Don't Sing at the Table
Luck is a wily thing. You can have a run of it, or get hit once and hard with the lucky stick, or luck may always seem like that handsome stranger across a crowded room, completely out of reach, even when you’re wearing your best party dress and lipstick. You can see luck when others have it, but you know it’s not your turn. Sometimes it appears that luck is a birthright, making someone else’s life seemed charmed from the outset. Luck is usually seen from a distance, from a place of want.
Not so for me.
I was truly lucky to have been given two stellar grandmothers, Lucia Spada Bonicelli (Lucy) and Yolanda Perin Trigiani (Viola). They showed me, in their own ways, how to get out of my own way and carve out a fulfilling life,
a peaceful life,
a gracious life,
a secure life.
My grandmothers bestowed on me, through their examples, the importance of developing character, rooted in kindness; and a spirit that might negotiate loss and rebound from grief to love more deeply. Their hope was that my spirit would serve to reinforce character when I fell short, made mistakes, or hurt someone I cared about through my own actions. For them, faith was the result of working through the spirit, and a tool, a means to go inward.
In dark moments when despair kicks joy to the curb, and I feel I don’t have it in me to go one more step, I turn to my grandmothers for strength. In my memory are moments, glistening pop beads, the kind I played with as a girl. I string them together now in my mind’s eye and hold them close. They are not jewels to keep in a vault nor ones that would withstand any sort of appraisal. These are functional pearls, iridescent and simple in their beauty, yet indestructible. Unbreakable.
As I remember my grandmothers, I marvel at how they spent their time, and how they chose to fill up the years of their long lives. As women, our time is often ruled by the needs of those around us, but when I picture them, it’s never in a crowd, but alone in a window or a doorway. They survived loss and times of deep sorrow, but they would tell you that they were lucky too. They earned their luck by the labor of their own hands and their determination to see a goal through to completion.
Lucia and Viola poured themselves into the things they made, whether it was strands of fresh spaghetti or a wedding gown of duchess satin. They tended their gardens and their children. They built their companies and their relationships. They made time, they made things, they made a life.
The life lessons my grandmothers taught me help me stay the course, and here on these pages, I hope their wisdom might inspire you too. The past has a patina. Once the colors were bright and now they have faded. But looking closely now, from a distance, the details emerge richer in tone and texture, and ever more lovely in memory.
New York City
Yolanda Perin Trigiani (Viola) stood at five feet five inches, but seemed much taller because she was short-waisted and had long legs. In her youth, she wore wide-brimmed hats, festooned with peacock plumes and adornments (silk flowers, bands of grosgrain, velvet berries), making her appear taller still. Even as a girl she had mature, striking looks and a serious countenance. Her ancestry was apparent in her strong profile, upright posture, and quick stride. “Here comes the Venetian,” they’d say when she walked down Garibaldi Avenue in Roseto, Pennsylvania.
Viola’s thick, jet-black hair fell in smooth waves. She had a square jaw, a prominent nose with a high bridge, dark brown eyes that were neither large nor limpid, but dark and intense, with a downcast lid (later in life, she contemplated an eye job when her lids became heavy, and it was difficult to read or to see stitch work up close, but decided against the surgery). She had beautiful lips, straight, strong white teeth, and a wide smile.
Think Joan Crawford.
My grandfather, Michael (nicknamed “Dick”), thought his Viola was an Italian version of the stunning star.
In fact, there was a bit of Hollywood stardust to their early courtship—their first date was to the movies to see Joan Crawford in Montana Moon. (By the way, Viola argued years later that they saw Carolina Moon. When I checked the chronology and told her that Joan Crawford made a movie in 1931 called Montana Moon, my grandmother replied, “I was there. It was Carolina Moon.” Oh, well.)
My grandparents met when they were in their early twenties (he was four years older than she) in a pants factory in Bangor, Pennsylvania. She was tagged as a leader early on. She excelled as a machine operator, then was promoted to forelady by the age of sixteen. By the time she met my grandfather, she was a pro, with a few years of management experience under her belt and fifty operators to oversee. She mastered every machine on the floor, knew how to get the best out of her operators, and managed them to exceed their numbers and output. Operators that worked under her remember her clear, distinctive voice, which could be heard over the loud buzz of machines in the factory.
Viola and Michael’s love story was fraught with near misses. My grandfather left for a time and worked in mills as a machinist first in the Bronx and then in Connecticut. Viola thought she’d lost him for good. But he eventually returned to his hometown, the factory, and to her, and, in 1932, they married.
Michael Anthony Trigiani had southern Italian (Bari) good looks, dark hair, full lips, and gray eyes. In pictures, he also seems matinee-idol handsome to me, but that may be Viola’s influence on the subject.
Back when she was wooing my grandfather, Viola would make him lunch every day and leave it for him in the pressing room. Those lunches became a theme with her. She made Italian delicacies, small, elegant sandwiches made with roasted peppers or thin-sliced capicola on the best bread, buttered lightly and wrapped in bleached, pressed cotton. There were ginger cookies, the size of a quarter, or slices of almond-scented pound cake, or oil pretzels, and always fresh fruit, figs, oranges, or a banana. There were thermoses of hot coffee, or bottles of cold soda. She thought of everything—utensils, napkins, portable ambience.
At the end of the workday, Viola would pick up the empty basket and take it home to repeat the process the next morning. I wondered what my grandfather’s coworkers thought when their tough forelady extended this loving and gentle gesture to the man she loved each day.
Viola packed lunches throughout her life for all occasions: hampers loaded for long car trips, goody baskets left on doorsteps for someone in need, and later on, meals on-the-go for social excursions, including her gambling runs with her senior girlfriends to Atlantic City. Viola was not a warm, fuzzy character, but she showed her generosity and caring in those picnic hampers.
Viola was proud of her homemaking skills, even though she was never exclusively a homemaker. She was a working girl who became a working woman, ultimately co-owning her own blouse factory with my grandfather. A deeper meaning of the partnership was apparent in the name of the company: the Yolanda Manufacturing Company. Her ambition and determination was the engine, the driving force behind the founding of the mill, and the energy field that would sustain it for twenty-six years.
Viola had the guts and the vision to make the leap from dutiful employee to boss. She also had the work ethic and, now, the experience to court business and satisfy the buyer with a great product. My grandparents were good partners for one another; he was strong, intelligent, and possessed an easygoing nature, while she was a relentless fighter and a demanding boss. My grandfather attracted the investors to put them in business, but Viola’s fine reputation guaranteed that the mill would turn out excellent-quality blouses, on time and without error.
Years later, when she’d recount the history of the founding of her factory, she always gave credit to the three men who lent them the seed money to open the factory. She didn’t rest until she’d paid them back, with interest. While she worked off the debt, she managed to run the mill, and also build a family. There was never any question in her mind that she would work after marriage, and would have help with child care for her four children.
For Viola the very nature of femininity was tied to the skills acquired to create a gracious home life. Family meant nurturing, and sustenance meant good food, so she became an expert baker and an excellent cook. Like most farmer’s daughters of her day, they ate from their garden, and survived the winters by creating meals around fruits and vegetables they had canned.
Viola canned jams and jellies, Italian peppers with alige (anchovies), and sweet pickles. She also “put up” tomatoes, enough that each child (and by extension, their children) in her immediate family would receive cases of peeled and crushed tomatoes every summer after the harvest. Viola sent enough mason jars of tomatoes to make gravy for an entire year, enough to last until the following summer, when the process was repeated.
Viola, a math whiz, was so good with figures, she could add up what she was spending in the grocery as she shopped. She would maintain a running tally in her head until she made it to the checkout counter. I was amazed when the total on the cash register was within a dollar of her prediction. So it went with the cases of tomatoes—all of her children received exactly what they needed, calculated by how many children each had. It was an uncanny knack—to know exactly what was needed, and then to provide it.
There was never any waste.
My grandmother never threw anything away (clothing, bank records, contracts, wills, newspaper clippings, photographs; which is why I am able to write this book!). When I implored her to clean out her attic, she said, “What if I need that ribbon I saved someday?” She even saved the sheets of wax paper from cereal boxes. When unfolded and pressed, they were the perfect size on which to cool and stack the handmade crêpes she made for manicotti shells.
Viola honored her tools and took care of them. In the deep drawers of her kitchen were her mother’s utensils—she used the same wooden-handled eggbeater and rolling pin that her mother had used back on the farm in Delabole. Viola took such excellent care of them, I use them today.
Viola’s home was clean, neat, and orderly. She had a touch of an old-fashioned Mother Superior in her, as well as a hint of a grunt novitiate. She knew how to scrub, swab, and rinse like a nun working off a Lenten penance. There was something downright military about her approach to cleaning. When she taught me how to scrub a floor, she would wring out the moppeen with such force, the rag would be dry when she handed it to me. Her upper-body strength stayed with her to her death in the spring of her ninetieth year.
There was a duality in her approach to life, as she ran the factory and her home on parallel rails. She was a powerhouse in the mill, a taskmaster of a boss, unyielding in her quest for perfection. She worked through sick days and holiday weekends, and made no apologies for wanting to make “good money.” If an operator was absent, Viola would sit down at the machine and cover for her. There was no difference in her mind between the manager and the employee. Her belief was that you got the job done—no matter what. But as driven as she was at work, she was just as insistent about being feminine: charming, interesting, socially engaging, and—the highest dream of all—elegant. American glamour was a goal. She believed sophistication was achieved by being an excellent hostess.
Viola lived in four homes in her lifetime. Her parents emigrated from the Veneto on their wedding day in 1906, after a short stint with relatives, and moved into a two-room house with a slate roof in Delabole, where Viola was born a year later. The rent on their home was $3.00 a month, which the newlyweds could manage because Viola’s father went to work in the Slate Quarry immediately. Eventually, they moved close by to a farm set amid the rolling hills of northeastern Pennsylvania where the family grew to include five more children.
Viola’s father, Davide, was a hardy but tender soul, loaded with ambition. Viola told me he worked from morning until night without complaint, pulling double duty on the farm and in the slate quarry. Viola’s determination came from his example, and was also born of necessity. When Viola’s mother died young at forty-three from pneumonia, the responsibility of running the home fell to her, as well as the care of the baby of the family, only five years old.
Delabole farm was rustic yet lovely. There was a barn with cows (my great-grandfather made a good living supplementing his income from the local slate quarries by delivering milk during the Great Depression through his company, Slate Springs Farm). There was a hay silo, an old red barn for the horses, and a springhouse. The yard around the house was lumpy with rocks, but the goats kept the grass at a manageable length.
There were no touches of opulence, no chandelier over the kitchen table, no fancy lamps or silk curtains. The farmhouse was comfortable and clean, with linoleum floors that could take a daily mop-down. Viola wrote, “We children attended the school across the road where our teacher taught eight grades. I went to school at the age of four not knowing a word of English. The teacher asked my name. I said, ‘Yola,’ so she named me ‘Viola.’ ”
When Viola married, she moved to town, four miles away, into a charming brick home at 37 Dewey Street in Roseto, Pennsylvania, with a backyard where she planted a garden and could hang out the wash. They bought the de rigueur 1930s furniture suite in dark Victorian mahogany, like other young couples in Roseto. She replaced the linoleum floors of her youth with polished wood covered by wool rugs.
In 1952, when her children were still young, Viola moved with her family to Flicksville, a small village outside Roseto, and into the home of their dreams, a Tudor built by a Bethlehem Steel executive, set high on a hill with an in-ground swimming pool on a few acres surrounded by lush woods. My grandfather, having grown up on Garibaldi Avenue in Roseto, was ready for a change, far enough away but not too far from his roots. As it turned out, neither Viola nor her husband Michael ventured far from their birthplaces. Only a few miles separate Roseto, Delabole, and Flicksville. My grandparents were buried in Roseto, a short walk from their first home as a married couple on Dewey Street.
Flicksville was their final home. They enjoyed the setting, and poured a lot of effort into the upkeep of the land. Viola loved the house too, and lucky for her, it was closer to their mill in Martins Creek.
I remember her kitchen.
Ornate thick wooden doors, the kind you’d expect to find in an English castle, led into Viola’s kitchen from a slate-covered stoop in the back of the house, next to the garage and off the driveway. The color scheme was pure 1950s: aqua and Pepto-Bismol pink. There was pink straw wallpaper, and brown walnut cabinetry with black hinges shaped like swords held by armored knights. The linoleum floor was starstruck, literally—wide stripes of aqua and pink inset with shiny brass stars.
The kitchen was small by today’s standards, but it contained absolutely everything Viola needed to turn out dinner parties for twenty guests or more. (Full disclosure: in the basement below the kitchen was a “canning kitchen” with a stove in the laundry room typical of many Italian American homes.) In the official upstairs kitchen were two generous countertops with recessed lighting for prep and assembly. There was a deep stainless steel double sink framed by windows, a four-burner electric stove, and an oven set into the wall, surrounded by more cabinetry. Tucked into a corner was a small pink linoleum desk in an alcove with a pink phone hanging on the wall, the phone number printed on the circular dial: 588-5746. It had an extra-long spiral of pink cord so Viola could talk on the phone and cook at the same time.
In the connecting breakfast nook sat a table built by my grandfather and two straight walnut benches, by a big window that overlooked the grounds. On the opposite wall stood a plate armoire, made by a carpenter friend of my grandfather’s. A series of plates depicting foxhunting scenes in the English countryside were centered carefully in the dish grooves.
My Italian grandparents aspired to the British style, from the chintz teacups to the chocolate brown crossbeams set in beige stucco on the facade of the Tudor. For them, all things British meant aristocratic. Whenever Viola admired a well-turned-out gentleman, she said, “He was like a duke.” And when a woman did the same, “She was a queen.” The royal touch went one step further. Underneath the floor, at the foot of the dining room table (Viola’s seat), was a servant bell that, when pressed, dinged in the kitchen to summon the help. Usually, “the help” was a blood relative of the hostess.
From this small kitchen, Viola produced gorgeous dinner parties. She served canapés and cocktails in the living room (aqua and gray decor) first. Viola made a mean Manhattan, and as kids, we’d fish out the maraschino cherries after the grown-ups went into the dining room to eat. The canapés were pure charcuterie, slender slices of Italian salami, juicy olives, fresh local scamorza (a locally made version of mozzarella, braided by hand) dusted with black pepper, served with small biscuits and fresh bread.
The first course was always one of her hearty soups (Italian wedding soup with greens) followed by a salad, made with fresh greens tossed with a simple oil and vinegar dressing I cannot duplicate (I only know she never used black pepper, only salt, to season a salad). She went through phases where she’d come upon a new recipe and perfect the dish by repeating it over the course of a year’s worth of dinner parties. She went on a jag in the 1970s where she made oysters Rockefeller in actual seashells. This was a perfect dish to serve with a Fuzzy Navel, a fresh aperitif made with peach schnapps.
The main course usually harkened back to meals prepared during her youth on the farm: creamy polenta with a robust tomato sauce tinged with cinnamon, savory meatballs and sausage with her handmade manicotti (filling and crêpes), or a Venetian fish brodetto in a marinara sauce that I crave to this day.
For dessert, she made fruit pies from scratch, simple pound cakes and cookies from her sister-in-law Gus’s oeuvre (Italian sesame cookies, small chocolate cups, and ginger cookies we called “dunkers”). There was no fancy frosting or rosettes of whipped cream—she was as direct in her baking techniques as she was on the factory floor. She used the freshest and best ingredients, never a box mix or prefab dough. Her devotion to eating fresh was a lifelong commitment; we used to drive to a nearby farm early in the morning so she might have the freshest eggs for baking. The Miller Egg Ranch operated on the honor system; you took what you needed and left the exact change in a cup.
Viola was a regular at Calandra’s in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where they made fresh ricotta, mozzarella, and grated Romano cheese. When my dad decided to move his young family from Pennsylvania to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, she said, “I could never live in a place where they don’t make cheese.”
After dessert, she served digestifs (bitters, Fernet Branca, Amaretto, or Fra Angelico) from a standard 1950s rolling liquor cart with two shelves. There was always a large carved wooden bowl filled with nuts and studded with silver nutcrackers and matching picks to remove the meat from the nuts, placed on the table after dessert. Viola even had a fancy table-size silver-handled whisk broom and dustpan to sweep up the shells.
After dinner and dishes, there was usually a card game, and sometimes there was just conversation, but I remember feeling content after one of her dinner parties, hoping the night would never end. We laughed a lot. Viola played records on the hi-fi before and after dinner, stacking the LPs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, One Thousand and One Strings, and other instrumentals. The hi-fi still works because none of her sixteen grandchildren was ever allowed to play it.
I once asked her how she knew how to throw dinner parties. After all, her own mother had died so young, and all Viola knew was life on the farm. She did not have exposure to fancy restaurants or grand parties, yet she knew how to prepare elegant dishes and entertain with style. Viola admitted she studied how people entertained in the movies (“the show”) and learned how to create a dinner party from a small series of books she received when she married.
The Woman’s Library was created by Social Culture Publications in New York City in the 1920s as a series of advice books for young ladies who aspired to be proper hostesses, entertain like the upper classes, and present themselves with good manners. With or without these books, I doubt the queen of England herself entertained her guests better than my grandmother. And I’ll bet the cooks at Buckingham Palace couldn’t top her polenta.
Everything I Ever Wanted
Long summer days were workdays for Viola, as they were loaded with light, perfect for hanging laundry on the clothesline, baking, and cleaning. Viola rose early, and often started her day berry picking.
One summer morning, before daybreak, Viola drove her station wagon, the back loaded with empty baskets, on a winding road through Flicksville with walls of green corn on either side. She was on her way to a commercial farm loaded with strawberry fields, where you could pick your own and pay for them. Her baby sister, Lavinia, had the same idea. She too rose early, drove to the farm, grabbed a stack of empty baskets from her car trunk, and waited for the flatbed truck to take her up the hill to the fields filled with the ripest berries.
As the sun came up over the mountain, Lavinia saw the truck coming down the dirt road toward her. As it appeared in the distance, she saw a lone rider with her legs dangling over the side of the flatbed, surrounded by baskets filled with fresh picked strawberries. It was my grandmother, well into her seventies, wearing cutoff jean shorts, a vibrant polyester blouse, and a sun hat. When she saw her baby sister, she said, “You’re late.”
Viola’s routine was to return to her kitchen with the fresh-picked berries and commence making pies, crust first. Viola’s fruit pies were works of art, sweet fruit in a delicate, lacy crust. I never remember a slice left over, they were eaten the day they were baked. She loathed sleeping late, didn’t understand it, never did it, and thought it a terrible waste of time. “I don’t understand why anybody would waste the morning,” she’d say. To this day, as a result of her example (and insistence), I can’t sleep late. I still get a vision of my grandmother’s face, much like Saint Thomas Aquinas had when he saw the face of God promising eternal life in exchange for a purposeful life. Once I’ve seen The Face, I have to get up. And, like Viola, I need eight to ten hours of sleep, so early to bed is a house rule. “It’s time for the Lily White party,” Viola used to say around eight in the evening. Some party. Sleep was part of her master plan to get more work out of you the following day. This good habit sustains me, and now I’ve passed the habit along to my daughter.
A particular summer day at Viola’s house stands out in my memory. I am one of seven children, Viola is one of six herself, so we shared the big-family dynamic. Therefore it was rare that we were alone, just the two of us. But on this particular day, we were. I was in college and was spending the summer with her, and had a job as a fry cook in a local restaurant. I had one day off a week, and Viola looked at my day of rest as an opportunity to get things done around the house.
So I washed her car.
Cars in particular, their care and maintenance, were important to Viola; they were an outward sign of opulence and another gleaming ray of the sun called the American dream. She told me about my grandfather’s car on their first date, and how much she admired it (running boards, rumble seat). Various photographs of her from the age of sixteen feature her in the foreground, and a car gleaming in the background, the ultimate sign of working class success.
Throughout her life, she took care of her cars like jewels. Cars were markers of particular eras in Viola’s life, and memories were built around them. In the late 1920s, Viola drove a Nash Roadster. My grandparents owned a Packard in the 1940s, the “it” car of the moment, and then moved on to Cadillacs, the ultimate stature vehicle, American designed and built, like the blouses in the factory. When I was little, their 1962 Cadillac Sedan de Ville was charcoal gray with fins, with a pale silver leather interior. Her 1960s work car, a Ford station wagon painted dull gold, was often filled with bundles of blouses that needed sleeves turned, or tickets affixed. When her grandsons bought her a car later in life, it was returned to them in pristine condition upon her death, plastic seat covers intact. When my father graduated from college, the first in his family to do so, they gave him a mint-green 1954 Pontiac convertible. A car was the highest reward you could get in the Trigiani family.
But that summer I was washing Viola’s 1970s car, a Mercury Grand Marquis four-door sedan, paying special attention to the hubcaps with a scrub brush. You would think that washing a car is not something you have to learn how to do, but Viola had taught me her technique years earlier and her expectation was that I would follow orders. She didn’t leave my efforts to chance. She oversaw my progress through the kitchen window. Once a forelady, forever a forelady. She did not restrain herself when it came to pointing out any missed spots.
Viola maintained her car’s interior no differently from her own living room. We dusted, swept, vaccumed, and buffed. The carpet mats were shampooed. Then, once the interior passed her inspection, and before you scrubbed the outside of the car, Viola would take a squeezed lemon from the kitchen and set it on the dashboard, close the doors, and let the summer sun fill the car with a fresh lemon scent. (Throw the lemon out when it turns black. On a hot summer day, that takes about fifteen minutes.)
To wash the exterior of a car, begin with two buckets of water, one spritzed with dish detergent (not too much, just a quick blast of soap), the other bucket with clean water. Have a garden hose close by. You also need a scrub brush for the hub caps, a bottle of bleach to whiten the rims, a cup of white vinegar to add to the clean, cold bucket of water for polishing the bumpers (later), and a pile of moppeens (old dish towels).
Begin by swabbing the roof (without missing any spots!), then the hood, then the sides, and finally the windows. Soak the moppeens in the soapy bucket, with big circular motions cover an area, and then in straight rows, with rags dipped in the rinse bucket, cover the same areas. Hose off the car, making sure you leave no soapy residue behind. Commence the detail work: bleach the rims (scrub brush and Clorox) and polish the chrome (vinegar, cold water, and more fresh moppeens).
By the time I was finished, Viola’s lime green land yacht glistened like a pale emerald.
I was beat. But she wasn’t. Even at the end of a long day, I never saw her energy flag. She baked pies while I polished the bumpers, and with the hot sun over the hill, she jumped on the riding lawn mower and mowed the trim of her property. I can see her, weaving in and out of the property line like a whipstitch, the soft whirl of the motor in the distance. She was meticulous about her yard, and you’d often seeing her striding across the acreage collecting sticks. (If I was ever bored as a kid, she’d say, “Go pick up sticks.” Evidently, you don’t want sticks getting in the mower blades.) Viola took such pride in her green rolling hills; her lawn was treated more delicately than an antique Aubusson. She had a war going with the indigenous groundhogs, and took it personally when they’d bore holes in her yard or eat from her garden.
Viola was a good shot, and owned several rifles, which she did not hesitate to use when a groundhog had the temerity to lumber into the open. I can see her, rifle cocked into the crook of her shoulder, her steely eyes squinting behind her eyeglasses, pale blue octagon frames so large they resembled windshield wipers (Dame Edna owns the other pair) as she tracked the vermin through the viewfinder on the gun. She was convinced that the groundhog came above ground to taunt her, so retaliation was necessary. When she’d pull the trigger, she’d hold the flank of the gun steady, so there was no recoil as there can be in police dramas on television. She was in total control, of the gun and the groundhog. The guns always made me nervous, and I declined to learn how to use one, even though she offered to teach me. Washing cars seemed safer.
By late afternoon the laundry, hung on the line in the morning, was ready to come down. Folding her bleached sheets was like folding cardboard. She never used fabric softener (“It gums up the machine,” she’d say). She was an early environmentalist. Viola was green before anyone thought about being green. Every day was Earth Day for Viola. She loved a low electricity bill and a wee water bill. It was a badge of honor for her to employ Mother Nature instead of Mother Maytag.
“Don’t you feel good?” she said to me on that summer day, inhaling the fresh Pennsylvania air. I didn’t want to admit I was exhausted, because she didn’t believe in it, so I lied and said, “Like a million bucks.”
“Come on,” she said.
I followed her into the kitchen. She took two crystal tumblers out of the cupboard and went for the liquor cart. She took the gold shaker and commenced making a killer batch of her Manhattans. Like a scientist making a brew to save mankind, she’d measure (by eye) sweet vermouth, whiskey, and a few tablespoons of cherry juice into the shaker. Then she’d gently shake the concoction like she was rattling maracas in a Carmen Miranda kick line.
She put the shaker aside (“Let it rest,” she said), and made our hors d’oeuvres: thin slices of fresh mozzarella, the ends of some crusty Italian bread drizzled with a bit of olive oil. Then she took out a canister and put a couple of oil pretzels she had made on the tray. (These resemble popovers with a hard-shell crust. When you bite into them, they are spongy and not too sweet—perfect with a cocktail.)
She poured the Manhattans into the ice-filled tumblers, added two cherries to each glass, and said, “Let’s go.” She carried the drinks outside, and I followed with the snacks.
She usually took cocktail hour on her folding chair under the shade tree by the kitchen window. But on this day, I felt compelled to break her routine.
“Let’s go sit in the field,” I said, grabbing a garden chair with my free hand, and we walked toward the top of the hill overlooking Viola’s lawn. The fringe of towering pine trees around the property seemed as tall as a city skyline. The low wall of fieldstone in the distance looked lavender as the late afternoon summer sky turned the color of a ripe peach. I lay down on the grass while Viola sat in the lawn chair.
Viola had lived alone since my grandfather died. If she was ever lonesome, she never let on. Somehow, caring for the home she’d lived in with her husband and continuing his efforts to keep the land in perfect shape gave her a deep sense of fulfillment. Her home meant everything to her. She prayed to never have to leave it. Viola never got over the fact that she lived in this majestic Tudor, that she owned it outright, so she took care of it like a castle, a steward of the house and the land, knowing her time in it was precious and now fleeting.
We sipped our cocktails and talked. Our relationship had changed over the years. At first I was in awe of her, then scared of her, but eventually she became my friend. These were the years I would love the best, when I was young and she still seemed to be. She had short, wavy, silver hair now, and her knees were bowed from arthritis, but in every other respect, it appeared she had not changed in the twenty years since I was born. She was still gutsy, and in fact she got more so as time went on. It was as if she wasn’t going to let anything get her, not old age nor sickness nor death. For a long time, I imagined that she’d never die. If anyone could skirt death, it would be Viola, by sheer determination.
When she saw an elderly lady (around her age) crossing the street slowly, she turned to me and said, “She’s not slow because of her age. That one moved like a turtle when she was young.” Viola would not accept old age as an excuse for giving up or giving in. She had her armor on.
The sun began to slip over the Blue Mountains. Hot summer days in northeastern Pennsylvania cool off quickly at twilight, and the temperature was near perfect. The sky colors were like an Impressionist masterpiece, saturated blues with streaks of lilac, soft corals hemmed in milky beige. I could see the first flickers of fireflies in the trees. Even the cocktail turned more beautiful in this light. The cherries glowed at the bottom of the amber mixture.
This was bliss.
I’m not much of a drinker, but Viola’s cocktails were delicious; they had a woodsy taste that burned my lips (the whiskey, evidently), but then went down sweet (the vermouth) and cold, as a lovely and immediate buzz ensued. After the chores that culminated in washing the car, I came to appreciate that lovely buzz. It meant we were finally off the clock; miracle of miracles, there was nothing left to do around the house.
“Every once in a while, have a drink,” she said. “When you’ve earned it.”
This advice comes from the same grandmother who sent me a tin of her cookies when I was in college. The note said, “Eat one cookie at a time.” I’m still not quite sure how to eat them otherwise. (Viola’s letter provided great entertainment to my roommate Cynthia, for whom I gave readings of the letters in our dorm room at Saint Mary’s. Cynthia, raised by steel magnolias from Alabama, said, “Dang. Your grandmothuh has mine beat. Mah grandmothuh sends me a tin of cheese straws, but she nevuh tells me how to eat ’em.”)
There is nothing like the quiet in the country; you can think, and you can breathe. The scent of sweet grass hangs in the air and every once in a while the night-blooming jasmine plays through like delicate perfume on a sophisticated woman. I didn’t crave nature or peace and quiet in my youth, but now I understand my grandmother’s need for it. It gets harder and harder to think amid the noise of the world, and lately it seems that the volume dial has been cranked to the max. I look back on my time with Viola and remember the value of silence.
Viola was lucky enough to find a place she could make sacred. She’d had this kind of peace on the farm as a girl, and now, in her advancing years, she retrieved it, held on to it like the best of her memories. Her home became her final passion and mission; she was determined to hold on to that house, the rolling hillsides, and the fringe of forest. As luck would have it, she never had to leave the place she loved—she lived there until she died.
“Did you ever think you might remarry?” I asked her.
“Never,” she said.
“You never had a date after Grandpop died?”
“No. Although I did let a man buy me a hot dog in Atlantic City once.”
“That’s not a date, Gram.”
“I guess not.” She sipped her drink. “You know, when I brought Grandpop home from Rochester . . .”
In a last-ditch effort to save my grandfather’s life, my grandmother took him to the Mayo Clinic in the spring of 1968. They had heard of experimental cancer treatments, and Grandpop’s local doctor recommended he try them. They went to Minnesota and tried the new treatments, drastic radiation sessions and chemotherapy, but it soon became clear that were not going to work. So, at Viola’s insistence, the doctors stopped the treatments. They flew home, so my grandfather could die in peace with his family around him.
“We flew home from Minnesota,” she said. “And we were sitting on the plane. And your grandfather said, ‘You’re young, Viola.’ ” She was sixty years old at the time. “And you’ve got a couple of bucks. Be careful.”
And then she said to him, “Don’t worry about me. I had everything I ever wanted.”
This was one of their last conversations. As soon as my grandfather returned home to his bed, he stopped speaking entirely. Viola’s diary tells me that he died at 8:15 that evening. (This entry was the last she ever wrote, even though she lived twenty-nine years beyond his death.)
I knew, around this time of day, when the work was done and the cocktails were poured, she missed my grandfather. I also knew that as the years passed, she missed him more, not less. She had regrets, but she was a widow who wasn’t going to make things right by finding a new husband and growing through new experiences. Her job was to keep everything nice—the garden, the house, the property—and all of that effort was in his honor. She had a sense that it was her duty to continue to make him proud, even though he was not here to enjoy her efforts.
Viola was not a sentimental woman, though she could be moved to tears by Lifetime movies and photographs of missing children on milk cartons. Love wasn’t something she talked about, but rather would show, by making a meal that would please my grandfather, shipping a perfect lot of blouses from the mill, or meeting payroll. I don’t believe they talked about their feelings very much, from the things Viola told me, but it was clear they acted upon them. They showed their love for one another. Even though their temperaments were different and they had individual approaches to problem solving, they had an underlying devotion to one another and their marriage. Viola saved the cards and telegrams he sent to her, and more telling (at least to me), Michael saved those she had sent to him. Reading them now, I understand how they felt about one another. They did not have an easy time of it. Viola’s ambition was an ongoing challenge for him, and I’m sure he sometimes hoped for a more traditional wife. At least, this is what Viola told me.
Viola, despite her proud demeanor, had a heart, and in her own way she could articulate the details of the rooms in it in a way that an artist might, in one brushstroke in a single perfect shade. She had regrets, she’d later share, but she knew what they were and why she had them. She told me she had made many mistakes, with her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and her employees. Those regrets often kept her up at night, and when I would visit, she’d wake me up to talk them through. She believed in atonement, but mourned that she could not atone once those she loved had died. Viola never practiced self-deception; she was as clear in her thinking as the cloudless sky. Viola owned up to her shortcomings—or at least, she did to me.
I was lying on the grass, next to her in the chair, a summer snow angel at this point, stretched out and one with the earth beneath me, as though I was carved into it. My arms were behind my head, pretzeled to make a pillow. The crystal tumbler rested in the grass like a jewel.
Suddenly there was a great whooshing sound. I sat up and surveyed the sky. There was another blast of this strange sound I’d never heard before, but no movement. We looked in the direction of the forest, a expanse of green trees beyond the property line, but the leaves on the trees were still.
The noise grew louder.
I looked up at Viola; she was more curious than scared. She wasn’t always so trusting of the universe. When I was a girl, she made us stay indoors one summer when it was reported that bits of Skylab had broken off from the lunar station. NASA determined that errant shards of metal might drop into the earth’s atmosphere, through the clouds, and onto children playing outside in northeastern Pennsylvania. That was the summer I learned how to embroider.
But this day she didn’t run into the house, nor did she advise me to seek cover. She sat there calmly and looked to the origin of the sound. I followed her gaze up and over the trees.
Suddenly, in the purple sky, the edge of something massive, round, and strawberry red rose from the green forest. It grew larger and larger, towering over the height and breadth of the tree line below it.
This mighty red thing cleared the treetops and revealed itself. It was a hot air balloon, with a dangling gold basket suspended on cords, climbing higher and higher into the sky. As it sailed over us and then out of sight, I looked up at her.
“Are we drunk?” I asked her.
And she said, “No. Just lucky.”
Lucia Spada was born in Schilpario, Italy, on Christmas Day, 1894. The Spada family lived high in the Italian Alps, above the city of Bergamo, which is north of Milan in the Lombardy region. Lucia stood five-seven and was trim, with strong legs. She had refined northern Italian features—an oval face with large, dark brown eyes, accented by thick, well-shaped eyebrows, a razor-straight nose, full lips, and high cheekbones.
Lucia was the eldest of eight children. Her childhood was marked by tragedy, when her beloved five-year-old sister Margarita (Rita) died suddenly of an illness. The family that remained struggled to survive, as did all families at the turn of the twentieth century in the mountains of Italy. Her father, Marco, looked for work to supplement the income he made from running a horse-and-buggy service from Schilpario to Bergamo. Marco was stern, a perfectionist with a creative streak that made him a bit of an inventor with a hunger for world travel. His wife, Giacomina, was a sweet and tender mother who made a comfortable home life despite their poverty.
The notion of Marco running a buggy service in the Alps was enchanting until I went up the mountain to Schilapario myself, decades later. A single narrow, winding road cuts through the mountain, with hefty ceilings of stone overhead, only to sweep out from the underpass and create a harrowing path on the edge of the mountain itself. The road weaves in and out in this fashion all the way to the top, past Val de Scalve and up to Schilpario, where villages are carved out in the hills as if in relief.
High in the Alps, the vistas are majestic. Towering trees form a swirling skyline against a swath of deep blue. At night the full moon looks like a sugar cookie, and seems so close, you might reach up and break off a piece of it. By day, the colors of the landscape are painterly in the light, a waxy green palette of wide, deep fields with clusters of bright yellow and dark purple from local flowers like edelweiss. At sundown, the Alpine sky turns a deep inky blue, and the stars over northern Italy shimmer like flecks of gold.
As heavenly as it is to look from the curves up to the peaks, it’s utterly terrifying to look down. The gorges between the steep mountain walls are so deep, it is impossible to see the bottom. Great shards of rock stick out from the valley walls like teeth.
I imagined a horse and buggy on that mountain, in the snow and rain, and wondered how Marco survived. From the distance of decades, I could appreciate his notoriously stern demeanor. Lucia’s father worked in a state of constant anxiety, and his wife’s was probably worse.
Circumstances became so terrible for the Spada family that by 1917, Lucia volunteered to go to the United States with her father to find work. The plan was to send the money they made home to Schilpario, and then, when they had saved enough, Marco and Lucia would return and buy a house so that the family would be, at long last, secure. The plan was made quickly as they always are when a situation is dire. The Spadas had a cousin in Hoboken, New Jersey, who would put them up and help them find work. This begins the story of Lucia, who, once in United States, insisted upon being called Lucy, the American version of her name. She had a clear mission, and her goal was to see it through, until her family was secure.
Once Lucy and Marco arrived in New York City, after a journey where Lucia became so ill she would never board a ship again, she settled in with her cousins and got a job in a Hoboken mill as a sewing machine operator making children’s clothes for $2.00 a week.
Lucy told me that she made quick work of learning English, because on the first day, the foreman came by and hollered, “Faster, Lucy. Faster.” She didn’t understand what he was saying, so she vowed to learn English so she could keep her job and understand what was required of her.
Soon after Lucy was settled in New Jersey, her father decided to travel to find work that paid a decent wage. Marco left Hoboken for nearly two years, working around the world and saving his pay. He went to Canada, then to Argentina, on to Australia, then back to the States.
In the meantime, Lucy had fallen in love with my grandfather, Carlo Bonicelli, who was, surprisingly enough, from Vilminore, a neighboring village to Schilpario only five miles away. Though they had never met in Italy, they were bonded by their dialect, work ethic, and utter attraction for one another. There was something instantly familiar about Carlo for Lucy, they were simpatico and their similarities reassured her. Carlo Augustus Bonicelli was romantic and funny. His square jaw showed determination, as his soft brown eyes showed his emotional and sensitive nature.
Lucy told me years later that when she was young, a woman rarely chose her own husband; that duty was left to the family, who arranged the marriages and “made a match.” But, she said with great pride, she and Carlo had chosen one another; it was a marriage based on love.
This was so important to her that she reiterated it in the last conversation I had with her.
Lucy was a serious young woman, and Carlo was the opposite. Funny, gregarious, and social, he played a mean tin bugle. Marco met his future son-in-law and, confident that his independent daughter Lucy had chosen a good man, returned to Schilpario, to his wife and family, to build the house on Via Scalina that the Spadas and their descendants still live in today.
Lucy told her new husband that she would be happy to do any job except farm. In Italy, her family kept rabbits and chickens, but part of Lucy’s American dream was not to make a career of it.
Carlo was a shoemaker, and with Lucy’s skills as a seamstress, they knew together they could make a living. They decided to partner with Carlo’s friend, another shoemaker, Giuseppe Bonanto. The men had heard that shoemakers were in short supply on the Iron Range in Minnesota, so the two couples decided to leave New Jersey for the Midwest.
When they arrived in Buhl, Minnesota, it became clear, after a time, that there wasn’t enough work for two shoemakers in town. So the men flipped a coin to decide who would move on to the next town, Chisholm, where there was a need for a shoemaker. Carlo lost the toss, and he and Lucy departed for Chisholm.
The Iron Range
Chisholm, a prim small town in northern Minnesota, on the vast Iron Range, looks from a distance like low, rolling hills of cinnamon, where the earth has been stripped to dig for iron ore. As in most American mining towns, there was work at the ready, the mines were in operation twenty-four hours a day. Day shifts blended into hoot owl (night) shifts, so the industry attracted ambitious immigrants hoping to make a living, or men like my grandfather looking to supplement their trade with an extra paycheck.
A colorful mix of Yugoslavians, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Italians, Polish, Russian, German, and Jewish families rounded out the community, built at first by those of Scandinavian descent. Lakes large and small surround the town, and there’s a beauty right off Main Street called Longyear Lake. I remember whitecaps on that lake, when the wind blew through during summer storms. The water was deep and clear and blue.
In her lifetime, Lucy lived for the most part in two homes: the house in which she was born, in Schilpario, and at 5 West Lake Street in Chisholm. For the last seven years of her life, she lived in Leisure Hills, a rest home in nearby Hibbing. She suffered a stroke in 1985 that left the right side of her body paralyzed, but her mind was sharp until the day she died.
Carlo died when he was thirty-nine years old, and Lucy was thirty-five. She never remarried, or even went out socially with men after that. She raised her family and put all three of her children through college on the money she earned sewing and selling factory-made shoes, including the popular Red Goose brand. She believed children needed the best shoes in the family, a structured leather lace-up boot to protect the growing bones and support the ankle.
Lucy wouldn’t sell a pair of shoes that didn’t fit properly, and always encouraged parents to buy function and fit over style. She would rather lose a sale than fit a child’s foot improperly. My grandmother talked her customers out of buying shoes as much as she sold them.
At the top of the hill, the first building you see when you make the turn onto the main street of Chisholm is the public library. With the flow of income from the mines, the community built beautiful public schools, parks, and the library. My grandmother went to the library weekly, and took her children along, which is where my mom’s addiction to books began; eventually she and her twin sister Irma became librarians.
I spent a lot of time in the Chisholm library one long summer in the 1970s. The architecture of the library was inviting to children; it looked like a stately red brick house. Inside, the lemon wax used to polish the walnut reading tables and the sweet scent of ink on old paper filled the spacious rooms, filled with light from the generous lead-paned windows. The building was an avid reader’s dream, lots of bright, natural light, and alcoves and nooks perfect for reading uninterrupted.
In 1920 my grandparents moved into a simple red-brick building that anchored the opposite end of the wide Main Street. The establishments that my grandmother frequented on Main Street had old world charm. Hilmer’s Bakery sold delicious sweets (povitica), doughnuts filled with jam and rolled in sugar, and dense, sweet strudels (all that Central European baking talent), the Silvestri family ran Choppy’s Pizza, and a popular Italian-owned family restaurant, Valentini’s, held annual dinners where they made polenta on long wooden boards.
Known for her can-do common sense and even temperament, Lucy had a place of respect in her community in matters practical and philosophical. Parents trusted her with their children. Mothers would send their children to Lucy’s shop after school to wait for pickup. Her shop was a meeting point in town. People knew Lucy was typically in the shop, and her door was always open.
The places Lucy avoided, like the local bars, were plentiful. Mining and the bar life go hand in hand like mother and child. During the summers, I would pass the bars in daytime, and the scent of booze and cigarettes would waft out, reminding me that there was a busy nightlife in Chisholm, where people worked hard and relaxed after hours.
The Progressive Shoe Shop
My grandfather opened the Progressive Shoe Shop in the front room on the street level of 5 West Lake Street where he repaired shoes, built some, and dreamed of designing his own custom line. Later, Mom told me that the joke was that there was nothing progressive about the shop, but the name indicated my grandfather embraced a modern, contemporary vision for his American business. As a veteran of World War I, my grandfather was a proud soldier, and a newly minted American citizen. When he married Lucy, she became a citizen too.
Lucy’s sewing shop was in the back room of the first floor. There was an open service window in the wall separating the shoe shop from her workroom. This saved Lucy a lot of time when the bells on the door would jingle and a customer would enter, and in the years before he died offered her instant communication with her husband. There was a door leading to the back room, near the checkout desk, upon which was an ornate cash register with brass bindings, bezel-set number keys, and enamel flaps with numbers that would pop up in a pane of glass when the keys were pressed.
Lucy’s workroom in the back was deep and wide, with a series of windows along the back wall. The gray wooden floor bowed in the center, from age and wear. The only pops of color were from the bolts of fabrics and the pots of red geraniums along the ledges of the windows.
Her sewing machine—a black-enameled Singer painted with gold curlicues set on a sturdy wooden table—was set in the center of the room to take advantage of the light. She let me sit in her work chair and pump the foot pedal, a wrought iron plate designed with open scrollwork. Both my feet could fit, and I would pretend to drive instead of sew.
There were storage closets for her supplies, a worktable for cutting patterns, and two easy chairs for company, who would come through and chat while she worked. There was a separate washroom in the back corner.
A screen door lead to the backyard, a square patch of green with an enormous shade tree. I remember thinking that her yard was unmanicured, much like the farm in Delabole, except that of course, Lucy did not have a goat. When Carlo was alive, like her mother in Italy, she kept rabbits, but eventually she gave them up and kept a chicken coop. They ate well from the chicken coop—roast chickens (yes, my grandmother wrung their necks herself), hearty soups, and fresh eggs.
When I was a girl, Lucy rented part of the workroom to Zeke Salvini, a longtime family friend who sold linoleum. This arrangement was one of the small sidebar businesses she had through the years to supplement what she made sewing for a little extra pocket money. Along one wall of her workroom, Zeke stored big rolls of linoleum. Zeke gave me small, square samples of linoleum on a chain to play with. I think he may be partially responsible for my lust for interior decorating and subsequent swatch addiction.
Lucy lost her wedding band in the workroom in the late 1960s when she was cutting a pattern. She was bereft, so Zeke took every one of the linoleum rolls (some twelve feet high) and unrolled them, looking for the ring. They never found it.
It’s hard to believe it now, but Lucy was in her mid-seventies that summer. She did not seem her age at all, as she still worked full-time. She turned the shoe repair shop into a showroom to sell shoes after my grandfather died, keeping the sewing business going in the back. After my grandfather died, she thought about having another shoemaker come in and run the shop, but decided against it. She found additional sources of income, keeping the books for a local ice company.
Lucy told me she felt lucky that her family lived above the shop, because she could run her business and tend to her family simultaneously. She also relied on her extended family of friends: the Ongaro, Uncini, Sartori, and Latini families looked out for her children, as she did for theirs. Lucy was far from her parents and blood family, but built a community of support around herself and her children. This was a key aspect to raising a successful family alone.
Outside the showroom, a hallway led up a flight of steep, wide steps to the second floor, which was home. A window set into the wall of the kitchen (a lot like the one in the wall between the shoe shop and sewing room downstairs) overlooked the stairs, so Lucy could see who was at the entrance. These windows were time savers, and for the efficient, organized Lucy, raising a family alone and working, every moment was essential, as was security. These windows helped her screen who was coming in and out of the building.
While the building was simple in design, and surely Lucy kept it that way, one element was grand and unforgettable. Throughout her home, the ceilings were fitted with skylights in the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bath. These windows provided light, and could be propped open for fresh air, but they also served as frames for the sky, which became a moving work of art through them. The Minnesota sky would float overhead, tufts of clouds on endless blue. During storms, when the sky turned black, the lighting was magnificent to observe through the glass—after they’d been bolted shut, of course, to keep out the rain.
The living room faced Main Street. Long and rectangular, it was hemmed by a series of windows. Lucy had a long sofa and chairs in simple, durable beige wool fabric that faced a television set, and a fabulous ottoman, in circus-tent stripes, burgundy and beige leather with black piping, that I loved to play on.
Next to the living room was a hallway that connected to the front bedroom and, down the back of the building, to a kitchen on the right and another bedroom across from it.
The kitchen was all white. The skylight was centered over the table, surrounded by bright white enamel appliances. The kitchen table, a rectangle four by six feet, sat on a single engraved pedestal painted white, with matching chairs. The suite was a gift of the Morzenti family in Buhl, to express gratitude that Lucy had taken in their daughter when her mother was ill. Lucy told me that when she came to Chisholm, and through the years, that immigrant families coped by banding together, and doing for one another what family would have provided back home.
The examples of bartering among the immigrants are legendary, and it was a system where everyone benefited from the exchange. Lucy would make your curtains, and in exchange, you might build her fence. Nothing was thrown away, as there was always someone who might use what you didn’t need any longer. This exchange brought a civility and network of support that my grandmother would honor all her life.
Lucy was a fine cook and baker. She made northern Italian delicacies—gnocchi, a potato-based pasta, and hand-rolled pasta—in her kitchen. There was a savory roast and vegetables with roasted potatoes, followed by a sponge cake, every Sunday after church. Lucy worked hard to provide for her family, but she didn’t let on to her three children how difficult their circumstances were in the years after Carlo died. My mother remembers the Christmas after her father died, when the Salvation Army brought a basket by, with a turkey, food staples, and candy for the kids. Lucy thanked them kindly, and then instructed them to take the basket to a family who truly needed it. I can only imagine the worry she faced every night when she went to sleep, alone in a country without any family, without a husband, with three small children to raise and a business to run.
One of Lucy’s solutions to saving money was to do as much labor herself as possible, including the chores around the house. While her home was warm and inviting, it wasn’t fancy. She did not invest money or time in renovating, or buying the myriad of appliances that would make her life easier. When the children grew up, they did the maintenance, and my aunt Irma would paint the walls. I liked how Lucy lived, and in particular, I loved her bathroom.
The bathroom was painted a cheery yellow with a skylight positioned over the pedestal sink. There was an artful sloped roof with an alcove at the far end, a deep white enamel tub on claw feet centered in it, with a silver hose and nozzle the size of a large shower head anchored on a stainless steel holder. I never saw another tub like that one until I went to Italy. I imagine Lucy never changed the tub into a mod shower because it reminded her of home—of Schilpario.
Beyond the bathroom, there were two rooms at the back of the building—Lucy’s bedroom on the far side, and opposite it, a workroom that could have easily been a fourth bedroom. Luckily Lucy had twin girls and one son, so three bedrooms was plenty. The workroom had windows along one wall. In the center of the room was a white enamel wringer washing machine, which Lucy operated herself. The deep drum of the washer would fill with water from a wide hose attached to the wall. Lucy would add detergent to the water first. The clothes would swirl around, and then, after a lengthy rinse, Lucy would put each individual item of clothing through the wringer, which looked like two metal rolling pins with a hand crank on the side.
Once the garment was put through the wringer, she’d snap it and place it on a hanger or over a rack, a series of wooden dowels along the wall. The laundry process had a Zen quality to it. Even though the work took muscle and concentration, she reveled in it. I often think of her, and how she applied the same effort to her sewing as she did to mundane tasks. All of her work, regardless of its nature, seemed to bring her a sense of satisfaction. She didn’t fight against duty or chores or hard work. There wasn’t any resentment around her obligations, I never heard any complaints. She moved in harmony with her chores, as if having a purpose and being useful was its own brand of art.
Because of the wringer washer, Lucy’s home was always filled with the fresh scents of clean camphor, bleach, and a touch of peppermint. There was no clothes dryer, so everything that was washed was hung and then pressed. Lucy left the windows open in the workroom, as the air helped dry the clothing more quickly. In the summer, the sun would pour in and dry the clothes in double time.
On days when she wasn’t doing laundry, and the pristine room was available for other uses, Lucy made pasta. She rolled her pasta by hand in the kitchen, then hung it on the clean dowels to dry.
Between her bedroom and the workroom was a door that led to a second-floor landing. That landing led to a set of wooden stairs that went two stories down to the yard. You could touch the branches of the shade tree from that landing, though I was too scared of falling to try. Lucy left that door open too, and the fresh Minnesota air would blow through her house. In fact, I remember the windows being open, day and night, to let the sweet air through. I had the same feeling years later when I opened the bedroom windows in her childhood home in Schilpario. The fresh Italian air was just like the breezes that blew off the pristine lakes of Minnesota. I love to leave doors and windows open, too, and I know this came from her example.
One summer day, when Lucy was working downstairs in her shop, I went through her closet. I opened the wide door, and the clean scent of lavender and pressed linen greeted me. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I liked to snoop. Lucy with the lovely Italian accent had lived a long time, and I was sure she had some artifacts from the past that would be of interest.
Her closet was unlike any others I knew. First of all, it was spacious. And secondly, it wasn’t crammed with clothes. Three hatboxes rested neatly on the shelf over the rod. There were two pairs of shoes on the polished floor—one pair of simple black leather pumps, and a pair of embroidered bedroom shoes, piped in black velvet on a cloisonné print in aqua, black, and deep rose. Her third pair of shoes—her work shoes, black leather lace-ups with a two-inch Cuban heel—she was wearing at the moment, down in the shop. I thought it strange that a woman who sold shoes didn’t have more of them. When the work shoes wore out, she would order a new pair, but not before she needed them.
As her closet went, spare and practical, so did the rest of the house. In fact, there wasn’t any junk in her house at all—no tchotchkes, no clutter whatsoever. She didn’t save ribbon and wrapping paper like Viola, and there wasn’t a long pole in her closet with a choice of several winter coats to wear. Lucy had one. Granted, if you were going to own one proper coat, it should be like hers: navy blue silk wool with wooden buttons, an empire cut, straight sleeves, and a stand-up collar. It was very Givenchy, but it wasn’t French; it had been handmade by her in the shop below. She lined it in midnight blue satin, opulent, but no one ever saw the lining. Only Lucy.
The other aspect of her personal closet that amazed me was that she had three identical dresses. They were navy blue silk with white polka dots. Shirtwaist in style, the dress had a notched collar, short sleeves, tiny white pearl buttons, and matching buttonholes on the opposite placket; a nipped waist with a thin belt made from the polka-dot material gave way to a full skirt that was neither busy nor fussy, but draped beautifully and was exactly right. Appropriate.
I was eleven years old, and this trio of identical dresses fascinated me. Lucy had created a uniform for church and social events, in the form of this dress. She would accessorize it differently for various occasions. Sometimes she wore a locket on a long chain, other times a pin at the collar. Often, according to the season, she would wear the dress with a navy blue cashmere cardigan from Italy, which was kept folded in her drawer, without a pull or a stain or a hole. Her only sweater looked new, and I knew she wore it a lot. She took care of everything she owned as though it was irreplaceable.
I went down the stairs to ask her about the dress situation.
Lucy was sewing at her machine. There was a bright work lamp over it, on a snakelike coil. She’d push and pull that lamp around, up, and down to see her stitches in the best light, then move it out of the way (after all, the bulb was bright and hot) when she released the wheel to wind the bobbin. When she finished a job and stood up, she’d swing out of her rolling stool, with its low back and handmade pillow seat, like a concert pianist who’d just finished a concerto on the stage of Carnegie Hall. She was one with her instrument: the sewing machine.
When I came into the room (and I was so chic at the time—an eleven-year-old with style, wearing a long rope of wooden beads with a navy blue scooter skirt), she looked up at me and smiled. Beamed. Whenever I came into the room, she’d light up, so happy to see me. No one ever in the course of my entire life was ever as happy to see me as she was. Looking back, now, I realize that you only ever need one person who lights up that way when you enter a room. One person is all it takes to give a kid confidence.
“Grandma, I have a question. Why don’t you have a lot of clothes?”
She smiled. “I have plenty of clothes.”
“No, you don’t. You have three dresses and one coat. And the dresses are all the same. You only have two pair of shoes. Three, if you count those.” I pointed at the plain black leather lace-ups.
“How many dresses should I have?” she asked.
“More than three.”
She laughed. “How many can I wear at one time?”
“One.” I was no fool. That was an easy question.
“So how many do I need?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. “Well, I guess the answer is one.”
“So you see, I have too many.”
I had to process this logic. After all, my fashion gene had kicked in, and here, my Lucy was a creator of clothing, she could make anything she imagined. Anything. I wanted to see her wearing the goods. And I wanted to see a lot. Her simple, straight black skirt and white blouse wasn’t enough.
I had seen pictures of the dresses, skirts, blouses, suits, and coats she had made for my mother and her twin sister. I knew Lucy could make evening gowns of chiffon, sundresses of cotton pique with eyelet lace, and eventually an exquisite peau de soie silk wedding gown for my mother, which I was allowed to look at but never touch. The skirt on my mother’s wedding gown was a full 360-degree circle skirt with layers of white tulle underneath. Lucy was capable of high fashion. I knew Lucy had chic and cool in her, I had seen it, so why wasn’t she wearing her own couture? I didn’t even know how to express this to her; in my mind, it seemed insulting to point out that she didn’t have much. So instead I asked, “Why the polka dots?”
“White polka dots on navy blue are classic. You can wear that fabric to a wedding or a funeral or a party, and it’s always just right.”
Years later, when I moved to New York City and was making my living by day as an office temp to finance my theatrical dreams at night, I lived in a boardinghouse. I needed a dress to wear to weddings and funerals and the occasional fancy party (with the dual purpose of making connections and eating enough hors d’oeuvres at Manhattan parties so that I wouldn’t have to buy dinner later). “Beauty on a budget” didn’t begin to describe my circumstances. Like every girl without connections that ever moved to New York City to find a job and make a life, I was broke. Everything I made went to rent and playwriting. But I needed to look good, to give an impression that I was serious and had taste, and maybe, if there was a miracle to occur, that I was actually going places.
I went to B. Altman’s to look for a dress. I scoured the racks. And almost without looking for it, I came upon a navy blue and white polka dot dress with short sleeves, a square collar, covered buttons, and a matching belt. The skirt portion was fitted around the hips and fell into pleats above the knee. It was the 1980s, so it had shoulder pads. At this point in the book, my friends are laughing as they read this, because they know The Dress; they have pictures of me in it, because I wore that dress absolutely everywhere, from the Benton/Doughan wedding in Wareham, Massachusetts, to a funeral in lower Manhattan, and every other event I was invited to in between.
I wore it professionally on interviews, and socially to parties, and on days I will never forget, like the autumn day in 1988 when I signed with my first literary agent, the impeccable Wiley Hausam at International Creative Management. Whatever Lucy had wanted to impart to me about sticking with the classics and keeping things simple in the wardrobe department somehow got in. When I wanted to jazz up that dress by day, I wore white gloves with it. And when I wore it at night, I’d drape fake pearls like Coco Chanel. Lucy was right. I never had to worry if the dress was appropriate, because it was, and remains ever so.
This effortless style is known as sprezzatura. Lucy took it a step further. When you have good taste, and you know what is required, you never need agonize about what to wear. You will hopefully find that one article of clothing that looks good on you, and says who you are, and that’s nice. But the important lesson is that having the right dress in your closet means you don’t have to waste time shopping incessantly for clothes, buying things you will never wear. The navy and white polka dot dress saves time and money, neither of which should ever be wasted. That dress also made me feel pretty, which is the best reason for wearing it, second only to emulating Lucy, who it seemed, had common sense and good taste, the two characteristics that make an otherwise good woman a lady.