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Photo: Andrea Thornton Benchy

by Valerie Spain

Sophie Rosetta knew everybody’s business. She attended every funeral and every christening in town. She handed out cakes and casseroles like a General Foods representative. Holidays were her specialty but she outdid herself at Christmastime. She baked trays of Italian cookies: bowknots, lemon crisps, anisette tea cakes and an astounding assortment of biscotti. At this very minute she sat in the passenger seat of her husband’s red Buick balancing a pyramid of biscotti on a disposable aluminum tray in her lap. An enormous red velvet bow tied the green cellophane wrapping that enveloped the entire tray. It was the first Tuesday in December, the night of the annual Christmas dinner for the Holy Mother of God Soldality of Our Lady of Pity parish.

Her husband took a long draw on his pipe and blew out the smoke.

“For god’s sake, John, open a window.”

John rolled the window down a few inches. A rush of cold air snatched away a few stray wisps of smoke.

“Now I’m freezing.”

He rolled it up.

Sophie began thinking of what she heard yesterday when she ran into Angela Simeone at the bakery.

“I heard Cindy White’s coming to the sodality dinner tomorrow night,” Angela said as she tucked two loaves of scali bread into her string bag. “But I guess that’s old news to you.”

Well, Merry Christmas, thought Sophie.

Cindy was her youngest son’s ex-wife. As divorces go, it wasn’t a messy one. Sophie attributed the lack of mess to the lack of children. Children could have been there to make it a mess since David and Cindy were married ten years but there were no children. At sixty-eight years old Sophie didn’t want to deal with divorces, she wanted to spoil grandchildren. She had three grown children and not one of them had given her a grandchild.

Cindy’s mother was Italian and Catholic but her father was a Unitarian from Florida. Sophie didn’t know anyone who was from Florida and she often wondered if Unitarianism had anything to do with her daughter-in-law being so in love with her career she couldn’t stop to have children. Cindy’s mother died when she was ten. Her father never remarried and as soon as Cindy went to college he retired to Phoenix, Arizona.

David and Cindy met in college and were engaged for three years after they graduated. Sophie didn’t say anything about their long engagement because she nursed the hope that David would someday return to Gina Tartaglioni, the girl he took to the senior prom. After high school, Gina went to Yale Law School, graduated cum laude and eventually became a partner in a New York law firm. Whenever Mrs. Tartaglioni saw Sophie at the bakery, she never failed to mention that Gina was still “interested” in David. Sometimes Sophie even bumped into Gina herself when the young woman was in town visiting her mother from New York. Whenever it was appropriate during David’s long engagement, Sophie mentioned that Gina was still a spectacular looking girl.

The newlyweds bought a house in town and Cindy was an immaculate housekeeper. Ducks were a recurrent theme in her decorative leitmotif, mostly in the form of little ceramic statues that lined the shelves in almost every room but duck images found their way onto tea towels and bathroom wallpaper. Duck soaps crowded ceramic dishes in the upstairs bathroom and there was a special nest in the tiny downstairs bathroom.

The downstairs bathroom off the kitchen was the only one Cindy let the family use because it was for guests. That Cindy thought family members were guests and that she made them do their business off the kitchen within earshot of everyone was a point of friction between Sophie and her daughter-in-law. The guest bathroom was so small Sophie could barely turn around and get a few squares of toilet paper. Every soap and towel in the guest bathroom looked utterly unused. She hated Daffy Duck, the regurgitating soap dispenser, and always snatched a duck soap from the ceramic dish, used it, towel dried it, then gingerly put it back.

During the years David and Cindy were married, Cindy stayed late at the office on Tuesday night, and David ate dinner with his parents. It was the only night of the week Sophie was sure he got a good meal.

About a year ago David told them Cindy wanted a divorce. Sophie dropped the ladle of spaghetti sauce in the pot. Red sauce splattered all over her favorite blouse.

“What?” she said, trying to wipe up the mess with a dish towel. “Cindy wants a divorce? Where is she? Why isn’t she here?”

“She’s at her girlfriend’s place,” David said, stabbing the last square of lasagna on his plate. “She called me all day at work. I didn’t get anything done.”

“What happened? Is there another man?”

“She said there’s no one else. She said she’d go into therapy but doesn’t think it’ll do any good.”

David and Cindy got a divorce within months and since then there was no contact between Cindy and her in-laws. She didn’t contact them and it never occurred to Sophie to contact her because, after all, Cindy wasn’t family anymore. Eventually she moved to Ridgewood and Sophie thought that was the end of it.

The red Buick pulled up to the curb in front of the church.

“I don’t know why I bothered to take a shower. I smell like a bus station.”

John took the pipe out of his mouth and placed it on the dashboard. Sophie held up the cookie tray with both hands.

“My hands are full. Could you please open the door?”

John leaned over, unlocked the door and flipped the handle. Sophie twisted around in the front seat trying to get out. John still had his arm across her chest holding the door open.

“You’re crushing the biscotti,” she said, poking his arm away with her elbow.

She struggled to a standing position. The door was barely closed behind her before the Buick pulled away from the curb. She walked briskly up the walk and leaned into one of the heavy red church doors. A large statue of Our Lady confronted her, dominating the church vestibule. Her bare foot crushed the head of the serpent while her wide open arms offered mercy to all who sought her intercession. Sophie marched past her toward the kitchen without looking to the right or left. A woman wearing a red stocking cap with the point sticking straight up and a cluster of bells at the end ran after her jingling all the way.

“My goodness, Sophia” said Carmen breathless. “Where’s your Christmas spirit? Can’t you stop a minute and be sociable?”

“I saw you talking to Angela Simeone,” said Sophie. “Go ahead and be sociable. I have to put this tray down.”

Leaving Carmen to stare after her, Sophie pushed open the swinging kitchen door and put the biscotti tray on the nearest counter. She pulled a paper towel from the dispenser and wiped beads of sweat from her upper lip.

“Water,” said a voice at her elbow. “You need to drink.”

Sophie was so startled she almost poked herself in the eye. Tempesta Carlino hovered at the edge of her peripheral vision. Tempesta was ninety-two years old, four feet eight inches tall, with a torso as round as a barrel and arms and legs as thin as twigs. The big toe on her right foot bulged out of the scuffed black shoe where she’d cut a hole in the leather to relieve the pressure of her bunion. The backs of both shoes were turned down to make them more comfortable.

Tempesta’s husband died twenty years ago and the black dress she’d worn to the funeral seemed to be the black dress she’d worn ever since. On the rare occasions that she mentioned her husband in public, she wrinkled her nose, made a sign for the evil eye, then spat out one word: “Garbage.” The word “garbage” had as much versatility and venom for Tempesta as certain four letter words did for everyone else.

A swarm of chattering women entered the kitchen balancing trays of cookies and cakes. Tempesta was in charge of the desserts. She circled the women like a collie shepherding sheep, nipping at their heels and keeping them in line with a large wooden spoon.

“Go, go,” she said, herding the crowd toward a long metal table. At one end were neat rows of pressed and folded linens. Next to them were stacks of large oval platters, bone china plates and crystal dessert bowls. Spoons and forks were fanned out in front of the china and highly polished silver serving knives were laid in perfect rows. Tempesta herself would transfer all the incoming desserts to those beautiful plates and bowls. Every piece of crystal, china and silver belonged to her.

The old woman hadn’t forgotten Sophie’s water. She returned and set a glass down loudly on the counter.

“Drink now,” she said, pointing fiercely at the glass.

Sophie drank slowly. Tempesta returned to the gaggle of women and almost pushed them out the door, waving her spoon as if she’d knock stragglers on the head. The dining room, or refectory as many of the older women still called it, could be reached through a swinging door at the opposite end of the kitchen but only Tempesta went through that door.

Sophie finished her water as she fussed with her tray of biscotti but Tempesta had run out of good will and she pushed Sophie out of the kitchen with the other women.

“Go on. I take care of everything.”

Sophie found herself in the hallway, waiting for the doors of the dining room to open. When they did, everyone pressed forward at once. Carmen was at the front of the line with a few other friends. Sophie was so focused on not focusing in case she saw a certain someone she didn’t want to see that she hadn’t looked around to find any of her friends. Carmen was waving so hard her bobbing hat and tinkling bells finally made Sophie look in her direction.

“We’ll save you a seat,” Carmen called above the sea of white heads.

Sophie nodded absently. She was quite hungry. She even felt a little lightheaded. Later, she blamed the lightheadedness for not alerting her sooner to the hiccuping murmur that rippled below the chatter of the women around her. She felt a soft touch on her shoulder. She knew who it was immediately.

“Cindy,” she said out loud.

Every women who passed by stared wide-eyed behind her back. They slowed down but no one stopped. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, flowing around Sophie toward the dining room. She turned around and lifted her arms trying to move away. Cindy barely made eye contact before dropping her head on Sophie’s bosom. The young woman clung to her ex-mother-in-law, sobbing noiselessly but shedding a copious amount of tears, creating an uncomfortable wet spot on Sophie’s thin blouse. Sophie’s hands fluttered in the air above Cindy’s back. Returning the embrace felt too much like a betrayal. She looked around for help and suddenly saw a wooden spoon moving through the throng like a fin in the water. Tempesta Carlino appeared like a shining avenging angel.

“Such a fuss, such a fuss over nothing,” the old woman said. She circled Cindy’s waist with a strong, thin arm and firmly drew her away.

“Go on,” she said to Sophie. Her bird claw of a hand made a gesture of dismissal and absolution. “I take care of everything.”

“I just wanted to say…” Cindy began weakly, attempting to undo Tempesta’s grip but finally giving up. As they disappeared into the kitchen, Tempesta repeated her mantra, “Such a fuss. Such a fuss over nothing.”

Sophie stood alone in the darkening hall. Carmen appeared, a silhouette in the dining room doorway.

“Are you coming?” she asked, looking down the hall towards the kitchen. “That was something.”

“I have never seen her at one of these dinners. Why is she here tonight?”

“Didn’t you bring her once?”

“For god’s sake, that was ages ago,” said Sophie. “And she was still married to David.”

“Maybe she wants to renew family ties,” said Carmen taking Sophie’s arm. “Forgets it. C’mon , I’m starving.”

Together they crossed a vast expanse of uncovered floor. Women glanced at Sophie but turned their heads before she caught their eye. Her table of friends were silent when she sat down but the conversation quickly welled up and surrounded her, then moved on leaving her to sit quietly in its wake.

At six o’clock sharp, Father Bill stood up and rapped on his water glass with a fork.

“Well,” he said. “I’m sure you all want to eat some of the wonderful food spread out at the buffet table. So let us pray.”

Everyone bowed their heads. Father Bill’s grace was short and ecumenical.

The women of the Holy Mother of God Sodality of Our Lady of Pity parish brought desserts for the Christmas dinner but a caterer supplied the main course. Tempesta and Father Bill had an uneasy truce concerning the food for the Christmas dinner; a truce that frayed a little every year. Tony, Father Bill’s brother, had catered the party for the past five years but for many years before that, Tempesta’s mother, Atillia, the former president of the sodality, had organized Christmas feasts that were legendary for the number of courses, the incredible variety of dishes and the quality of every morsel. Tempesta expected she would continue the tradition after her mother’s death but Father Bill had suffered too many years under Atillia’s tyranny and when she died, he immediately put his brother Tony in charge of the main course for the Christmas dinner. This was considered a direct insult to Atillia’s memory. The fact that Father Bill was a priest only confirmed Tempesta’s belief that all men were garbage no matter whether they wore the collar or not.

Sophie got in line and took a plate. Tempesta stood in her usual spot behind the table at the head of the line. She scowled with such ferocity, it was as if she thought making terrible faces would cause everyone to loose their appetite. She didn’t have to waste her energy. The food was obviously terrible.

Tony stood several yards to the right of Tempesta. He glanced nervously in her direction every few minutes. His stainless steel spoon hung poised over two trays of unidentified meat covered in gravy. Sophie held out her plate.

“Hungry tonight, Sophia?” he asked. His dentures slipped a little. “What’ll it be?”

Sophie nodded towards the tray on the right knowing it didn’t matter what tray she pointed to. She sat down with a plate of gray beans, congealed potatoes and meat of undetermined origin.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Carmen asked. Carmen’s plate was so clean it looked like she’d missed her turn at the buffet.

“I was,” Sophie said, poking at her food.

The last woman had barely scooped her last scoop of gray potatoes when Tempesta pounced on the unused plates and utensils and whisked them into the kitchen. She came out dragging Cindy by the wrist. She waved her free arm at Tony and Father Bill, obliterating them with the gesture.

“I take care of everything,” she said.

She blew out the little candles that kept the trays of food warm and clapped on the metal lids. She wrapped rags around the hot tray handles and passed them to Cindy who stumbled into the kitchen. Tony ran ahead to save his food from the trash can. He donated the Christmas dinner leftovers to a food pantry.

Tempesta came out with a bucket of barely diluted bleach and with her bare hands scrubbed the tables spotless. She laid out brilliant white tablecloths and on top of those unrolled scarlet and green runners and decorated them with centerpieces overflowing with mistletoe and pinecones spray painted gold. Cindy brought out red taper candles and Tempesta lit them. This was the old woman’s homage to her mother. Finally, the cookies, cakes and puddings came out on delicate bone china platters and in ornate cut glass bowls.

“I’ll get us dessert,” said Carmen. She returned with two Jell-O molds topped with little dollops of Cool Whip set in lovely crystal dessert bowls.

“Jell-O molds and Cool Whip? Dear lord, Carmen, why didn’t you bring back a plate of cookies?”

“I get tired of all that Italian stuff. I didn’t bake this year. I made these instead.”

“You made Jell-O molds? And Tempesta actually put them out?”

Sophie hated Jell-O molds. She pushed her bowl away.

“There’s always room for Jell-O,” Carmen said brightly grabbing Sophie’s discarded bowl.

“I’ll get my own dessert.”

Sophie was at the dessert table before she realized Cindy would probably be serving. She was in the middle of the table directly behind Mrs. Tartaglioni’s Sicilian spumoni cake. The cake was an inspired confection of custard, cinnamon, pine nuts and fresh fruit topped with a cloud of whipped cream. Sophie waited all year for that cake and she was damned if she was going to give it up because of Cindy. She averted her eyes when she reached for the serving knife. Cindy spoke to her anyway.

“I made something for you.”

She took something from a cookie tin tucked beneath the table then held out a huge duck shaped cookie with Sophie’s name piped on it in red royal icing. Her hand trembled.

Sophie ignored the cookie and sliced herself a large piece of spumoni cake. The sugar cookie duck trembled within reach. Sophie paused, then extended her plate ever so slightly. Cindy placed the cookie next to Mrs. Tartaglioni’s masterpiece.

Sophie sat down. She pushed the duck cookie off her plate with the fork and covered it with a napkin.

“She carries the duck thing a little far, don’t you think?” asked Carmen.

“Don’t ask me what I think about the ducks,” Sophie said.

Carmen fished the cookie out from under Sophie’s napkin. She broke off the duck’s head and ate it.

“It’s terrible, isn’t it?”

“Not really.”

“I can’t possibly trust the opinion of someone who chooses Jell-O molds over Maria Tartaglioni’s Sicilian spumoni cake,” said Sophie.

“Here. Try some.”

Sophie shook her head.

“I know you know Gina got married last month,” Carmen said between bites of the duck cookie. “Well, Maria told me she’s already pregnant.”

Once the major activity of eating was over, women got up, mingled and traded gossip. Some of the very ancient ladies left after dessert. Father Bill stood up on the stroke of eight. He mopped his sweaty forehead with a large white handkerchief. He’d survived another Christmas dinner with the Holy Mother of God Sodality. He said a holiday blessing that signaled the end of the party. The dining room echoed with the cacophony of tables and chairs being folded and stacked. By eight thirty, a few husbands milled about in the vestibule, though most waited in idling cars in the church parking lot.

Sophie spotted John puffing away on his pipe. The day he retired was the day she realized how much he smoked. She refused to let him smoke in the house, so three or four times a day he offered to go to the store. He went whether she needed something or not. Sophie started towards the kitchen to get her cookie tray, then thought better of it.

“See you tomorrow,” she said to Carmen and kissed her friend good-bye. She walked over to John.

“Let’s go,” she said tugging at his sleeve.

John frowned. He was about to say something but only got as far as opening his mouth. He looked over Sophie’s head toward the kitchen then gestured with his pipe, forcing Sophie to look though she knew exactly who she’d see. Cindy walked toward them, leaning on Mrs. Carlino who was at least a foot shorter than the younger woman but at this moment looked like a tower of fortitude and strength. Cindy’s heavy hips and thick legs were out of proportion to her slender torso and flat chest.

“She come just to say good bye,” said Tempesta. Her bony hand gripped Cindy’s elbow, reminding her this was just a good-bye and nothing more. Cindy’s face was blotchy, her eyes were blood shot and her nose was red.

John stared at his pipe as if it might magically confer invisibility.

“I’ll get the car warmed up,” he said, shoving the pipe in his mouth. Sophie cursed his retreating back under her breath.

“Mom?” Cindy said, her voice quavering. She had called Sophie ‘mom’ from the day David introduced them.

The older woman looked directly at the younger woman. Tears started in Cindy’s eyes. A big fat tear rolled down her cheek but she didn’t collapse.

“See? I told you. You go home. Sleep,” Tempesta said trying to lead Cindy away but the young woman pulled her arm free and took a step toward Sophie. Sophie flinched slightly but did not move.

“I wanted to tell you…” Cindy began and her eyes searched Sophie’s face. Her skin was pitted and rough; her nose dripped. She looked old and ugly.

“Cindy White, you couldn’t possibly tell me anything I don’t already know, “ Sophie said. She turned and flew across the vestibule, past the pleading statue of Our Lady, into the cold and bitter night.

The red Buick purred at the curb. John opened the door from the inside. Sophie sank into a safe and comforting darkness. They were half way home before she said anything.

“David’s coming for dinner tomorrow.”

The car stopped at a red light. A group of high school girls, underdressed for the weather but wearing more than enough make-up, laughed and straggled their way across the intersection.

“Don’t you ever leave me alone like that again,” Sophie said.

The light turned green. The car jerked forward.

“And make sure you pick up the good bread from the bakery tomorrow. David likes that.”

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