Baked with love ( Christmas and Cannolis) due out holiday season 2018:
Regina’s tips for surviving in a big Italian family, # 2: Count your blessings and pass the macaroni.
“You look tired, bellissima figlia.”
“Thanks, Pop. Just what every girl wants to hear when she walks through the door.” I shook my head and kissed both his cheeks, handing him four of my bakery boxes with the pies I’d baked, then shrugged out of my coat.
Thanksgiving morning had dawned cold with a bitter wind slicing through the air. The bakery was officially closed today, so I’d been able to sleep in until six a.m., which, believe me, was a godsend because I was—as my undiplomatic father had just stated—dog tired.
“Sonny, why you gotta say things like that to Regina?” my mother asked from her perpetual spot at the stove. She’d gotten her hair done-up, as she calls it, the day before, and the halo of champagne-tinted curls was wilting a bit as she stirred the boiling pot of pasta. “My Regina looks as beautiful as she always does.” She flicked her gaze to me and gave me a once-over rake every Italian mother has known how to do since the dawn of time. “Even tired.”
Left handed compliment, thy name is Ursula Rigetti San Valentino.
“Thanks, Ma.” I bent to kiss her cheeks as well. “It smells great in here.”
“It always smells great in here,” my oldest brother GianCarlo (Pesce’s dad) said, coming up behind me. He wrapped his hands around my waist and hugged me like he was attempting a Heimlich maneuver. “Did you bring me my pie, sorellina mia?”
“What kind of a little sister and baker would I be if I hadn’t?” I spun around and kissed his cheeks, too.
That’s my family: a bunch of cheek kissers, men and women alike. No one was exempt from the two-smooch bacio.
“Yours is the one with the blue string,” I told him. “It came out of the oven about an hour ago.”
“I’m putting it out in my car so I can take it home an’ eat it later when I’m watchin’ the game.”
My father’s open palm swatted the top of his oldest son’s head as he walked by. “Hey! What’s with the head smack, Pop?” ’Carlo gripped the top of his head, shielding it—I knew from experience—from another hit.
“Since when are you so greedy? Your mama and me taught you all to share, no?”
“Reggie made me a special pie,” my brother whined, rubbing his head now. “I called and asked her to make one just for me to bring home. There’s still three left for everyone else. I’m not being greedy.”
A scowl the twin to his son’s branched across his full face.
“He did, Pop,” I said.
Experience has also taught me that no apology for the head smack would be coming anytime soon from my father. The zombie apocalypse would occur before Salvatore San Valentino ever expressed regret at something he’d done.
“What can I do to help?” I asked my mother. “Set the table? Open the wine.”
“I set the table last night when I got home from Mass. And your sisters-in-law opened the vino when they got here.” Ma’s lips puckered into a self-righteous line that had me experiencing flashbacks to my grade-school nuns. The presence of it across an aging and withered bride of Christ’s face denoted someone in the class was about to experience a little Hell on Earth. Luckily, I’d been spared from the experience. My brothers had not.
“It’s a holiday, Teddy. Let the girls have a couple-a belts while they watch the Macy’s parade.” My father still referred to his wife by the nickname he’d gifted her with more than fifty years ago. The root meaning for Ursula is bear. From the moment Pop was introduced to her at a church dance by the parish priest when they were both fifteen, he’d called her his Teddy Bear because she was so tiny and—in his words—cuddly.
I know. My little romantic heart always sighs when I think about that story.
The line across her face deepened. My mother is as old-school Italian mama as they make ’em when it concerns her children. No girls my brothers brought home had ever been good enough for her bambini ragazzi—baby boys. I doubt the Virgin Mary would have been good enough in her eyes.
And let’s not forget about my loser ex. To this day if his name—or God forbid a reference to him—is made or said, she crosses herself and then spits on the first two fingers of her blessing hand to ward off potential evil from the mention.
“They should be in here, helping me, like good wives, instead of in there cackling and gossiping like old hens. And drinking. Non è giusto. It’s not right.”
I’d heard this lament more times than I could remember over the years. Ma would complain about her daughters-in-law not helping, but the reason they didn’t was because they couldn’t do anything right in Ursula’s eyes. Whatever they did, whether it was set the table, roll out the dough for the pasta, or even open a jar of my aunt Frankie’s famous tomato sauce, Ma complained they were doing it wrong. After a few years of this constant haranguing, my brother’s wives had all defected from the kitchen to the den whenever she was cooking.
Pop shot me a look, rolled his eyes, and shook his head. He knew the reason his daughters-in-law had decamped. Fifty years of marriage to the same woman had taught him when to hold his tongue though, especially if he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of her wicked one.
“Let me help, Ma,” I offered again. Because I was her own flesh and blood, the only girl, and the youngest of all her bambini, I knew I could do no wrong in her eyes.
Spoiled, much? A bit, yeah.
A half hour later the turkey was carved, the homemade pasta was perfectly al dente, and the rest of the side dishes were all set on the table. This was an Italian household to its core, so the usual Thanksgiving fixings—sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and Parker House rolls—were absent, substituted by tagliatelle, red sauce—what we refer to as gravy—ciabatta bread, and roasted peppers, along with stuffed tomatoes and a huge salad.
We did succumb to one American tradition, though, and have turkey with the meal. The fact that each and every one of us smothered it in Aunt Frankie’s tomato gravy, well, that’s the Italian in us.
“Sonny, you say the Grace,” Ma instructed as we all held hands.
My father stood at the head of the table, my mother seated next to him. As was also tradition, my father never sat down to eat in his shirt. A bright white wife-beater I knew he got by the gross at a discount dollar store a friend of his owned was his usual table garb. And by got by the gross, I mean it in the literal way. Pop had crates of the shirts stacked in the garage. It didn’t matter that the rest of us were dressed appropriately. Ever since my memory could be counted on, my father sat at a family table sans his outer shirt. Of course if we were out at a restaurant or a fancy function like a wedding, he submitted and left it on for decency’s sake. But with family, all thoughts of decency flew out the storm windows. Since packing on a few extra belly pounds over the past couple years, he’d started wearing suspenders to keep his pants up because he hated the confining feeling of a belt.
“Hold hands and bow ya heads,” Pop instructed. We all complied. Pop looked up at the dining room ceiling. As a kid I’d always wondered if he could see God somewhere floating around the crystal chandelier. “Lord,” he said, focusing on the ceiling stucco, “we want to thank you for this food, made by the wife and paid for by my hard work. We want to thank you for our health, the roofs over our heads, the fact we got no bills, ain’t no one doing time right now, and most of all for the love we share as a family. Bless this food, Lord. Amen.”
A chorus of Amens went around the table. Pop sat, tucked his napkin in his undershirt collar, his suspenders draped over his hairy, beefy arms.
“Petey,” he said to my youngest brother, “pass the macaroni.”
And so we ate.
My mother believed in the old adage that if you ever ran out of food at a meal it meant you’d been miserly in the making of it.
Conversation was loud across and along the table with my brothers, their wives and some of their kids all talking at cross purposes and over one another, each trying to be heard.
Like I usually did, unless someone was speaking directly to me, I tended to tune them all out.
The twenty-five pound turkey Pop had carved was picked clean to the bones. I knew Ma would make soup stock from it tonight after everyone had gone home. At the conclusion of the main meal, my brothers all sat back in their seats, slid their belts open a few notches, and ’Carlo had gone so far as to undo the top button on his pants.
“As always, Ma,” my brother Petey said, with a drowsy tryptophan-induced grin on his face, “nobody cooks like you. Simply the best.”
His wife, Penny shot him a deadly glare. It wasn’t malocchio-worthy like my nonna’s had been when she was alive, but it was close.
“You doin’ okay?” my sister-in-law Trixie, GianCarlo’s wife, asked me. She was seated next to me, my mother on the other side of me in the runner’s chair, so called because of its close location to the kitchen. Whenever something was needed, the person in the runner’s chair was elected to go get it. It really, in all seriousness, should just have been called “Ma’s chair” because she was the only one who’d ever sat in it in the thirty-two years of my memory.
“I’m okay,” I told Trixie. With a shrug I added, “Busy at the bakery ’cause it’s that time of year. But I’m okay.”
“You seeing anybody these days? Like, dating?”
Trixie was the oldest of all my brother’s wives and the one who routinely asked after my love life. Or lack of it.
“No free time,” I said. “The bakery takes up all my hours. When I’m not working, I’m planning, paying bills, ordering supplies. Throw in a few much needed hours of sleep each night, and months can change before I realize it.”
Trixie shook her head, her over-Aqua-netted sprayed hair staying perfectly in place while she moved. “You’re too young, Reg, to be sitting alone at night in that apartment. You’re gonna shrivel and rot before your time. A girl’s gotta”—she lowered her voice and moved a little closer to me—“get some sometime, you know?” Her raised eyebrows underscored her meaning as her intent glare lit on me. “Don’t use it, you’re gonna lose it.”
“Lose what?” my mother asked in her usual thunderous voice at just the moment the entire table’s conversations screamed to a halt.
“Nothin’ Ma. Trixie and me were just talking about the bakery.” I hoped against hope she’d let it go, but it wasn’t my mother I needed to worry about. It was Trixie.
She leaned forward and cocked her head so she could see my mother across my chest, the few glasses of pre-dinner vino showing their effects. “I was just saying to Reggie that she should be going out, dating. Trying to find a guy worthy of her. Not one like her loser ex.”
Remember when I said there were times I’d wished I’d been a foundling? Yeah. This was a prime example of one of those times.
“She’s still young and beautiful,” Trixie continued. “She’s got needs like any young and healthy woman does.”
Forget about being a foundling. Maybe it would have been better if I’d never been born.
“Hush with that kinda talk, Beatrice Guilia,” my mother said, sharply. She made the sign of the cross over her chest. “We don’t talk about things like needs and such at the dinner table. There’s kids present. Madonna mia.”
Once Trixie starts on a subject, though, it’s hard to stop her. Not even ’Carlo pulling at her arm can sway her when she wants to make a point. “All I’m sayin’ is Reggie shouldn’t let the tragedy of her past prevent her from finding lasting happiness. She deserves to be happy. In every way,” she added, nodding. “Penny, you get me, right?”
I shot my gaze to my other sister-in-law across the table and sent her a silent, wide-eyed plea to keep her mouth shut.
Penny wasn’t tuned into my telepathic appeal, though. I assumed the vino had something to do with her inability to read my mind and eye signals.
“It’s true, Reg. You got no life outside-a work,” she said. “You need to get out. Meet people. Find a boyfriend. I know a couple-a single guys at work. I could set you up with one of them.”
“Nobody’s setting Regina up with nobody.” My father’s booming voice shot through the dining room. “She wants t’ meet a guy, I’ll introduce her to one. Last time, she went looking on her own, and we all know happened.”
He looked pointedly at me, and I said a silent prayer for the dining room floor to open up and swallow me. The only guys my father was every going to introduce me to were the ones he associated with. None of whom had modern notions of a wife as a life partner, but more the old-fashioned and archaic ones of thinking of a bride as an unpaid domestic, a carrier of the next generation of sons, and a cook. In essence, a woman who was perpetually pregnant, barefoot in the kitchen, and subservient.
Yeah, I know. This is the twenty-first century, and we live in one of the most progressive cities on the planet. But we’re talking about a lifetime of shared social mores and cultural dictates that were infused into my family since birth. Maybe even before they were born.
Change was not gonna happen.
“I’m just saying,” Trixie pushed—despite the subtle hand I saw her husband shift under the table to grab her thigh and get her to stop—“she should get out more. She lives in the same place she works, for Pete’s sake.” She turned her slightly tipsy gaze back to me. “You don’t need to go to bars to pick up guys,” she said.
My mother crossed herself again and began muttering in Italian. I wasn’t sure, but it sounded like she was saying a prayer for my eternal soul.
“You could go to paint night someplace. Or maybe go bowling.”
“Bowling?” ’Carlo said. His thick eyebrows shot up the width of his forehead, almost meeting the receding strip of his hairline. “The only guys she’s gonna meet bowling are pigrones who can’t get dates or guys already hitched.” He turned his attention to me and wagged his index finger at me like I was his child and not his baby sister. “Don’t go takin’ up with any married guys, Reggie. Remember Uncle Joey and that whole Delphina thing he had going on. Almost broke Aunt Frankie’s heart.”
“Delphina. Bah.” My mother made the sign of the cross again and spit on her fingers. “Puttana.”
“No good ever comes-a taking up with guys with wives, remember that.”
“Good to know,” I said, standing with my dish. “Thanks for the advice. Who wants pie? I’ll go heat them up.”
If I could have sprouted wings, I couldn’t have moved any faster out of the dining room. I heard hushed, angry voices follow me as my brothers verbally sparred with their wives.
I took a giant breath, then scraped my plate into the garbage and placed it in the ceramic sink along with the cutlery. My mother still washed all the dishes, pots, and utensils by hand. Pop had tried to gift her with a new dishwasher one Christmas, but she’d waved him off saying she preferred her things hand washed and didn’t trust anything mechanical not to chip or crack the imported Italian china she’d been given as a new bride.
I used to wonder if that was truly the reason or if she knew the dishwasher fell off a truck and was worried the police would find out and cart it—and her—off to jail.
I set the oven to a low temp and pulled the pies I’d baked that morning from their boxes. Then, because I knew this after-dinner routine like I knew the back of my hand, I put the coffee pot on, which was already filled with decaf, and plugged in the espresso machine. From the corner of my eye, I spotted my mother waddle into the kitchen, her hands laden with dishes.
“Here, let me, Ma.” I took them from her and repeated my motions of moments before.
“Grazie, mia figlia.”
“Petey was right,” I said. “Everything was delicious as always.”
She nodded and began filling the sink with warm water.
“Just a reminder, Reggie. Me, Frankie, and Grace are going to th’outlets in Jersey for some Christmas shopping tomorrow. Get a jump on the sales.”
“You know the stores are going to be packed, right? It’s Black Friday.”
“Why you think we’re going? An’ why you think they call it that? Black Friday?” She shot her chubby hands to her fists. “Sounds like some kinda plague or somethin’.”
Questions like this had pestered my mother her entire life.
Why’d’they call it rubbernecking? We’re on a highway that ain’t made of rubber. Why’d’they call it a driveway when we’re parked? Why can’t they put the fabric softener in the detergent?
I knew this question was asked because that’s the way her brain works and didn’t necessitate an actual answer. I gave her one, anyway.
“I think’s it’s because all the stores are hoping to end the day, and begin their holiday receipts, with a profit. You know? In the black?”
“Still a stupid word. Anyways. Your Aunt Frankie’s got a boatload of, whatamacallit, coupon books.” She waved her hand in the air at me.
“Door busters?” Remember I told you this kind of gesture is like a second language for me?
“Yeah. Another stupid name. Door busters. We ain’t bustin’ down no doors. If we get there before eight, we get another twenty percent off everything.”
“You’re gonna have to leave early to beat the traffic.” I grabbed a dishtowel and took the now cleaned plate she offered me.
“Grace’s coming to pick me up at five thirty.”
It was my turn to nod.
“Since you’re closed tomorrow, wanna come with us? We could use the extra hands to carry stuff and you’re strong.”
Again, left-handed compliments were her forte, but I wasn’t even tempted. Black Friday and December 26 were the only nonholiday days of the year the bakery was closed. I usually take advantage of the quiet time to catch up on decorating ordered cakes, take store inventory, and even find a little time to soak in a hot tub. If I accompanied Ma and the aunts tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to indulge in that little guilty pleasure.
Besides, I don’t know how long I would survive with three women in their late sixties who all talked nonstop, commented—loudly—on what strangers were wearing, buying, or how their kids were misbehaving. Add in that I’d be stuck with them in a car for over two hours both ways in traffic, and, well, having my fingernails pulled off to the quick one by one seemed more appealing.
While I took down the dessert plates and coffee cups my mother touched my arm.
Her top teeth were sucking on a corner of her bottom lip, and a crater had formed between her brows.
“Ma, what? What’s the matter?” I grabbed her hands in mine.
She tsked twice, her tongue sounding like sandpaper gliding across jagged, unprocessed wood, and shook her head. “What Trixie said?”
“Do you…have you…are you lonely, bambina? Do you miss being a wife? A mother?”
We never spoke of this, so I was taken aback by the question. Since I’d petitioned the church to annul my marriage and Pop had pulled in some ecclesiastic favors to expedite the process, my former life wasn’t talked of much by my family. I’d made a huge mistake, gone against my parents’ wishes and dated a guy so wrong for me on so many levels, then had come to regret it. The ramifications of my actions had started a downward spiral in my life that had ended with death, emotional and physical abandonment, and divorce. Death was as common in an Italian family as making the sign of the cross. Marital abandonment wasn’t unheard of, but divorce was the ultimate no-no in such a staunchly Catholic family as mine. It simply wasn’t talked about. Ever. For my mother to ask something like this was a shock. But she had real maternal concern in her eyes when she looked up at me.
The need to offer comfort and ease her mind was huge. I pulled her into a hug, my fingertips barely touching as they circled the seven decades of good Italian cooking settled around her waist.
“I’m okay, Ma. Really. I don’t miss being married to Johnny one bit.”
“But what Trixie said, about you having”—she shuddered—“needs?”
No way was I having this conversation with my sixty-eight year old rosary-toting, church-going mother.
“Don’t listen to her, Ma.” I pulled back and held her at arm’s length. “It’s the wine giving her labbra sciolte. Loose lips. Ignore what she says.”
She palmed my cheek. Her eyes were on the verge of spilling tears, and I couldn’t deal with the next question I knew she was going to ask me, so I took the coward’s way out, kissed her cheek, and pulled away to get the desserts ready.
“I’m fine. Really. I’m so busy all the time I’m never lonely.”
I sent a mental reminder to myself to admit the lie when I went to confession this weekend.
“You work so hard,” Ma said. “So you don’t have time to think. To remember.”
Now my own tears threatened, burning the backs of my eyes. Italian mothers see all, know all, feel all when it concerns their children. Why had I forgotten this?
“The anniversary is soon,” she said, in an uncharacteristic soft, low tone.
“You don’t have to remind me, Ma. I know what day it is.”
“Bambina.” She wrapped her arms around me from behind and rested her chin on my shoulder.
Ever since taking the commission for Connor’s cake, Pearl’s Place hadn’t been far from my mind. I hadn’t told anyone in the bakery about where the cake was going yet knowing I’d get pelted with questions, concerned faces, maybe even a few requests not to do it.
And when your Italian family requests something, it’s usually not an option to deny the appeal.
I don’t know what possessed me to tell my mother, since I was sure what her reaction was going to be, but before I could convince myself not to, I did.
She pulled her arms from around me and then spun me around to face her. “Regina Maria. Why?”
A good question. I thought I’d said yes because Connor Gilhooly had looked so worried his planned party was going to be ruined and I’d felt bad for him. Wanting to please people and knowing when to say no have always been at war within me. With a little distance, that reason didn’t quite ring true now, and I knew it.
I shrugged. “Maybe, it’s time. Time to forget.”
“You’ll never forget,” she said immediately. “È impossibile.”
The oven dinged, telling me the pies were warmed. While I plated them, I told her, “You’re right. I won’t ever forget. But I need to move on, Ma. You said yourself I work so hard to try and push…everything to the back of my mind. But it’s always right here.” I tapped my forehead. “Maybe making the cake will help me finally find, I don’t know. Closure? I won’t ever forget what happened, but I can start to heal. Try to be happy again.”
Her champagne mop of curls bounced as she shook her head with the violence of a seizure. “Another stupido word. Closure. The only thing that ever closes is a coffin.”
I winced and shook my head. “Ma.”
She beat a fist against her amble breasts in the vicinity of her heart. “Your heart was broken, bambina. Shattered. To lose the thing you love the most in the world, the thing you’d lay down your life for, you don’t recover from that. Ever. It’s always with you.”
“I know. It is. But I need to do this, Ma. I need to make this cake. I need to know I can do it. That I’ve got the strength to.”
“Of course you have the strength. You’re a San Valentino.” Her lips pursed again and her brows tugged forward in that arrogant, haughty way only a true daughter of Italy can pull off to perfection. “You can do anything you tell yourself to.”
A moment ago she’d told me I’d never be able to forget the tragedy of my past, and now she was saying I could do anything I wanted if I put my mind to it.
Irony, thy name is Ursula San Valentino.
I’d had enough emotional discourse for the day, so I quickly finished plating the pies, brought them back to the dining room and told everyone I was begging off.
“I need to catch up on a little work, and then I’m gonna get to bed early,” I said while I doled out the dessert plates to my siblings.
“You work too hard, Reggie,” Petey said right before he shoved almost the entire slice of apple pie I’d given him into his mouth.
“You need an assistant,” ’Carlo said. “Someone to take the slack off.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I like working hard. An assistant would just be in the way.”
I caught the quick raised-eyebrows look that passed between my sisters-in-law. Before they could start up with the dating talk and their thoughts about my needs again, I beat a hasty arrivederci.
I love my family to no end. I’d do anything I could for them, take a bullet, lie down and die for them, help in any way I can.
But sometimes I just needed a break from them.
Twenty minutes later, after taking an Uber back to my place, I shrugged out of my clothes and into my favorite comfort clothes: flannel pajamas.