The Good Left Undone: A Novel448
The Good Left Undone: A Novel448
"[An] immersive saga. . . . A celebration of family and a paean to the power of storytelling.”—People, "Book of the Week"
"Trigiani conveys the beauty of Italy, the hardships of war, the taste of family recipes, and the enduring love of family."—Library Journal (starred)
“The beauty of any book by Adriana Trigiani is her ability to interweave life and fiction. . . . Don’t miss your chance to take this unforgettable journey with the Cabrelli women!” —Lisa Wingate, Book of the Month
From “a master of visual and palpable detail” (The Washington Post), comes a lush, immersive novel about three generations of Tuscan artisans with one remarkable secret. Epic in scope and resplendent with the glorious themes of identity and belonging, The Good Left Undone unfolds in breathtaking turns.
Matelda, the Cabrelli family’s matriarch, has always been brusque and opinionated. Now, as she faces the end of her life, she is determined to share a long-held secret with her family about her own mother’s great love story: with her childhood friend, Silvio, and with dashing Scottish sea captain John Lawrie McVicars, the father Matelda never knew. . . .
In the halcyon past, Domenica Cabrelli thrives in the coastal town of Viareggio until her beloved home becomes unsafe when Italy teeters on the brink of World War II. Her journey takes her from the rocky shores of Marseille to the mystical beauty of Scotland to the dangers of wartime Liverpool—where Italian Scots are imprisoned without cause—as Domenica experiences love, loss, and grief while she longs for home. A hundred years later, her daughter, Matelda, and her granddaughter, Anina, face the same big questions about life and their family’s legacy, while Matelda contemplates what is worth fighting for. But Matelda is running out of time, and the two timelines intersect and weave together in unexpected and heartbreaking ways that lead the family to shocking revelations and, ultimately, redemption.
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The village of Viareggio was set on the shores of the Liguarian Sea, on the cusp of Il Tirreno Mare, south of the Gulf of Genoaand north of the Amalfi coast. The candy-colored villas with a view of the sea were shaded by a grove of pine trees with tall, spindly trunks topped by bouffants of green foliage. Viareggio Beach unfurled on the west coast of Italy like a rope of emeralds.
The scents of charred eucalyptus wood and sulfur lingered inthe air as Matelda climbed the rickety steps to the boardwalk. Carnevale had officially ended the night before when the fireworks turned to ash in the black sky. The last of the tourists had left the beach before sunrise. The pink Ferris wheel was still. The carousel horses were frozen in midair. The only sound she heard was the flap of the tarps over the empty vendor stands.
Alone on the boardwalk, Matelda leaned against the railing, where she observed curls of smoke from the abandoned firepits onthe beach drifting up to the heavens like offerings. The overcast sky blurred into the horizon, where it became one with the silver sea. She heard the blare of a foghorn as a sleek ocean liner appeared in the distance, rippling the surf in streaks of foam. The graceful ship glided past, pulling the banner of daybreak over the water. All her life, Matelda waited for the great ships and considered spotting one good luck. She couldn’t remember where she learned it; it was something she always knew.
Come back, Matelda thought as the white ship with a maroon hull and midnight blue trim sailed south. Too late. The ship was on its way to somewhere warm. Matelda was done with winter. It would not be long until the turquoise waves returned under a cloudless sky in springtime. How she looked forward to walks on the beach when the weather was warm.
Matelda typically took a short stroll after church in the morning to shop for the day’s meals, and a long walk in the afternoon to think. These rituals had shaped her days in the last chapter of her life, after she retired from her book keeping position at Cabrelli Jewelers. Matelda took the time to get her house in order. She didn’t want to leave her children with the stacks of paperwork and rooms of furniture her parents had left behind after they died. She wanted to prepare her children for the inevitable as best she could.
Perhaps Matelda felt blessed having dodged the virus that had hobbled Bergamo to the north—after all, a virus that targets the elderly certainly had her number. She was sanguine about the situation because she had no choice. Fate was a wrecking ball. She didn’t know when it would swing through to do its damage; she was only certain, from experience, that it would.
The habit of examining her conscience, instilled by the nuns when she was a child, hadn’t left her. Matelda reflected on past hurts done to her and took stock of those she had perpetrated on others. Toscans might live in the moment, but the past lived in them. Even if that weren’t true, there were reminders tucked in every corner of her hometown. She knew Viareggio and its people as well as she knew her own body; in a sense, they were one.
The mood turned grim in the village as the revelry of Carnevale ended and Lent began. The next forty days would be a somber time of reflection, fasting, and penance. Lent had felt like it lasted an eternity when she was a girl. Easter Sunday could not come soon enough. The day of relief. “You cannot have the joy of Easter Sunday without the agony of Good Friday,” her mother reminded them. “No cross, no crown,” she’d say in a dialect only her children understood.
The resurrection of the Lord redeemed the village and set the children free. Black sacks were pulled off the statues of the saints.The bare altar was decorated anew with myrtle and daisies. Plain broth for sustenance during the fast was replaced with sweet bread.The scents of butter, orange zest, and honey as Mama kneaded the dough for Easter bread during Holy Week lifted their spirits. The taste of the soft egg bread, braided into loaves served hot from the oven and drenched in honey, meant the sacrifice was over, at least until next year. Matelda recalled a particular Pranzo di Pasqua with every member from both sides of the family in attendance. Papa constructed one long dining table out of wooden doors so the entire family could sit together at the meal. Mama had covered the table in a yellow cloth and decorated it with baskets of her fresh bread.
“We are one,” her father said as he lifted his glass. Soon, the cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings raised their glasses with him.There had been many happy moments in Matelda’s life, but that particular Easter Sunday after the war was significant. If her memory ever failed her completely, Matelda was certain she would still remember her family in the garden under a glittering sun as they broke the fast together. When Matelda was young, she chased time to get what she wanted. Now she chased time to hold on to it.
The wooden slats of the boardwalk creaked beneath her feet asshe walked down the promenade. She turned when she reached the midpoint of the pier and looked back at the wide gray runway. Why had it seemed endless when she was a girl?
Matelda recalled a summer evening on the boardwalk when she was a girl and walked beside her brother’s pram during La Passeggiata Mare. Nino was born in 1949. (She retained numbers—bookkeepers usually do.) The war was over. Her mother wore a dress of apricot organza, and her father wore a straw boater with a wide band of raspberry silk. Matelda placed her hand on her heart as the details came together in her mind’s eye. Soon the ghosts joined her on the walk, filling the drab boardwalk with color. She imagined men wearing taffy-colored suits and women preening in hats spiked with peacock plumes. Her mother slowly twirled a linen parasol bleached white by the sun. When Matelda stopped to rest on a bench, she closed her eyes and swore she could hear her mother’s voice. Domenica Cabrelli had taught her daughter to love the sea by her example. Matelda could feel the warmth of her mother’s presence whenever she walked along the water under the coral sun.
Matelda wondered why it was so easy to return to her childhood in particular detail, and yet she struggled to remember what she ate for dinner the night before. Maybe Ida’s probiotics would help! She’d have to ask her doctor. When her husband took her to her last appointment, the nurse conducted a memory test. There was not a single question about her past; instead, the doctor and nurse were obsessed with the here and now. Who is the president of Italy? What day of the week is it? How old are you? Matelda longed to respond “Who cares?” But she knew better than to get on the wrong side of her doctor. The doctor assured her that her visions and dreams of the past were normal but completely irrelevant when it came to the current assessment of the health of her brain. “The past and the present aren’t connected in the human brain,” he had explained to her. Matelda wasn’t so sure.
She crossed the boulevard and approached the original storefront of her family business, now a dress shop. It gave her a senseof pride to see Cabrelli Jewelers still painted on the building, even though the letters were faded. It had been twenty years since her husband moved the shop to Lucca, a bustling small city just a few miles inland from Viareggio.
Matelda shaded her eyes and peered into the shop through the wide storefront window. She could see that the door to the back room was open. The workroom that housed the bruting wheel where her grandfather cut the gems was now filled with racks of clothing.
The shopkeepers on the boulevard were busy taking down the decorations for Carnevale. They lowered the garlands, loosened festoons, and took down strings of lights while another man balanced on a ladder and unhooked red, white, and green bunting along the route where the parade had passed. The grocer swept confetti into the gutter and nodded a silent greeting as she passed.
Matelda cupped her hands and sipped the icy water that flowed down the mountain to ancient cisterns. The spigots were attached to the hands of carved angels whose faces had been worn away by time. The water was loaded with precious minerals that shored up the people who drank it. Matelda thought of her mother as she dried her hands on the handkerchief she kept in her pocket. Not only had Domenica Cabrelli insisted her children drink the water for their health, she also taught Matelda how to count as they passed a series of angel fountains on her way to school. Viareggio had also been her first primer.
Matelda opened her purse to pay the fruit vendor as he selected six unbruised golden apples from his display and gently placed them in a paper sack.
“How’s business?” Matelda asked as she paid. “Buona festa?”
“Not like the old days,” he complained.
Matelda passed a team of six men on Via Firenze as they folded an enormous blue-striped tent corner to corner like a bedsheet. The Cabrelli cousins had occupied the brightly painted houses that lined the street, stacked one on top of the other, like books on a shelf. Matelda had learned the homes of her relatives by the color of their front doors: rosa for the Mamaci cousins, giallo for the Biagettis, and verde for the Gregorios. Color also signaled retreat. Matelda was not welcome at the house with the porta azzurra because of a long-standing feud between the Cabrelli and the Nichini families, calcified in history long before she was born. The standoff continued after the Nichinis moved to Livorno, leaving the house with the blue door behind. Matelda remembered the summers of her childhood when she stood at the bottom of the hill and whistled to gather her cousins to go to the beach. The front doors would snap open at once, creating a colorful enfilade as the children ran down the street to join her.
For fun, Matelda put two fingers in her mouth and blew. The loud trill got the attention of the tent folders on the street, but not a single door flew open. Sadly, her cousins had migrated to Lucca too. Matelda and Olimpio were now the old timers in the village. The last of the Cabrelli-Roffos of Viareggio.
Matelda’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She stopped to read thetext.
Happy Birthday Matelda! Thank you for the lovely visit.
She texted her sister‑in‑law, Thank you. It was fun. Not long enough!
Matelda genuinely liked her sister‑in‑law, Patrizia. She was a peacemaker and had encouraged Nino to get along with Matelda; after all, they only had each other. Matelda hadn’t had a single argument with her brother when he and his wife last visited.
Can you ask Nino if he remembers Nonno Cabrelli’s elephant story? Matelda texted.
Patrizia sent back an emoji of a winking face.
Matelda hated emojis. Soon enough, human beings would not need language to communicate, animated small heads with bug eyes would do the talking for them.
Matelda stopped at the gate of the communal garden planted a hundred years earlier by the Boncourso family. Decades later, the lot remained in their name even though the family had died out after the First World War. The fallow garden was carpeted in muck. A few perennial plants were hooded in burlap to protect them against the frost. The white pergola stood alone in the center of the garden like a bridal carriage marooned in mud.
Matelda remembered her first kiss under the pergola. It was summer; she had closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of the grapes that draped over the arch. Rocco Tiburzi took that as a sign and stole the moment to kiss her. Matelda was fourteen years old and thought that nothing more wonderful would ever happen to her again; she practically floated home. When Matelda arrived, her grandmother Netta reprimanded her because she’d forgotten the sack of chestnuts she had been sent to collect. Tenderness and shame would remain closely tied in Matelda’s heart until she learned the combination blocked her ability to truly love.
The chestnut trees that lined the back wall of the garden still bore plenty of fruit. Her neighbors continued to collect them in burlap sacks during the harvest, but Matelda chose not to take her share. She had eaten enough chestnuts in pastes, fillings, and dough when there was a scarcity of food after the war; she’d promised herself she would not eat another when she grew up and was in charge of the family kitchen. The current popularity of Italian dishes made with chestnuts befuddled Matelda and reminded her how quickly people forgot hardship and suffering once they’d moved through them.
Matelda and her husband, Olimpio, lived in the attico of Villa Cabrelli angled in the crook of Viale Giosuè Carducci. The Roffos were the third generation to live in the family home. After Matelda’s parents died, and her grown children had moved out, she and Olimpio reconfigured the house. They took the penthouse apartment. “We finally made it to the top,” Olimpio would joke, “but we had to lose everyone we love to do it.”
Matelda had experienced life from every view from Villa Cabrelli. It was too bad that generations no longer lived in one house separated by a few steps between floors. Her own children had moved out as soon as they married. Her daughter lived in nearby Lucca, and her son was farther up the coast. For many years, they were close enough, but not anymore. Matelda wished her entire famiglia had remained under one roof.
The village evolved as the families changed over time. Most of the neighbors who owned homes with a view of the sea had them repurposed into apartments as their owners died and their heirs, intent to hold on to the family homes, found much-needed income in lucrative summer rentals. Villa Cabrelli had been broken into apartments to rent too, but this was more a function of the aging Roffos needing less space to look after than it was financial need. The renovation included the installation of the building’s first elevator, which Olimpio insisted they would need one day. He was right. A house renovation at the age of sixty should keep an eye on eighty. It came around quickly.
Once Matelda reached the top of the hill, she fished inside her purse for the key. Arancione meant she was home. The orange door had not changed since she was a girl.
“Signora! I have something for you.” Giusto Figliolo, Matelda’s white-haired neighbor, waved to her from behind his gate before joining her. “My daughter took a drive to Pietrasanta.” He gave Matelda a large triangle of parmesan cheese wrapped in waxed paper. “I have more when you need it.”
Matelda lifted the cheese like a barbell. “Are you sure you can spare it?”
“Sì, sì.” He chuckled. “She brought me a wheel. It will last us until the next Carnevale.”
“Thank you, Signore. Please, take a few apples.” Matelda opened the paper sack.
“I’ll take one.”
“Are you sure? I have plenty.”
“One is all I need. Buon compleanno.” Figliolo smiled.
It would be like a Figliolo to remember her birthday with a hunk of cheese. They once owned the most popular restaurant in town, where families in the village went to celebrate. The mother had been a good cook, the father a fine manager. All the Figliolo children had worked in the restaurant. They were good-looking people, which helped when you wanted to attract customers. Figliolo’s sisters were long gone, but Matelda remembered their black hair, slim figures, and red-polished nails.
“Do you have plans to celebrate your birthday?” Figliolo asked her.
“With great humility. My goal is to be alive this time tomorrow morning. And the one after that, if God is kind.”
“May God bless you and give you what you need because what you want will get you in trouble.” Figliolo blessed himself. “The Cabrellis have always been fighters. You’ll be all right.”
Matelda picked up the newspaper. “Here, you take it.”
“There’s no news anymore, just obituaries. I don’t need any reminders of what’s coming.”
“You’re a kid, Matelda.” Giusto was ninety-three years old. “You’re just getting started.”
The final apple peel fell like a gold ribbon into the sink. Matelda sliced the meat of the apple into slivers with her paring knife. She patted the dough on the cookie sheet before artfully placing the apple slices on top of the dough. She scattered pats of butter on top of the apple and sprinkled the mixture with sugar. Matelda dusted cinnamon over the sugar before pulling the four corners of the dough to the center, making a purse as her mother had taught her. She slid the strudel di mele into the oven.
Matelda fed the pets. Their mutt, Beppe, ate quickly and fell asleep under the sofa. “You’re just like your master. Eat. Nap. Eat,” she teased the dog. Argento walked along the top of the bookcase in the living room, performing her daily circus act. “And you!” She shook her finger at the cat. “You are crazy! You’re too old for heights.” The cat ignored her, but that was nothing new. Argento acted like the Roffos lived with her, instead of the other way around.
Matelda pulled off her apron and straightened the living room.
Four gray sofas with low, modern lines formed a square around the coffee table, enough to accommodate the entire family when they visited. A vintage Leica camera, a primitive sculpture, and glass jars filled with seashells collected by their grandchildren were tucked among Matelda’s bookshelves. She brushed a feather duster over the books.
Satisfied, Matelda pulled a yellowed scrap of paper out of the Capodimonte vase on the table. She lifted a small painting off its hook under the stairs, revealing the hidden metal door to a wallsafe. She cocked her good ear against it, followed the sequence of numbers on the slip of paper, and spun the dial like a seasoned safecracker. She heard the click of the wheel. The door of the safe snapped open. She reached inside and removed a velvet jewelry case. Leaving the safe open, she put the case on the table on her way to the kitchen.
Matelda lifted the strudel out of the oven and placed it on the counter to cool. Steam rose from the golden folds of crust dusted with sugar. Matelda opened her notebook on the counter and wrote the list of ingredients and instructions to make the pastry. Her daughter, Nicolina, was collecting the family recipes. Matelda never used recipes; she made the dishes as her grandmother and mother had taught her: Assemble the best ingredients. No measuring. Use your instincts.
Matelda unscrewed the top off the moka pot. She lifted out the strainer and measured freshly ground espresso beans into the strainer cup. She filled the bottom chamber with water. Using the blunt end of the spoon, she patted the grounds across the top of the rim to make them level before gently twisting the top onto the pot. She placed it on the stove and lit the burner.
The kitchen filled with the earthy scent of morning when Matelda realized she had spilled coffee onto the scatter rug under the sink. Matelda bent over, cursed, and rolled the rug like a cigar. She carried the rug out to the terrace and shook it over the side. She hung it on the railing.
Matelda shivered in the cold, pulled her sweater tightly around herself without buttoning it, and crossed her arms over her chest.The surf had begun to churn along the coastline. The brisk winds that blew over the peaks of the Alpi Apuane and whistled through the Pania della Croce practically guaranteed there would be at least one more storm before spring. Matelda could not recall a Toscano winter more severe than the one they had just endured. She gave the rug one more shake before folding it.
She turned to go back inside when she heard a screeching sound from the sky. She looked up and saw a fat seagull dive through the fog. “Shoo!” she shouted, unfurling the rug toward the bird. But instead of flying off, the bird veered toward her, so close the sharp tip of its hooked yellow beak nipped her cheek.
“Beppe!” Matelda shouted for the dog. The dog leapt through the open glass door and barked at the bird. The cat slunk out onto the terrace, curious about the fuss. The seagull swooped down to taunt the cat, who arched his back and hissed.
“Argento! Inside!” She scooped the cat up in the rug. “Beppe! Andiamo!” The dog bounded back into the apartment. Matelda snapped the sliding glass door shut. She placed the cat on the chair, pulling the rug away, while the dog jumped up on her legs, tongue wagging.
Matelda reached inside her blouse for the handkerchief she kept tucked under the strap of her brassiere. She gently dabbed the perspiration on her forehead and rested her hand on her racing heart. She peered out the glass door, searched the sky, but the seagull was gone. She had a funny feeling as she sat down to catch her breath.
Too much excitement for an old lady, she said to herself. “And for you too,” she mumbled to the dog and the cat.
"Nonna?” The sound of her granddaughter Anina’s voice onthe intercom startled her as it echoed through the apartment. “It’s me. I’ve got my key.”
Anina was talking on her cell phone when she stepped off the elevator and into the apartment. She mouthed Ciao, Nonna, pursed her lips in an air-kiss, handed her grandmother a sack of fresh fruit, and motioned that she needed to finish the call. She pulled off her coat and threw it over a chair before sinking down onto the sofa and continuing her conversation.
Anina Tizzi at twenty-five years old was a dazzler. She had the Cabrelli mouth, straight nose, tawny complexion, and trim figure. Her hair was thick and brown, like Matelda’s used to be, and while Anina’s eyes were wide-set like her grandmother’s, they weren’t brown but green, favoring her father Giorgio’s side, the Tizzis from Sestri Levante.
Anina wore white denim jeans that had a series of small rips inthe fabric from the tops of the thighs to the ankles. The pants showed so much leg, her grandmother wondered why Anina bothered to wear pants at all. Anina’s navel was also on display. The cropped pale blue sweater barely grazed her waist. Matelda wondered how Anina hadn’t frozen to death.
Anina twisted her hair into a topknot as she carried on the conversation on the phone. Her engagement ring, a simple emerald-cut diamond on a platinum band, sparkled in the light. From Matelda’s perspective, the ring was the only note of refinement on a young woman who should have been nothing but elegant—after all, Anina had been exposed to the best; the Cabrellis were the town artisans.
Matelda brought the fruit into the kitchen. Her cell phone buzzed on the counter. She put it on speaker. “Pronto,” she greeted her husband.
“What did Anina choose?” Olimpio wanted to know.
“Nothing. Yet. She’s on the phone. When a young person visits an old person, they assume that the old person has nothing to do all day but sit around watching the clock, waiting to die.”
Olimpio laughed. “Tell her to get off the phone. Take a breath. Relax.”
“It’s not easy for me to do.”
“I know. I haven’t seen you take a breath in fifty-three years. Not a deep one anyway.”
“What time will you be home?”
“The usual. Say a prayer. I’m going into a meeting with the bankers.”
“Persuade them with your charm.”
“Sì. Sì. I will make them feel special. You do the same for Anina.”
Matelda prepared a tray with dishes, silver, and linen napkins. She placed the strudel di mele in the center, sliding a serving knife under it.
“You’re still on the phone?” Matelda complained as she placed the tray on the table. She ran her hand across the marble top.
When her parents died five months apart, twenty years earlier, they had left four floors of furniture and stuff behind. The marble-top dining table had a history. There had been talk of selling it when money was needed after the war and the shop struggled to remain open. But no one wanted to buy it because the last thing people purchased during hard times was antique furniture.
Matelda had no idea what to do with her parents’ possessions when Signora Ciliberti, a wisewoman who lived on Via Castagna, advised Matelda that she only needed to keep one special object to remind her of her mother. Everything else could go, she told her. Free of the guilt, Matelda unloaded her mother’s gilt without any help from her brother. Nino attended their mother’s funeral, mourned her with the village, and left soon after, leaving his sister to do everything else, including the dishes after the sympathy lunch. When it came to the home, Italian women handled all matters of importance between birth and death.
Matelda positioned the box of jewelry at the place she had setfor her granddaughter. “Anina.”
Anina turned and smiled. She held up her finger, pleading for another minute, and kept talking.
“Anina. Hang up the phone,” Matelda commanded.
“Ciao. Ciao. I must go.” Anina got off the call. “I’m sorry, Nonna. When Paolo wants to talk, I have to drop whatever I’m doing.” Anina joined her grandmother at the table. “Lately, all he wants to do is talk.”
“I made your favorite—” Matelda began.
Anina’s cell phone rang. “Sorry.” Anina reached to answer it.
“Give me your phone.” Matelda extended an open hand.
Anina handed her grandmother the phone as it buzzed. Matelda walked to the safe. She threw the phone into the safe and closed the door, locking it inside. “It’s rude to visit your grandmother and spend the entire time talking on the phone.”
“May I please have my phone back?” Anina was bewildered.
“You’re just going to leave it in there?”
“Sì.” Matelda poured the coffee. “You can call them back later.”
“Nonna, what happened?” Anina squinted at Matelda’s face.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s blood on your cheek.”
“Where?” Matelda got up and looked at her face in the mirror. Anina was right. There was a faint streak of burgundy on her face. “Have I been bleeding this whole time?”
“You must have cut yourself. Didn’t you feel it when it happened?”
“No, I did not. Well, wait. It might have come from a little scuffle I had with a seagull before you got here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was on the balcony waiting for you to arrive. A seagull swooped down out of nowhere. I didn’t think it got me.”
“It got you.”
“Maybe it wasn’t the bird. Maybe I scratched myself.”
“And you didn’t feel that either?” Anina worried about her grandmother, though her mother assured her that Matelda would outlive all of them. It might be true, because it seemed Matelda had not aged like other grandmothers. Like volcanized rubber, her grandmother seemed to get stronger over time. If she fell, she bounced. Matelda was the only nonna Anina knew who didn’t slump. Her upright posture was something out of a military exercise. Her style was classic. Matelda dressed in classic wool skirts and cashmere sweater sets. There was always a tasteful brooch and a string of pearls. Matelda dressed like a woman of means who worked in a city, even though she was now, in retirement, a housewife who lived by the sea.
“Stop staring.” Matelda put her hand to her face and found the cut with the tips of her fingers. It was no thicker than a thread and went from the top of her cheekbone to her ear.
“If a bird attacked you, all those germs got into the cut. They carry disease; plus, it’s bad luck.”
“I wouldn’t worry. It’s my bad luck, not yours.”
Anina opened the jewelry case. The contents glistened like ribbon candy. “I remember this case. When I was little, you’d let me play with the jewelry.”
“That doesn’t sound like me.”
“Well, you let me help you polish the pieces. Remember?”
“That sounds more like me. Putting idle children to work to keep them out of mischief.”
“You took a chore that needed to be done and made it fun.”
“I was fun?” Matelda chuckled to herself.
“Here and there.” Anina closed the jewelry case and looked at Matelda.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you have ointment or a bandage or something? I won’t enjoy our time together until you put something on that wound.”
“Madonne.” Matelda pushed her chair from the table and went to the powder room. “It’s just a scratch.”
“It’s a wound,” Anina called after her. “I’d google it, but you stole my phone.”
Matelda opened the first aid kit she kept under the sink. She washed her hands before applying a thin line of antiseptic to the cut on her face. She pressed a gauze pad against it to let the ointment soak in. “All right, I am cured.” Matelda returned to the table.
“Grazie mille.” Anina lifted the compartments out of the case, placing them on the table. “How did the incident with the bird happen exactly?”
“What difference does it make? We can’t file a police report.”
“Was the bird alone, or was there a flock of them?”
“Only one. I see what you’re getting at. There’s some meaning in all this. I’m afraid I don’t know what that would be. My mother knew Italian folklore. She was the expert. She used to say if a bird perched in the window looking into the house, it meant someone in the house would die.”
“What would she say about a bird that attacks an innocent woman unprovoked in broad daylight?”
“I have no idea.”
“We could call a strega,” Anina suggested.
“All the stregas I knew in the village are dead,” Matelda admitted.
“Mama might know someone in Lucca.”
“We are not calling around Lucca to find a witch.”
“It’s just a thought.” Anina pulled a ring from the box and tried it on. “I’m just trying to help.”
“It’s nothing,” Matelda assured her. But she wasn’t entirely certain. This was the worst aspect of being old: There was no one left to call when Matelda needed answers. “Your coffee is going to get cold. How about the strudel di mele?”
“It’s your favorite.”
Anina patted her taut midsection. “I have to wriggle into a wedding gown.”
“You’re wearing one of those?” Matelda couldn’t hide her disappointment.
“I’m not wearing a big skirt. I don’t want to look like a bombolone on my wedding day.”
“Instead you’ll wear a tight gown like a television game show hostess with everything spilling out.”
“I won’t have spillage. There are alterations to take care of that.” Anina examined a platinum brooch with a bow of tiny blue sapphires, holding it up to the light.
“The priest will have something to say about it.”
“He did. I’ve been going for instruction with Paolo. I showed Don Vincenzo a picture of the gown. He thought it was lovely.”
“There are rules. A bride is required to have her head and arms covered in church. No bosoms.”
“But I have bosoms.”
“Modesty. It’s a sign of self-respect to stay covered. It’s keeping something just for you and your husband.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“And it’s too late to teach you.”
“Does it matter?”
“Probably not.” Matelda smiled. Most of the things that mattered to her didn’t matter to anyone anymore. Matelda didn’t havea right to complain, but she remembered a time when an elder could. “Anina, wear whatever makes you happy.”
At least Anina was getting married in a church. Plenty of Matelda’s friends had grandchildren who were married in public parks or on the beach without a mention of God. All they got was a barefoot bride, a sunburn, and warm prosecco in a paper cup. “Do you know what today is?”
“The day you asked me to come over and choose a piece of jewelry for my wedding.” Anina placed the brooch back in its velvet envelope. “Cabrelli family tradition. Your grandmother gave you a piece of jewelry to wear on your wedding day, your mother gave jewelry to my mother, and now it’s your turn to give it to me.”
“It’s also my birthday.”
“No.” Anina placed her hands on the table and thought for a moment. “It is! I am so sorry! Buon Compleanno!” She got up and gave Matelda a kiss on her cheek, the side without the cut. “I didn’t forget altogether. I remembered it yesterday; I just forgot this morning. I should have brought you a present!”
“You did. You brought me fruit, a gift that has to be used immediately. It’s the perfect gift for a woman of eighty-one if I don’t die before it spoils.”
“I’m sorry, Nonna. I can’t do anything right when it comes to you.”
“That’s not true. I’d just like to see more of you, and that’s not a criticism.”
“Whenever someone says, ‘That’s not a criticism,’ it’s always a criticism.”
“Is that why you don’t come and visit more often? Am I too critical?”
“Yes.” Anina tried not to smile. “Truthfully? I’m busy.”
“I’m planning a wedding.” Anina waved her hands in frustration over the jewelry case.
“At your age, I was already keeping the books for my father.”
“I’m taking over for Orsola when she goes on maternity leave.”
“Excellent. When you’re not out front with the customers, try to spend time with your grandfather in the back. That’s where the real work is done. Learn the trade from a master. It might spark your creativity.”
“Let’s see how I do filling in for Orsola, and then we can talk about my creativity.”
“Seize this opportunity and make something of it. You should think about a career.”
“First I want to make a home for Paolo and me. You know, make strudel and paint the walls. Grow a garden.”
“You need an enterprise beyond growing arugula. Sometimes things happen in life and you will have to carry your family. You’ll need money to do it.”
“I don’t care about money,” Anina shot back. “Can we talk about something else? I thought we were going to have fun today.”
A wave of shame washed over Anina. Her grandmother was trying. Nonna had prepared for this special visit and planned how it all would go. She reached for Matelda’s hand and patted it gently. “Thank you for doing all this for me. I don’t know what to pick. Will you help me?” Anina held up a small gold religious medal.
“That’s a miraculous medal.”
“Is it yours?”
“It belonged to my mother. I used to know the significance. I can’t remember now. But it will come back to me. By then, we won’t care. Old age is terrible.”
“There has to be something good about getting old.”
Matelda thought about it. “Sleeves.”
Matelda held up the medal of Santa Lucia. “There’s a story to go with this one. It also belonged to my mother.”
“I want to hear it.”
Anina lifted a small envelope out of the box. A one-carat Peruzzi-cut ruby fell out of the envelope and into the palm of her hand like a tiny red gumdrop. “Whoa.”
“That is the Speranza ruby. My grandfather insisted his friend from Venezia was the best gem cutter in Italy. You could have something made with the stone if you like.”
Anina put the ruby back into the envelope. “I had enough trouble coming up with a design for my engagement ring. Let’s leave this for someone with an imagination.”
Matelda removed a dowel with three rings from the box. She lifted a thick gold band off the dowel. “This band belonged to my mother’s mother, Netta Cabrelli. This was her wedding ring.”
Anina tried the ring on. “I can’t get it past my knuckle!”
“Nonno will size it for you if you want it. There’s plenty of gold there. She was smaller than you, but to me, she was a giant, and not always a gentle one. There’s a photograph of her on my nightstand.”
“I’ve seen it. It’s scary. People photographed in sepia always look miserable.”
“Because they couldn’t move. They had to hold still in order for the photographer to get the picture. But that’s only part of the story. Netta Cabrelli was stern for other reasons.”
“What’s this?” Anina held up a vintage timepiece set in a carved rectangle of green aventurine stone.
“Where did you find that?”
“It was at the bottom of the case.”
The pale blue oyster-shell face of the watch dangled from an embossed gold bar pin. The 12, 3, 6, and 9 on the face were set with a jewel baguette.
“I thought I left it in the safety deposit box at the bank.”
“Is it valuable?”
“Only to me.”
“The filigree on the pin would make a great ankle tattoo.”
“You have a tattoo?” Matelda groaned.
“Mama told me not to tell you.”
“I have a heart on my hip.”
“You already have one in your chest.”
“But the one on my hip is cute.” Anina held up the aventurine watch fob. “Nonna, I want this. May I have it?”
“Pick something else.”
“You said I could have anything in the case.”
Matelda handed Anina a dainty ring, a cluster made of briolette rubies set in yellow gold. “It will look lovely with your diamond. Your grandfather made it for me for my fortieth birthday.”
Anina slipped the ring onto the middle finger of her right hand.
“It’s stunning, but it’s too much, Nonna.” She returned the ring to the case and picked up the watch fob again. “Why is the face on the watch upside down?”
“So my mother could read the time.”
“Why would she have to read the time upside down?”
“Because she was often using both hands to do her work. She wore this on her uniform. She was a nurse.”
“Did I know this? I don’t believe I did. You don’t talk about your mother. Why?”
“I talk about her.” Matelda folded her hands in her lap. “You don’t listen when I tell stories. You kids are too busy on your phones.”
“Are you all right? You look pale. Do you want to reschedule? We could do this another day.”
“It’s too late.”
“For what?” Anina looked around. “Do you have somewhere to go?”
Matelda wished she did. Her heart was racing. Frustration, the jet fuel of anxiety, welled within her. She could see the future. She would die; the children would gather around this table. Her daughter, Nicolina, would sort through the contents. Her son, Matteo, would sit back; when his sister was done, he would rummage through the case. Her children would have, at best, a sketchy knowledge of the history behind the pieces. Without facts, there was no meaning behind them; without meaning, there would be no value. They would have no recourse except to sell the collection to the highest bidder. The stones would be plucked from their settings; the gold would be weighed, parceled, and melted down to be repurposed. The pieces that remained intact would be salvaged to sell as vintage collectibles on one of those websites that wealthy people peruse because they have nothing better to do than acquire more stuff. Matelda’s stomach churned.
“Nonna, are you all right? Seriously. You look terrible.” Aninawent into the kitchen.
Matelda took a moment to collect herself. When a housewife grew old, her final task was to imagine what would endure of her life’s work after she was gone. The mother shaped the mission of the family, and if she failed, the family failed with her. Matelda had a hunch she wouldn’t like what her children would do once she was gone, but she had no one to blame but herself. She had given up too easily. She had not shared the truth and made her family history a priority. Matelda had not taken her children to the place she was born and shared the story of her father. A vacation in Montenegro was more important than a trip to Scotland. But Matelda had her reasons. There were limits to what she knew about her father, but that was no excuse. Her children and grandchildren needed to know certain facts before Matelda forgot them entirely or died suddenly. A bird didn’t have to drop out of the sky to deliver that message.
Anina returned with a glass of water. “Nonna. Drink this.”
Matelda slowly sipped the water. “Grazie.”
Anina picked up her great grandmother Domenica Cabrelli’s watch and held it to her ear.
“It hasn’t been wound in years,” Matelda admitted.
Anina studied the watch. The aventurine was different from the other gems in the case; it was not warm like the magenta rubies from India set in the birthday band. It was not soft, like the swirls of gold in the Capri coral. It did not catch light like a diamond. It was not Italian. The stone was dark green and brooding, mined in a country far from Italy, in a place where the dense roots of tall trees absorbed a steady season of monsoons followed by months of hot sun. The filigree and embossing were not Italianate in design either. The watch was the awkward beauty of the collection, the foreigner.
“I think it was an antique long before Bisnonna owned it,” Anina said. “It’s nineteenth-century for sure.”
“How do you know?”
“Nonno taught me how to read the markings.” Anina turned it over in her hand and showed Matelda. “The gold is stamped. There are other clues. The timepiece is not Swiss, not its face or its gears, typically used in Italian construction. It’s not German or French either. Where did it come from?”
Matelda did not answer her.
“Look. It’s engraved. There’s the D, then there’s an engraved ampersand and then the J. Who is the J?”
“I’m not ready to part with it.”
Anina placed the watch back into the case. “I always want whatI can’t have.”
Matelda rested her face in her hand, as she often did when she needed to think. Her fingers grazed the cut on her cheek. The faint wound stung just enough to remind her that she was hurting.
Outside, the late-winter day split open with a drumroll of thunder followed by flashes of lightning.
“Uh‑oh.” Anina turned to the terrace doors. “Squall moving in!”
A heavy, cold rain began to fall, pummeling the terrazzo floor on the terrace like silver arrows.
“The bedroom windows!” Matelda cried.
“I’ve got them!” Anina jumped up and ran up the steps to her grandparents’ bedroom.
Matelda pulled the electrical plugs of the appliances in the living room in case the storm caused a power surge. Beppe barked and ran around in a circle in the excitement as Matelda pulled the emergency lamp off the shelf.
“You’re all set.” Anina sat down, breathless. “Closed them all. You’re the only person I know who keeps their windows open in the winter.”
“My mother taught me to open the windows in the morning to let out the bad spirits. I forget to close them.”
“Was your mother a strega?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So how did she know all that stuff?”
“Domenica Cabrelli was one of those wisewomen. She had common sense, but she acknowledged the spirit world. She also respected science. The neighbors called her before they called the doctor.” Beppe jumped up and sat on Matelda’s lap.
“I’d like to know about her.”
“My mother was born in this house; ninety-three years later she died in it. She lived in Viareggio all her life except when she was a young nurse and had to leave her family for a while.”
“Why did she leave?”
“Look. The sea is wild. This is the big storm they promised us.”
“Nonna, I want to know why my great-grandmother left the village. I’m getting married. I want my children to know about their ancestors.”
A stripe of orange light rested on the horizon, illuminating the churn of the surf as the storm took hold. The Ligurian Sea had a story too. Anina would soon find out where the sea had taken Domenica Cabrelli before it swept her away, along with her true love and their secret.
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