“I had two husbands. . . . I am surrounded by the things Salvatore gave me or did for me. But, God forgive me, as I lie alone now in my bed, it is Paolo I remember.”
The discovery of long-hidden love letters leads New York caterer Cara Serafini on a journey to understanding her formidable grandmother, Giulia Fiorillo. Born in a mountain village in southern Italy, the spirited Giulia arrives at the age of sixteen in a rough New York immigrant neighborhood at the beginning of the twentieth century, forced from the comforts and constrictions of her family by the fierce drive of her mother. In America, Giulia faces not only an inhospitable culture but also violence in the family and in the streets, shattering loss and a love that shapes her whole life.
|Publisher:||Bellastoria Press LLP|
|Edition description:||Revised ed.|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.77(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Cigar Box Cara Serafini Dedrick 1983
The phone call didn't come at two in the morning, but it might as well have. I was on my way out the door of my office at four,hoping to catch an early train out of Penn Station and make it home to New Jersey for an early start to my vacation. I run a catering company in Manhattan called Artichoke and in the last weeks of August my clients have retreated to their summer homes, giving me and my staff a breather before fall. Celeste, my secretary, waved to get my attention, receiver nestled between her ear and her capable shoulder.
"It's your mother."
"Tell her I'll call when I get homegot to make the 4:25." "She says it can't wait.A family emergency."
My body stiffened and I could feel the color drain from my face. My mother was not the kind of woman who called with reports of every hospitalization or divorce or out-of-wedlock pregnancy in our large extended family.With eighteen aunts and uncles and twenty-nine first cousins, plus both grandmothers,there was ample opportunity for a family emergency. But I trusted my mother's sense of what was urgent and what was merely news, and knew she wouldn't insist on talking to me now if it wasn't someone close. Had my father gone into diabetic shock? Was my brother in a car accident?
I turned back to my desk and picked up the phone."Mom?" "Cara, thank God you're still there! It's Nana."
My father's mother, Giulia, was a robust woman in her nineties who ran circles around most of us.Three weeks before, against the wishes of all eight of her children, she'd flown to Italy to be at the bedside of her dying older sister.Zia Letitia we used the Italian form to refer to the aunts of my grandmother's generationZia Letitia had graciously managed to wait until Nana arrived before taking her last breath.After she died, Nana had assumed the task of arranging her funeral and organizing her financial affairs. Zia Letitia had been a widow and her only son had died many years before, so there was no one left in the family to wrap up the loose ends of her long life except for Nana.As far as I knew, those tasks were almost finished and she was expected back early the next week.
"What's happened?"I couldn't imagine what could have disrupted my grandmother's determined and vigorous grasp on life.
"She fell last night. It was in Zia Letitia's house. She was alone, and no one found her until this morning. Emma, the woman who looked after Zia Letitia, called to let us know."
"Oh, my God! Is she all right? Where is she now?"
"They got her to a hospital in Avellino, but apparently she's broken her hip. She needs surgery.We thought we could fly her home, but the doctors there said it was too dangerous the risk of an embolism's too high.Which is why I'm calling you." So it was more than just to inform me of my grandmother's accident.
"What do you mean?"
"We don't want her to go through this alone. It was one thing for her to go off by herself to hold her sister's hand, but now it's simply out of the question. I'd go, but with Daddy needing dialysis every three days, there's no way I can leave him. Nobody else in the family has ever been to ItalyI don't think they even have passports.
"Honey, you've lived in Italy, you speak Italian, and she'd listen to you sooner than one of her children, anyway. I need you to say yes about this,especially for Daddy's sake.He's angry with her for going in the first place, angry with himself for letting her go, and now he's feeling helplessalthough he won't admit itbecause he can't go and rescue his mother.Will you do this, Cara?"
"Do you realize what you're asking me to do?" I groaned. I thought of the two weeks left of summer that I'd planned on spending with my kids. A week at the shore, then a week getting ready for school.
"If you're worried about the kids, I can look after them for a few days, and Paul and Jeannie offered to take them to her mother's house at the lake.There really is no one else who can do this, Cara. I know you think of Nana as formidable and indestructible, but she's in a precarious state."
I listened in silence, watching the minutes pass on the clock on my desk. I'd already missed any chance of making my train. I was both dismayed at my grandmother's situation and frustrated that the competence and independence I had developed in my life apart from my family were now the very things pulling me back. I did not want to go. But I knew I would. I fought the resentment that I was the one my mother had turned tome, with a very full plate of full-time job and four childrenwhen she could have asked my sister or my cousin, both younger,freer,teachers with summers off and no children. But I was also proud that she'd called on me, knowing she was right when she said I was the only one who could do this.
"I'll need to talk to Andrew and sort everything out with the kids. I'll ask Celeste to book me on a flight to Rome tomorrow and I'll take the train from there to Avellino.Do you have some contact information for methe hospital,Emma?"
I heard my mother exhale in relief. "Thank you, honey. I knew I could count on you. I've got all the numbers right here. Let me read them off to you."
I spent the next half hour writing down the information provided by my mother, phoning my husband and giving Celeste the task of getting me to Italy within the next fortyeight hours. I finally collapsed in a seat in the second-to-last car on the 5:43 to Princeton,scribbling lists to myself and trying to remember a language I had not spoken regularly in seventeen years.
The next afternoon,with my husband and children heading off to Beach Haven, my bag packed and my passport in my purse, I drove up to my parent s' house in Mount Vernon, just outside New York City. When my mother had called Giulia that morning to tell her I was coming, Giulia had dictated a list for methings to do, things to bring. I picked up the list and the key to Giulia's house from my parents and said my goodbyes, recognizing the gratitude in my father's eyes despite his gruff warnings about watching out for both my grandmother and myself.
I left my parent s' neighborhood of manicured lawns and stately colonials and drove south to the neighborhood my grandmother had lived in since she'd arrived in America. I climbed the steep steps to Giulia's front porch, past the rose garden her husband Salvatoremy father's stepfatherhad planted for her in the middle years of their marriage, well before I was born.With Giulia in Italy for the last three weeks, many of the blooms were long past their peak.Had Giulia been here,I know she would've trimmed the flopping,untidy heads.
I let myself in the front door, but not before glancing up and down this so-familiar street. To my right, a row of pale stucco houses, many of which Giulia owned.To my left, the beginnings of commercethe butcher,the barber,Skippy's Bar & Grilland on the corner, Our Lady of Victory elementary school. I remembered how one frigid November morning, when I was in kindergarten, I had dutifully exited in a silent, straight line as we'd been trained by the nuns to do when the fire alarm sounded. I'd been careful to line up along the side of the building, trying to keep still in the cold. It had been at that moment that Giulia had emerged from Lauricella's grocery store across the street and observed the shivering children and the sisters bundled in their black shawls.
"Where is your coat? How could that nun let you outside in this weather without your coat?" Giulia stood on the sidewalk and scolded me from across the street.
She was making a spectacle and I was mortified.The only modestly saving grace was that she was speaking in Italian, but her gesturing and agitation were clearly understood by the nuns and my classmates.
"Go back inside this minute and get your coat!"
I wanted to explain to her that this was a fire drill, but was afraid to speak, afraid to break the rules so dramatically presented to us by Sister Agatha as a matter of life and death. Six hundred children had burned to death at Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago because they hadn't followed the rules.
My grandmother knew none of this. She knew only that her grandchild was shivering and the woman responsible for her was ignoring that.
I had watched in horror as Giulia crossed the street,removing her own coat and ready to wrap it around me, when the bell rang and we began to retrace our steps back into the building.
Now, inside Giulia's house, I adjusted to the dim light of the long front hall.The portrait of the Sacred Heart, his hands spreading his cloak to reveal his throbbing scarlet heart, still hung in its place of honor above the radiator.
The house smelled of ammonia and wax and lemon oil. I was sure Giulia had scrubbed and polished meticulously before she left, leaving the house spotless, reflecting her own sense of order.
My sandaled feet echoed in the silent house as I walked down the hall. Although what I'd come for was upstairs in Giulia' s bedroom, I went first to the kitchen.
Check the sink, the freezer, the pilot light on the stove, she had instructed. Make sure the back door is secured. Dominic Grazza, her neighbor who was supposed to be watching the house, wasn't as reliable as she would like.
But all was as it should be. I drew myself a glass of water and sat in the red vinyl chair at the small table tucked into the alcove formed by the chimney wall.The table was only large enough for two. Through an archway was the larger table where supper was served, but at noon, when it had only been my grandmother and me, it was at this small table that we'd eaten together.I attended the morning session of kindergarten and came to her house every school day for lunch and to spend the afternoon. She always had ready a warm bowl of her homemade chicken soup or pasta e fagioli.
After lunch,when the dishes were dried and put away,I had remained at the table, my back against the warm wall, and watched and listened as women from the neighborhood came for my grandmother's magic.
We called it the "eyes"her spells to ward off headaches and stomach cramps; to bring on a late period; to counteract whatever curse had been set upon the suffering soul knocking at my grandmother's back door.
It wasn't just the immigrants who came. My own mother, my aunts, women who worked in banks and offices and got dressed in suits and stockings and high heels every day, made their way to her kitchen.There she'd lay her hands on them and dispel the pain with her incantations.When I was sick, the fever and nausea and loneliness flew from my troubled body into my grandmother's open and welcoming arms.
Later in the afternoon,she always went upstairs to sleep,exhausted and without words.
I would retreat to the living room, knowing it was time to be quiet, and watch "The Mickey Mouse Club" until my father came to pick me up at the end of the day.
My afternoons with Giulia were an arrangement put in place because my own neighborhood had no Catholic school. Sending me to kindergarten in a public school was not an option in our family, so I spent the first year of my education in Giulia's parish until my family moved uptown. Everyone seemed happy with the solution, especially my mother, home with two younger children and relieved of the burden of getting me to and from school every day.
I finished my water, carefully rinsed and dried my glass and replaced it in the cupboard. My responsibilities in the kitchen were fulfilled, and I walked slowly up the stairs to the back of the house, where Giulia's bedroom overlooked the backyard and the garden. On her dresser were propped more images of saints. In front of them were three small red glass pots holding votive candles. It was the first time I'd been in the house when Giulia wasn't there, and it was a disturbing reminder of her absence that the candles were unlit. I pulled out Giulia's list and began to open drawers, tugging at the wood swollen with August humidity. Her checkbook and accounts ledger were in the top drawer, as expected. I had to hunt for the sweater she thought she'd need now that the evening air in the mountains was beginning to chill with the approach of September.A few more small articles of clothing were easier to find.The last item on the list was identified simply as a "cigar box" that was supposed to be in the bottom drawer under some bed linens. I was expecting another set of the flower-sprigged percale sheets and pillowcases that were on her neatly made bed, but these bed linens were heavy white cotton, elaborately tucked and embroidered with Giulia's large and graceful monogram. I had never seen them on her bed. Small packets of cedar were scattered in the drawer and the pungent smell indicated to me that the drawer had not been opened in a long time. I lifted the linens and found a box-like shape wrapped in another embroidered cloth.When I unwrapped the cloth, I saw that I had indeed found the cigar box.
It was papered in garish yellow and brown with the portrait of some nineteenth-century barrel-chested tobacco mogul on the cover, and a Spanish label.The box had once held Cuban cigars, but I was sure it wasn't cigars I was bringing to Giulia.
I sat on the floor and carefully lifted the cover. Inside the box were stacks of letters on pale blue notepaper, each stack tied with a thin strand of satin ribbon. I could see that the letters had been written in a flowing hand in Italian and signed Paolo, the father my father had been too young to know, the grandfather whose red hair I had inherited.
I closed the box, feeling I'd already gone too far, that I had violated the privacy of a very private woman.Why she would want me to remove these letters from what appeared to be a hiding place and carry them across the Atlantic to her was both perplexing and intriguing.The woman who was asking me to do this was not the woman I knew my grandmother to be the matriarch of our very large family, who had not only her sons and daughters, but her nieces and nephews, grown men and women in their fifties and sixties, listening to her and deferring to her as if they were still children; the businesswoman who'd asked me to collect her mail as well as her checkbook so she could manage her real-estate investments from her hospital bed; the woman who could be counted on to have a sharp opinion and directive about everything that touched the lives of her children and grandchildren.