Sweet Breath of Memory

Sweet Breath of Memory

by Ariella Cohen


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"A storyteller at the top of her game." —Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author

Life is in the telling.

With its tree-lined streets, vibrant downtown and curbside planters of spring bulbs, Amberley, Massachusetts, seems a good place for Cate Saunders to start over. It's been two years since her husband, John, was killed in Iraq and life has been a struggle. Her new job as a caregiver doesn't pay much, but the locals are welcoming. In fact, Cate has barely unpacked before she's drawn—reluctantly at first—into a circle of friends.

There's diner-owner Gaby, who nourishes her customers' spirits as well as their bodies; feisty Beatrice, who kept the town going when its men marched off to WWII; wise-cracking MaryLou, as formidable as Fort Knox but with the same heart of gold; and, Sheila, whose Italian grocery is the soul of the place. As Amberley reveals itself to be a town shaped by war, Cate encounters another kindred spirit—a Holocaust survivor with whom she feels a deep connection. When revelations about John's death threaten Cate's newfound peace of mind, these sisters-in-arms' stories show her an unexpected way forward. And Cate comes to understand that although we suffer loss alone, we heal by sharing our most treasured memories.

"Filled with compassion, humor and honesty, Ariella Cohen's Sweet Breath of Memory is a powerful story of forgiveness. . .Through food and friendship, a community releases its long held secrets, and Cohen provides solace for her characters and her readers." — Karen Brown, author of The Longings of Wayward Girls

"Ariella Cohen spins a tender yarn about the enduring nature of love, the importance of friendship and the eternal longing for a place to call home. Every page brims with warmth, wisdom and compassion." — Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of You Were Meant for Me

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496703705
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 757,257
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ariella Cohen is a graduate of Barnard College, the Hebrew University and the University of Michigan Law School. Her short fiction appears in A Cup of Comfort for Couples, Heartscapes, and Flashshot. Although she makes her home in New England, her dream self resides in County Mayo, Ireland. Visit the author's website at: www.ariellacohenauthor.wordpress.com.

Read an Excerpt

Sweet Breath of Memory

By Ariella Cohen


Copyright © 2016 Ariella Nasuti
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4967-0371-2


March 2010

Rising wind ribboned its way through Boston, clearing a pathway for the rain that began to fall as Cate Saunders boarded the bus. She caught the express just before five a.m., grateful for an aisle seat until she saw the split vinyl oozing muddy-colored filling and heard the snores of an old man slumped against the window. With a mental groan, she spread her jacket on the seat and thought of the road ahead.

People said it took courage to start a new life, but Cate knew differently. Leaving Boston wasn't courageous; it was simply the only option once her home bore a black-margined foreclosure notice. That last day in the house she'd entered as a bride had seemed so unreal. Stripped bare of memories, the empty rooms had held only echoes of the woman she'd been. The life she'd lost. Packing up the last of her belongings, Cate had marveled that sorrow could fold within itself so compactly. Then she'd locked the front door and stood staring at the key while a lone blue jay gave a sharp cry from the empty birdfeeder near the street. Only then had she thought to look one last time in the mailbox. There'd been a slim envelope inside that held the promise of work a hundred miles from all she knew.

Dear Ms. Saunders,

It is with great pleasure that we write to accept you into our program —

Program. More like menial work — what her grandmother would call "honest labor." Still, it was the only job offer she'd received, and it would give her the means to rescue her belongings. Cate thought back to those final moments in the storage facility's caged enclosure. A tunnel of furniture and waist-high boxes had wound its way toward a patch of bare concrete — her darkened past leading to a hard, cold future. Yet one could write the scene another way. She'd packed the boxes so carefully and taped them closed with a determined hand, as if by doing so she could keep the memories they held fresh and unspoiled by time or distance. An Easy-Bake Oven, broken beyond repair; her first teddy bear, bald and missing a leg but still able to coax a smile; a dog-eared copy of Charlotte's Web her husband had read to her the winter she'd caught the flu; the little trinkets they'd bought in Boothbay Harbor that first summer in Maine. Useless junk to anyone else, but the flotsam of their lives. To get it back she needed a job and a home. Then she could unpack the past.

While rain slapped the roof and the windows teared in response, the bus moved from a shrouded world to one knit through with gray shadows. Gradually, the sky brightened, and colors that had drifted into the margins hurried home — brown to yellow, navy to red. A hulking mass hugging the road became a brick wall, and from muddy blobs yellow forsythias emerged. Darkness always gives way to light just as winter melts into spring. Cate's husband had believed that — had believed in hope and resurrection. She'd tried to. After his death, she'd sought comfort in the faith that had sustained him, even pouring her heart out to their parish priest who had responded with platitudes about the Divine plan. Her blood had boiled before she cursed herself for a fool. It didn't matter what the priest believed; all that mattered was that John had faced death without her.

As a sob rose in her throat, Cate caught sight of a lone birch tree silhouetted in the pearly light. Rain beat against its unprotected bark, shredding the creamy surface into long strips that the wind sent swirling. The elements might have twisted the solitary tree into a caricature of itself. Instead, it stood defiant — its own forest. She turned in her seat, catching sight of the silvery shape out the back window before it merged into the fading landscape. When it did, a sigh escaped her and the storm loosened its hold.

The bus exited the highway onto a country road that wound its way along a river just being painted awake. "Amberley!" the driver called out, making a sharp turn and pulling to a stop. The first to disembark, Cate watched the wrought-iron streetlights lining Main Street wink out one by one as flaming sunlight crested the hills surrounding the western Massachusetts town. The sun's golden glow fell on rain-dampened streets and curbside planters filled with pale yellow narcissus. She bent to inhale their sweet breath before a slapping sound pulled her gaze skyward to where a flag played tug-of-war with the morning breeze. Iconic small-town America: a place of undefeated dreams and forgiven sins, she captioned the scene. And because it all looked so fresh and unspoiled, for the first time since she'd buried the remains of her husband, Cate allowed a flicker of hope to stir her heart.

All sorts of customers made their way through the etched glass doors of Vitelli's Grocery that March morning. A group of old men affectionately referred to as "the boys" arrived when the ciabatta rolls were still steaming. Gathered around the bakery counter, they sipped espresso, nibbled almond cookies, and debated the merits of this or that athlete. Then commuters trickled in to fill take-out containers from the salad bar and buy ready-made sandwiches of pepperoni and provolone; mozzarella and salami; or grilled eggplant. Farmers with wind-lined faces and muddy boots fingered unlit cigarettes and drank black coffee. Tourists gripping guidebooks that listed Vitelli's as the only authentic Italian eatery within a hundred miles made their way up and down the aisles, filling their baskets with mascarpone cheese, jarred peppers, farina flour, truffle oil, and wedges of ricotta salata. Stay-at-home moms parked their baby strollers beside the outdoor produce stalls, scrutinizing the basil, arugula, porcini mushrooms, and artichokes as they chatted with their neighbors.

Vitelli's owner, Sheila Morazzo, had spent a lifetime in retail. Adept at reading body language, she could anticipate both what her customers wanted and how much they'd pay for it. It was rare for her to look up from the oak counter behind which she'd built a catering empire and find herself at a loss. But when the front door closed behind a rail-thin figure in a well-cut suit, Sheila was stumped. It wasn't the close-cropped blond hair or waif-like face that puzzled her, but a restive quality about the young woman that put Sheila in mind of an animal ready to bolt given the first whiff of danger.

When the coffee grinder roared to life and the scent of espresso filled the air, the woman who held Sheila's interest relaxed and closed her eyes in appreciation. She paused at the cheese display, her pink-stained lips pressed together before she reached out a slender hand to sample the pungent Gorgonzola. Then she tried Asiago and provolone. Sheila turned away to chat with a customer, and, when her eyes found the stranger again, she was settled at one of the bistro tables that hugged the front windows. Chewing her lower lip in concentration, the woman studied the laminated menu before pulling out her wallet and glancing inside. At the look of relief on her face, Sheila felt a lump rise in her throat. Once I was as lost as she is. But I found myself in this place. Maybe she will, too.

Sheila's gaze swept the room, and she mentally cataloged all that needed doing. The grocery was crowded, there was a line forming before the register, and the salad bar needed tidying. But first things first. Blowing Coco Chanel bangs from her eyes, Sheila caught a glimpse of the silver that threaded her hair and suppressed a smile. She was beginning to resemble the grocery's founder, Rosa Vitelli. Rosa had been her mentor and friend, and as much as Sheila tried to mirror the woman's kindness, she feared her efforts fell short. And now dear Rosa had gone to her reward. Still, perhaps there was a way. Pulling off her apron, she made her way across the flagstone floor. "I'm Sheila Morazzo," she said to the stranger. "This is my place."

"Cate Saunders," the woman responded, her shadowed eyes skimming the room. "I didn't expect to find a gourmet grocery in a small town like Amberley. And you've got a cafÃ(c), too."

"My customers insisted," Sheila confided, taking the seat opposite and tapping the marble-topped table. "Seems that drinking cappuccino at the counter may be good enough for Italians, but Amberley folks prefer to sit and relax over their coffee. And dessert. We've got a full bakery — breads, pastry, cookies, and cakes," she said proudly. "Plus there's a deli and take-out counter with lunch specials every day. Today's are a spinach and sun-dried-tomato calzone with a green salad, or Sicilian meatballs with raisins and pine nuts. Over saffron rice, of course." After a beat, a look of embarrassment stole across her face. "Sorry. I'm always selling; it's an occupational hazard of the self -employed. So tell me, what brings you to Amberley?"

"Work. I'll be training as a home care aide."

Sheila exhaled loudly. "Caregiving is tough."

Cate stiffened, as though sensing in Sheila's sympathetic voice a tinge of disbelief. "I can do it!"

"Oh, I'm sure you can," Sheila said even as she tried to imagine the fragile-looking beauty bathing patients and emptying bedpans. Cate's soft hands weren't those of a manual laborer, yet she'd clearly fallen on hard times, for the job she'd taken paid barely nine dollars an hour. She couldn't live on such a salary — not without help.

"Helen Doyle hired me," Cate said, a note of contrition in her voice, as though she regretted how defensive she'd been earlier. "She mentioned Vitelli's; that's why I stopped by." Recounting her meeting at the hospital earlier that morning, Cate explained how the nurse had put her at ease.

Sheila nodded in understanding. People trusted Helen Doyle's gentle strength, born of all those years she'd spent caring for her mother before nursing became her vocation. When asked why she chose the career she did, Helen had once said that becoming a healer was a natural choice for someone whose life had been shredded by illness. Was that Cate's story? Did she hope to heal some internal wound through the work she'd chosen? "Helen and I grew up together," Sheila explained. "Her friendship got me through some tough times. I've sweet memories of her watching my back."

"Sweet memories," Cate repeated in a flat voice. "Yet even the sweetest memories can bring pain. Why is that? And why do some memories seem to steal away into the night, while others push forward at the oddest moments? But only for a moment and then they fade." She raked a hand through her cap of hair. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I said that. I don't even know you." An embarrassed flush stained her cheeks. "I didn't really sleep last night. I'm not myself."

"No need to apologize," Sheila said, casting about for a way to change the subject. "So you like to read?" She gestured toward the bag of books on the floor.

"Yes," Cate replied, the tension in her eyes lifting. "Novels mostly."

"Cookbooks are my weakness," Sheila confessed, leaning forward conspiratorially. "I've dozens of them. I love finding old ones at yard sales. I always turn to the stained pages first. Those are the most interesting."

Cate nodded. "The more dog-eared and beat up, the more a book was cherished. Those in good condition may fetch more money, but they weren't valued by their owners — not in the ways that matter." She shrugged her thin shoulders. "Then again, there's nothing like the smell of new books. Or that soft creak when you open them for the first time; it's like holding a newborn."

When Cate sighed wistfully, Sheila teased, "That's the enraptured look my husband gets when I make lasagna."

"Books are friends that never let you down."

"Unlike people, you mean?"

And just like that, the veil that had shifted momentarily fell back into place, and the sorrowful air that had begun to dissipate as they spoke wrapped itself around Cate once again. At the uncomfortable silence that followed, Sheila motioned to her assistant and ordered pastry, explaining, "It's St. Joseph's Day, so we've Ã(c)clairs with custard. That's the tradition."

"No, no thank you. I'm just having coffee," Cate protested.

"On the house," Sheila said. "Call it a business expense."

"Business?" Cate asked, her face guarded.

"Yes. I'm looking to rent out an apartment upstairs, and I'm guessing you need a place to stay. It was Miriam's —" A familiar ache gripped Sheila's heart, and she rushed on. "It's nothing fancy, mind you; just a one-bedroom."

"What's the rent?"

"Rent," Sheila repeated, buying time while she turned the matter over in her mind. "To tell you the truth, I haven't given it much thought. Umm, three hundred maybe?"

Cate's sky-blue eyes lost their glint of excitement. "Oh. I can't afford three hundred a week. Thanks anyway."

"No, no, not a week. A month. The rent's three hundred a month. And it includes utilities."

Cate frowned. "That's not very much. What's wrong with the place? Are there bugs or something?"

Sheila bristled. "No! Nothing like that! The rent's low because I hoped you could help me out a bit around here."

"Help how?"

"Well, I don't live on the premises, so I need someone on site. Oh, there's a security system, but it's not the same thing."

Cate cocked her head, considering. "I'm a stranger. Why rent to me, allow me to look after your business even in a minor way? Why trust me?"

"I'm a good judge of character. As is Helen. And I think you can turn your hand to whatever's needed. That you'd be willing to." Sheila hesitated before adding, "You look as though life's dealt you a lousy hand, but you're playing it anyway. You're still in the game."

"Fair enough," Cate conceded, "and close to the mark." Then she pulled out her wallet and held it open. "Three hundred and forty-two dollars." She swallowed hard as though the words had a bitter taste. "That's all I've got. Enough for coffee as a treat now to celebrate my new job, but not enough for a deposit. I don't get paid for a week, and they won't give me an advance on my salary — I already asked. So I can't rent anything now. I've figured out that if I stay in a B&B until I get my first paycheck, I'll be okay. Maybe after that —"

"Oh no! There's no need to give me a deposit!" Sheila cried. When Cate opened her mouth, doubtless to protest that she didn't want charity, Sheila rushed on. "Normally I would ask for one. But if Helen recommends you — and I'm betting she will — it's not necessary."

Indecision warred with relief on Cate's face. Finally, she said, "Oh — okay." Then, as if to seal the deal, she sampled the éclair that had sat before her while they talked. Her eyes closed in appreciation and Sheila felt a surge of warmth, for she'd learned long ago that life's challenges are best confronted on a full stomach. "This is fantastic," Cate enthused, wiping her plate clean of all but crumbs. "As good as anything you'd find in Boston or New York." When Sheila glared at her, she amended, "Better. It's better, actually."

"Nice save. And if you think that's good, wait until you try my tiramisu."

By the time the lease was signed a few hours later, Sheila had outfitted the apartment with a basket of food, linens, towels, and some mismatched furniture. She left her new tenant to settle in and entrusted the running of the grocery to her assistant. Then she hurried across the street, a plan forming in her mind.

Cate Saunders's blue eyes took on a gray hue when she was troubled, but on that first day in Amberley, they were the color of a placid sea. By gradual degrees, her new life was taking shape, for in the course of only a few hours she'd enrolled in the hospital's home care aide program and found a place to live. Standing in the center of her apartment, she drank in the silence and wondered who else had called the four small rooms home. She made a mental note to ask her landlady. Or perhaps not, for her new home was a clean page on which she would write — what? That she didn't know was to be expected after all that had happened. That on many days she didn't care what the future held was harder to explain, especially to well-meaning strangers. When Cate had revealed that she couldn't provide an emergency contact for she hadn't any family, Sheila's brow had creased with concern. In the pregnant silence that followed, the rooms that had welcomed Cate with warmth and light seemed suddenly sepia-toned. Then it was as though she'd heard John's voice say that the apartment was a charming place to rebuild her life. Rebuild herself.

Cate's gaze traveled over the mullioned windows, paneled walls, and pumpkin-pine floors, mentally redecorating. There was just enough space in a corner of the living room for the writing desk John had made; her grandmother's rocking chair could go near the front windows; and the hooked rug would brighten up the floor before the wood-burning fireplace.

She walked into the kitchen where vintage metal cabinets held a few groceries and a set of dishes Sheila had told her to consider her own. The small bathroom beyond boasted a stained-glass window and was dominated by a claw-footed bathtub that looked too inviting to resist. In the bedroom, a window seat looked down on a well-ordered garden sprinkled with terra-cotta pots of spring bulbs that flared with color. Gravel pathways divided raised beds where neat rows of seedlings were just beginning to poke their way through the chocolate-brown soil. Birds chirped and bees hummed as a marmalade cat made its way along a stone wall before pausing to stretch in the afternoon sun.


Excerpted from Sweet Breath of Memory by Ariella Cohen. Copyright © 2016 Ariella Nasuti. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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