“Twisted.” That is the word Rebecca’s mother, Eva, uses to describe the shoes. It’s a word, an image that drops into Rebecca’s memory; a haphazard seed, taking root. “Twisted,” Eva says while wringing her hands as if she were squeezing the life out of a wet washcloth. Rebecca pictures black lace-up oxfords with thick soles and a hard raised heel – prison shoes. In her mind, they are contorted, cartoonishly, into corkscrews.
Rebecca imagines the girl in the shoes when they were new, shiny. Or, maybe they had been worn by others before her and were beat. Perhaps they were too tight and pinched the girl’s toes, or too loose and caused her to shuffle her indignity across the floor. Rebecca sees her in a loose, rough cotton shirtwaist with button tabs where the waistband should be. A dress the color of schoolroom walls, holding areas, of bus station lavatories – numbing and anonymous. Her dark hair spreads out stark and alarming against the Vaseline green of the fabric; shocking in its refusal to lie flat and quiet, it coils and curls wildly, too obvious, dangerous. She is stocky and square; she is sturdy in her shoes. And angry. Her face is…her face is…? Familiar.
Rebecca’s mother stands in front of the white porcelain sink in her new kitchen. The last project Rebecca’s father completed before his addiction to nicotine claimed him. The last time her mother would flirtatiously wish for something, the last time Joe would take up the challenge. That was the essence of what they were to each other. Even at the end, Eva was his princess, his damsel in distress, his girl; Joe was her rescuer always, her hero. The white countertops, cabinets, white tile floor – every surface shiny as a silver dollar – were her mother’s idea; he grumbled that the color was impractical.
“It’ll look like a goddamn hospital.” He glowered, menacingly and threw his tools around, kicked an old cabinet door, splintering the dry wood, causing his children to scatter like mice to the four corners of the house. Eva stood by passively, patiently. She cajoled him, babied him, pampered him, and got her way as usual. It was a lot of work for Rebecca’s mother, this vision of husbands and wives, this version of marriage. She labored much more strenuously plotting, playacting, and preening than he did at sawing, nailing, and painting. Eva would sigh in the end, smiling like Mona Lisa.
Oh God…Beauty and the Beast, Rebecca would think as her eyes reflexively rolled in their sockets. The beast magically changes into a prince through Belle’s saintly patience, simpering affection, and blind love. Rebecca was certain that’s the way Eva saw her role, and what prompted these tidbits of advice imparted ever since Rebecca could remember: “Never contradict a boy. Play hard to get. Play dumb. Always let them win.” Rebecca ignored the advice.
She loved racing the boys at recess when she was a little girl and often won. How the boys felt about it was of no significance to her whatsoever.
Rebecca hated the games her mother played; “I won’t do it,” she told her mother, once she was old enough to figure out what was going on. After a while, she lost patience with Eva, “That is so insulting! Archaic! Times have changed, you know.” Eva would shake her head, lifting one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, “Men never change,” she had said. Now, with the way things have gone in her marriage, Rebecca thinks maybe Eva was right.
Eva tipped her head back as steam rose, billowing up from the pot of pasta she emptied into a colander. Her short black hair, professionally coifed once a week and carefully maintained in between, was in some danger of wilting. With the back of her hand, she pushed at few curls that tried to relax over her forehead; they won’t dare reappear there. She wore her house uniform: shapeless worn shift, clean, but irreparably stained, and canvas sneakers with holes frayed through at the toes, the bleached-white laces tied into a tight bow and double knotted. This is what she cooks, cleans, and gardens in. She does laundry in it, mows the grass in it and wears it while carrying on lengthy, involved telephone conversations with her sisters.
Over the years, her children have given her designer loungewear, sweat suits, brand new Keds, and soft leather moccasins. No one knows what becomes of them. Throughout Rebecca’s childhood, they all thought this getup was the reason she scurried into the bedroom to hide when anyone knocked at the door.
In truth, Eva had no use for neighbors, distrusted strangers. She had her family and that was enough, that was everything. Her Anne Klein’s and Ralph Laurens, her silks and linens, her expensive leather pumps and matching handbags wait in dark, perfumed closets for bi-weekly shopping excursions with her sisters, and for lunch at restaurants with invariably disappointing fare: “I make better at home.”
She tossed the pasta with the tomato sauce begun early this Sunday morning, simmering for hours with olive oil, garlic, basil, bay leaf, oregano, meatballs, a few sausages. A ritual that keeps the world, for her family, turning on its axis. The kitchen workspace is small, two short steps from the stove on one side to the sink on the other. Stir, taste, lift, pour, tip back, shake the colander, empty contents into the deep bowl, two steps back to the stove, ladle in a little sauce, toss. A ballet as old as generations.
Rebecca Griffin and her mother were talking about Rebecca’s latest real estate deal. Rebecca got the listing on a fixer-upper with nine acres on Farpath Road in Havenwood; a coup. She was one of four brokers interviewed by the attorney handling the sale for the owner. Attorney Hanes had been won over with her thorough listing presentation, her record of sales in the area, and partly because of the way she leaned into their conversation, lightly touching his sleeve, speaking directly into his eyes, calling him Noah, as if they were friends. When they shook hands, he held onto hers and placed his other hand on top firmly, lingering a moment; the double-handed shake – a good sign, she’d thought.
Rebecca picked a cucumber slice from the big salad bowl and said while crunching, “I feel so sorry for poor Mr. Deitzhoff, the owner. His wife died a while back and he’s like a hermit, drifting around in that old place, a lost soul. I don’t know what’ll become of him. His attorney’s in charge now.” she visibly shuddered at the thought. “A long time ago, Harold Deitzhoff was the chief psychologist at the women’s prison in Warington,” she informed her mother.
Eva stopped short at the mention of the prison and the man who worked there long ago, wooden spoon raised aloft in mid dip, raining red droplets that splat alarmingly onto the antiseptic white floor. She turned to Rebecca and began to tell her about those shoes planting the image that will remain, buried at the back of Rebecca’s mind, germinating as if a living thing. Insistent tendrils will work their way through, surfacing when the time is right.
Now, as Eva ladles out the sauce, she serves up the rest of the story along with the ziti. “She was a tough girl, and wild. Remember, this was in the forties in East Boston. Italian parents ruled over their children. Not like now,” she huffs, scoffing at these foolish times. “In those days, you did what your father told you. These were very proud people, a little crude, you know, rough, cafone. The whole Gabrielli family was rough, but Rose, she had that wild streak.”
“She wore a big black leather jacket just like a man. And she smoked, hung around the corner with the boys! Something good girls just didn’t do in that neighborhood.” The tightly packed, tightly knit Italian immigrant neighborhood of East Boston. It’s houses, double and triple-decker boxes packed shoulder-to-shoulder with an occasional sliver of alleyway in between, shrugging their way up and down narrow, cobbled streets that run, eventually, to the sea. And on every accidental spit of land, every meager scrap of dirt on which the sun might shine, a lush garden.
Rebecca remembers the neighborhood, the houses, from sporadic childhood visits to family unable or unwilling to extricate themselves from the pack. And the conversations shared through thin walls, problems floating through windows and landing at the breakfast table next door for enthusiastic consumption; the closeness of the neighbors, the intimate proximity, suffocating as twice breathed air or binding as blood – lack of privacy or cozy confederacy, depending on your point of view.
She recalls stepping out of the car and almost directly onto brick stairs, looking up onto the homely charcoal face of the three-family rising straight up into the fog and the faint urine smell of the foyer with its obligatory, cumbersome navy blue pram parked next to the stairwell. The stairs coiled endlessly upward to the third floor where the Scauzillo’s lived, Zia Grace and Zio Louie.
Rebecca is still able to feel the way her shoulders hunched up, her face twisting in distaste as she edged by the closet outside the third floor landing that contained a suspicious looking toilet with a long chain pull dangling overhead. The brightness of the interior of the apartment when she stepped into the kitchen from the dank hallway made her gasp, inhaling the house-smell of food and Bon Ami. The contrast so sharp, she breathed a sigh of relief to have her black patent leather Mary Jane’s planted on pale gray linoleum, clean as water and speckled with chips of rainbow colors. She remembers the sunny, smiling kitchen filled with hearty greetings and the happy noise of family, the treacherously listing back porch used only for hanging wash, but an exciting forbidden perch for viewing plane bellies on their slow, impossible, ear-splitting ascent from the nearby airport. Rebecca waited for one of them to fall, with a plop, into the sea.
Children were hugged, kissed, pinched affectionately, boasted about, told they were beautiful – “Bella! Bellissima bambini!”– and over fed, but not accommodated in any way. There were no toys, no TV. The children were expected to amuse themselves and be good, so they snuck onto the porch, silently poked each other, played “categories,” sometimes smuggling coloring books into the solitude of the seldom used parlor. Kitchen noise floated in, nearly visible, like smoke, like the scent of something familiar and comforting wafting through until they grew heavy with it, tired and restless and slumped to the table leaning against grownups’ legs. The children lay their heads in welcoming laps where their backs were rubbed, and patted. Meanwhile, grownups continued hollering, arguing and laughing. Rebecca listened, dozing; occasionally the gist of something extraordinary and strange filtering into her consciousness, making a permanent home there. Some words spoken in Italian only “mala femmina” or “putana” spat out under stormy eyes. Rebecca never learned to speak much Italian but remains, to this day, fluent in broken English.
“She ran around with men,” Rebecca’s mother continues. “Older men, married men. Running wild! Shamed her family. So the father, to teach her a lesson, put her in that place. In those days you could do that to bad girls. Straighten them out,”Eva says as she straightens her own back sharply to illustrate. “But, she wasn’t there long when she was found hanged in her cell!
“The family was devastated, but they never believed she killed herself. Never! They knew how she was, proud like the rest of them, strong as a bull, stubborn, tough. When they picked up her belongings, her shoes were mangled, like she’d been dragged and dragged. Struggling.
“The family says she knew something, something terrible. I don’t know what, they would never really talk about it. You know, ‘non dichia niente,’” a phrase as familiar to Rebecca as the fragrance of garlic simmering in olive oil. It frequently punctuates family conversations, topping them off with a sprinkle of finality, “say nothing” it means.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I grew up in a large, close-knit Italian family held together by hard working Italian immigrant grandparents and big, boisterous Sunday macaroni dinners. I married young – it was my only aspiration – and had four children spread out, in a wholly unplanned fashion, over twenty years. I painted – oils and later watercolor – volunteered for arts groups, studied with a locally famous painter, traveled to the ocean as often possible and became a real estate broker.
At exactly forty years of age, with a (surprise) two-year-old, and two teenagers, I decided it was time for reinvention. I recall sitting on the edge of my bed with my head in my hands asking myself, what do you really want to do? The answer was, write! I enrolled – two-year-old in tow – in a creative and business writing program at a local college and quickly decided business writing wasn’t for me. My creative writing professor pulled me out of class one day and as we sat on the stairs outside of the classroom, he looked me in the eye and told me I was an honest-to-god writer. It was the second time a teacher shared that opinion with me, but the first time it impelled me to action. I began to solicit and get assignments from local newspapers and was tooting along under a head of steam with the goal of writing for a nationally recognized paper until life happened; my youngest, Sabra, was born. Her arrival into our family brought me unexpected blessings, including the opportunity to become involved in the issues of grandparents raising grandchildren which led to my first book, Raising Our Children’s Children. Since then, I have updated the first edition and a revision will be published as Raising Our Children’s Children: Room In The Heart in Spring 2014. In addition, I am a blogger for the Huffington Post on their Huff Post 50 site (for the over fifty crowd)www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-doucette/.
Since writing my first book, life has spun me around sending me in new directions a few more times; I’m now a breast cancer survivor, and a divorced single mom. I live in a small country suburb outside of Boston in an 1840s village farmhouse with my big, red poodle, Fiamma (flame in Italian – Fia for short) surrounded by my art and joyfully entertained by the comings and goings of my twin grandbabies. I am currently working on a new novel.