Dancing on Sunday Afternoons
“I had two husbands.”
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.
Release date: December 1, 2016
Publisher: Bellastoria Press
Print pages: 344
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Dancing on Sunday Afternoons
I had two husbands—Paolo and Salvatore.
Salvatore and I were married for thirty-two years. I still live in the house he bought for us; I still sleep in our bed. All around me are the signs of our life together. My bedroom window looks out over the garden he planted. In the middle of the city, he coaxed tomatoes, peppers, zucchini—even grapes for his wine—out of the ground. On the weekends, he used to drive up to his cousin's farm in Waterbury and bring back manure. In the winter, he wrapped the peach tree and the fig tree with rags and black rubber hoses against the cold, his massive, coarse hands gentling those trees as if they were his fragile-skinned babies. My neighbor, Dominic Grazza, does that for me now. My boys have no time for the garden.
In the front of the house, Salvatore planted roses. The roses I take care of myself. They are giant, cream-colored, fragrant. In the afternoons, I like to sit out on the couch on the porch with my coffee, protected from the din and eyes of the neighborhood by that curtain of flowers.
Salvatore died in this house thirty-five years ago. In the last months, he lay on the sofa in the parlor so he could be in the middle of everything. Except for the two oldest boys, all the children were still at home and we ate together every evening. Salvatore could see the dining room table from the sofa, and he could hear everything that was said. “I'm not dead, yet,” he told me. “I want to know what's going on.”
When my first grandchild, Cara, was born, we brought her to him, and he held her on his chest, stroking her tiny head. Sometimes they fell asleep together.
Over on the radiator cover in the corner of the parlor is the portrait Salvatore and I had taken on our twenty-fifth anniversary. This brooch I am wearing today, with the diamonds—I'm wearing it in the photograph also—Salvatore gave it to me that day. Upstairs on my dresser is a jewelry box, filled with necklaces and bracelets and earrings. All from Salvatore.
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.
Paolo left me nothing. Nothing, that is, that my family, especially my sisters, thought had any value. No house. No diamonds. Not even a photograph.
But after he was gone, and I could catch my breath from the pain, I knew that I still had something. In the middle of the night, I sat alone and held them in my hands, reading the words over and over until I heard his voice in my head. I had Paolo’s letters.
Cara Serafini Dedrick
The Cigar Box
The phone call didn’t come in the middle of the night, but it might as well have. I was on my way out the door of my office just before 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 home—got to make the 4:25.”
“She says it can’t wait. A family emergency.”
My body stiffened and the color drained 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 that she would not be insisting on talking to me now if it weren’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.
“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 generation—Zia Letitia had graciously managed to wait till 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 take on the tasks of wrapping 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 of life.
“She fell last night. It was in Zia Letitia’s house. She was alone, and apparently 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 going to be 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 for her to fly—the risk of an embolism is 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 think she should be 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 would go, but with Daddy needing dialysis every three days, there is no way I can leave him. Nobody else in the family has ever been to Italy—I 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 helpless—although he won’t admit it—because he can’t go 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 had 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 take 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 had 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 that were pulling me back. I did not want to go. But I knew that I would. I fought the resentment that it was I whom my mother had turned to, with a very full plate of full-time job and four children, when 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 had called upon me, knowing that she was right when she had said I was the only one who could do this.
“I’ll need to talk to Andrew and sort things out with the kids. I’ll ask Celeste to book me a flight to Rome tomorrow and I’ll take the train from there to Avellino. Do you have some contact information for me—the 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 getting the information from my mother, phoning my husband and giving Celeste the task of getting me to Italy within the next forty-eight hours. I finally collapsed in a seat in the second-to-last car on the 5:43 to Gladstone, scribbling lists to myself and trying to remember a language I had not spoken regularly in fifteen 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 parents’ house in Mount Vernon, just outside New York City. When my mother had called Giulia that morning that I was coming, Giulia had given my mother a list for me—things 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 parents’ neighborhood of manicured lawns and stately colonials and drove south to the neighborhood my grandmother had lived in since she had arrived in America. I climbed the steep steps to Giulia’s front porch, past the rose garden her husband Salvatore—my father’s stepfather—had 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 have 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 commerce—the butcher, the barber, Skippy’s Bar & Grill—and on the corner, Our Lady of Victory elementary school, from which one frigid November morning when I was in kindergarten I had dutifully exited in a silent, straight line as we had been trained by the nuns to do when the fire alarm sounded. I had 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 that. 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 just inside the front door.
The house smelled of ammonia and wax and lemon oil. I was sure that Giulia had scrubbed and polished meticulously before she had 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 had 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 is 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 had 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 fagiola.
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 other 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 had 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 thing on the list was simply identified 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 the bed linens in the drawer 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 that I had 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 ask me to collect her mail as well as her checkbook so that 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.
Perhaps because I’d been a baby when her husband Salvatore had died and I had only known Giulia as a widow, I could not fathom her ever being in love. I knew, of course, that she had been married before Salvatore to Paolo Serafini. But that had been long ago, and whatever traces of him remaining in her memory were well hidden. We did not even have a photograph of Paolo.
Giulia had never seemed to have much use for love. She had warned me away from romantic entanglements more than once when I was a teenager.
“Stay away from Joey Costello,” she told me one evening as we were shelling peas on her front porch. I was thirteen; Joey lived next door to her. He was a year older, full of the swagger and bravado of the good-looking Italian teenage boy. But he had noticed me and was paying attention to me in ways that I, bookish and reserved, found thrilling.
“He’s nothing but trouble. You don’t need to be hanging around the likes of him. At the very least, you’ll get a reputation, like that putana of a sister he has. And at the worst, he’ll break your heart as soon as somebody who can sway her hips better than you walks by him. You’re too smart, Cara mia. Don’t waste your time on boys like that.”
Later, when I was sixteen and spending a week with her while my parents were away, I developed a crush on a neighbor who lived nearby, one of her tenants. He was married and in his twenties, with two small children. But he did chores for Giulia around the garden and the house, and so he was around to talk to as he fixed a faucet or dug up some rosebushes she wanted to transplant. He was cute and funny and attentive and, in the short time I had been there, it seemed to me he was finding quite a few things to do for Giulia. When his wife went to visit her mother with the kids I suggested to my grandmother that we invite him to Sunday dinner.
“Phil’s all alone today. Wouldn’t it be nice to ask him to eat with us?” I was trying to sound like the gracious lady of the manor, bestowing kindness on the hired help, rather than the infatuated teenager I was, looking for any reason to be in his presence. I was nonchalant, mentioning it as an afterthought as she and I cleaned up after breakfast.
Giulia looked me in the eye, put her hands on her hips, and said, “Absolutely not. Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on in your head. He’s a married man. He stays in his house and eats what his wife left for him, and you put your daydreams in the garbage where they belong.”
And that was that. I spent the day sulking at the lost opportunity and marveling at Giulia’s ability to sense even the most subtle vibrations of sexual attraction. She was the watchdog at the gates of my virginity, the impenetrable shield that would keep me from becoming a tramp.
Now I gathered up Giulia’s possessions and stowed them in the zippered tote bag I planned to take on board the plane. After a final glance around the room, I shut the door and headed down the stairs and out to my car. I pulled away from the curb and the memories and headed for the airport and Italy.
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