"You could ask her if, for every ten minutes in Alexander's, she'll give you ten minutes in the toy department."
"And for every hour in Alexander's I get one hour at the five and ten?"
"You could ask, Antonio."
"At Kress, not Woolworth, because it's bigger and next to Gorman's hot-dog stand."
For a while, the quarrel above us continued, but later that same evening, my mother and Aunt Floria danced to Make Believe Ballroom on WNEW, the way they liked to at family parties, my mother - despite high heels - not nearly as tall as my aunt, who had delicate ankles although the rest of her body was solid, like my father's. By far the best dancers in the family, my mother and aunt took pleasure in each other's grace and skill as they went spinning and dipping past us. And if there were words that passed between them, they must have been gentle.
Since the men didn't like to dance, they smoked and watched the women - including Riptide Grandma and Great-Aunt Camilla - do the rumba and the fox-trot and the tango. That evening, Uncle Malcolm wasn't Elsewhere yet. Sweating and laughing, he accompanied the radio by pumping long, shimmering breaths from his accordion as though he were part of Count Basie's orchestra. Uncle Malcolm was the only one in my family who wasn't Italian, and he seemed exotic to me because of that. His pale hair was damp, and his eyes chased Aunt Floria, who became girlish and light as she danced with my mother.
When my grandfather stepped next to Great-Aunt Camilla and whispered something in Italian, she laughed and, gently, pushed him away with her palm against his chest.
"It's true," he said, "even if I were a woman, I'd still rather touch women than men."
"That's brave of you, Emilio."
He sat down on the couch. "You go, Antonio. You go dance with the ladies."
My mother and Aunt Floria opened one side of their dance for me, and I rushed into the warm knot of their bodies, spinning with them. Spinning and dipping long after my father and Uncle Malcolm joined my grandfather on the couch, slumped toward him as if to make a triangle, and took the customary nap.
Afterwards, in the kitchen, Aunt Floria and my mother washed the dishes and argued, but we were used to them being quick-tempered with each other and then confiding and dancing as if they were the closest of friends.
Excerpted from Sacred Time by Ursula Hegi Copyright © 2003 by Ursula Hegi. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ursula Hegi is the author of The Worst Thing I've Done, Sacred Time, Hotel of the Saints, The Vision of Emma Blau, Tearing the Silence, Salt Dancers, Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, Intrusions, and Trudi & Pia. She teaches writing at Stonybrook's Southhampton Campus and she is the recipient of more than thirty grants and awards.
- Upstate New York
- Date of Birth:
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- B.A., M.A., University of New Hampshire
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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In 1953, seven years old Anthony Amedeo lives what he perceives is the good life in his Bronx neighborhood as the only child. His father has a thriving catering business and his stay at home mother dotes on Anthony. Anthony¿s idyllic childhood changes when his Uncle Malcolm is back behind bars, forcing Aunt Floria and their eight-year-old twin daughters to move into the Amedeo fifth floor apartment; the twins share Anthony¿s previously private room. Not long afterward, one of the twins falls out a window to her death.................. The tragedy haunts Anthony over the next four plus decades as he not only witnessed the fall of his cousin and never quite got over that first touch of death, his mother and aunt believed he pushed his cousin out the window. Living with that undeclared sentencing by his beloved family, Anthony feels all alone in spite of marriage and success as a chef................................ Though a bit confusing as there are three eras not smoothly transitioned, SACRED TIME is a remarkable look at how one event lasting seconds can have major impact over the lives of those immediately involved and even later on others for example spouses. On a mega level such as 9/11 this seems obvious, but Ursula Hegi¿s message is that on the micro family level, relationships are impacted by events such as the death of the twin. The cast is a delightful Italian-American Bronx family who never look at Anthony the same way after his cousin¿s death. However, the biggest bearer of misfortune besides the victim is Anthony, who perceives what his loved ones believe of him. This is a strong character study of the long term consequences of a tragedy.................... Harriet Klausner
¿Sacred Time¿ is a story spread over three generations and begins in a Bronx neighborhood. It is read by three different people. When I learned that, I was hesitant about listening to it. The first reader was male and the story was about a boy growing up in a dysfunctional family. He has to share his room with twin cousins, girls, when their father is sent to jail for stealing from his employer. The story continues with daily life and troubles of two families sharing life under one roof. When the second reader, a female, took up the story, it jumped in years and location. The story became focused on the mother instead of continuing with the son as the first reader had. There was no warning or lead-in to this shift in the story. I was completely lost for the first half of a tape. When I finally ¿caught up¿ with what was happening, I had questions about what had happened when the first reader was reading the story. What happened to the ¿flying twin¿? What happened to the friction between the mother and the aunt? While this is a story that ranges over three generations, the jump from one time to another with no warning really put me off. I was no longer able to follow the story as well as I wanted. It does show what can and does happen to people and families when one decision is made over another. It shows how lives change by these decisions. Unless you are good at listening ¿between the lines¿ and like stories that jump around, I would not recommend that you listen to this tape.