The Hudson River lay flat and black like a lost evening glove. The clouds parted overhead as the distant moon threw a single, bright beam over lower Manhattan as though it was looking for its other half.
The big Christmas Eve moon appeared out of nowhere like the diamond on my hand. From the roof of the Angelini Shoe Company, as far as I could see, the world was still, yet inside me, my heart raced and my thoughts tumbled over one another like dizzy snowflakes. This moment was different from all the others that had come before it. I knew I would return to it in all its detail in the years to come so I paid careful attention.
Greenwich Village had become an elegant theater set.
The curtain lifted on the downtown shoreline clustered with skyscrapers creating a painterly backdrop of rows of windows filled with twinkling lights. Powder blue snow clouds floated down to fill the fly space overhead.
The opera of roaring engines and horns and screeching brakes on the West Side Highway was suddenly mute. Not even the turning of a page could be heard as the trucks came to a stop at the light. My fiancée and I were surrounded by sweet silence. We held the moment until the canopy over the door snapped in the winter wind.
Gianluca Vechiarelli asked me to marry him and I said yes to the man with the blue eyes, silver hair, and a full and complex past, but it was his future that I was invested in, that I would be a part of, and now he would be a part of mine. A shoemaker would marry a tanner.
This could work.
Shoemakers and tanners form a symbiotic relationship out of necessity. One provides the leather while the other whips it into a glorious creation. At Vechiarelli & Son in Arezzo, Gianluca creates some of the most sumptuous leather, calfskins and suedes in Italy. He is also a meticulous fabric expert who monitors the silk worms in Prato as they spin glittering threads that are woven together to form their world-renowned duchesse satin.
Those Tuscan satins became our signature material used to build our family wedding shoes. My great grandfather named his designs after memorable characters of the opera, so theatricality was as important to him as durability. Through the generations, there has been and remains a short hand between our families’ shops. The Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village has proudly used Vechiarelli & Sons goods for generations.
Gianluca is a master craftsman. He takes all manners of leather, treats, dyes, presses and buffs them so I might build the shoes I see in my imagination. The relationship is creative, but it’s also a business. A savvy tanner knows which leather the major designers have chosen for the upcoming season and can guide the storefront shoemaker into the heart of current trends. When the designers swarm Italy like bees in search of the best goods, the tanner extracts their creative impulses like honey.
I met Gianluca for the first time on a buying trip a few years ago. His father and my grandmother had fallen in love, and I was the first in my family to witness their devotion to one another. As my widowed grandmother started over and went her way with Dominic, I was alone. When my boyfriend at the time stood me up on the Isle of Capri, Gianluca arrived to make sure I was all right.
Gianluca was dispatched by my grandmother to check on me. I didn’t need or want a tour guide, so our friendship had a rocky start. I thought he was handsome but the observation was strictly superficial. You can throw a pebble into any crowd of men in Italy and it will hit a great looking guy. Gianluca was older than me, and I’d never dated someone in that particular category, so I didn’t pay attention. I had to drop a lot of my hard and fast rules in order to get to know him. I understand now how those first impressions are often just that, a quick snapshot that on its own merit is meaningless. After a vacation, in time, it gets lost in a shoebox full of them.
Gianluca is particular, exacting and thorough when it comes to his work, a lot like me. We work well together and now we’ll partner at home as we build a family of our own. A chill goes through me when I realize this moment almost didn’t happen and it would have been my fault.
Tonight began with a terrible mistake, a transgression that no other man or woman would overlook. But, Gianluca forgave me. Sometimes redemption lands in your life like a bird and looks you straight in the eye, even when you believe you don’t deserve forgiveness.
“It means everything to me that you asked me to marry you on this roof.” I said, thanking him for choosing my favorite place on earth.
“I know how much you love your river. Whatever you love, I love.”
“You just made everything so simple.”
Gianluca lives and works in Tuscany, the creative heart of Italy. His only draw to New York City, Greenwich Village and this roof is me. I wonder if he could be happy here.
Overhead, the sky was trying so hard to snow. The clouds went on forever, and the two of us could have easily gotten lost beneath them, but Gianluca held me tight. It was as if he read my thoughts and wanted to reassure me. There was everything in his kiss, the glory of the moment, our high hopes for our future together, and forgiveness, the only proof of true love. I was ashamed that I had doubted him.
“You know I love you,” I told him.
Gianluca pulled me close.
“But you can cut your losses right now,” I assured him. “Nobody ever has to know you asked me.”
“But I did. And you said yes.” He assured back. “And I want to marry you.”
“Even after what happened tonight? I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t care about that,” Gianluca said firmly. “Forget it. Let’s tell your family our news.”
“Once we tell my mother we’re getting married, it’s iron clad.”
“Full disclosure. I have serious, what I would call… flaws. And by the way, I’m getting worse as I get older.”
“You’ll never catch up to me in years.”
“…or experience. Good point.”
“You’re perfect.” He said.
“Everyone seems perfect in the moonlight.”
My truth seemed to take on a fever. I had to let him know everything I hadn’t told him right then before he found out later and ran. “There are all sorts of predispositions to diseases in my family tree.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Very. We’ve got diabetes, heart disease and dyspepsia. Less alarming but equally annoying are the onset of eye tics in our late thirties. I have middle-aged cousins who blink more than stare. There’s a psoriasis that pops up after fifty. It attacks the elbows. Usually hits the women but cousin Toot got it on his head. No one knows why.
From Aunt Feen’s branch alone there’s severe depression and a lifelong bitterness that comes from low serotonin. Yeah, yeah a pill can offer a quick fix but nobody takes it. Bitterness is chronic and it comes with cold sores when we’re disappointed. Every now and then, there’s the emotional jaundice.”
“You turn orange?”
“In theory. Evidently we carry a glandular predisposition that prevents true happiness. It colors reality negatively or at least that’s what Dr. Oz says. He did a whole show on it. It’s a mindset of certain Mediterranean DNA. Nothing can be good for long because it’s already in a state of rot. That includes everything from fresh fruit to baked goods to relationships. Oh, yeah. On the addiction side, we’re sick.”
“Drinking? Drugs?” Gianluca wondered.
“No, we’re gamblers. We have bookies, card sharps, and dice throwers on the Roncalli side and they aren’t necessarily talented. My Uncle Peedee once lost everything including his shoes in a street game in Times Square and had to walk home to Queens barefoot. Luckily, he called it quits before he lost his pants. But now with Internet gambling, the gambling is hidden and that makes it worse - we can lose our shirts in the privacy of our own homes between courses at holiday meals. All bets are off.”
“When you see any of the following surnames in any combination: Angelini, Roncalli, Bozzuto, and Fazzani, the confluence of those bloodlines creates a pancreatic nightmare with a glucose spike accompanied by a raging river of denial. We can’t cope with reality so we pretend everything away. Real problems carry the same weight as imagined anxiety. We press the panic button just because.”
“I’ve seen the panic.”
“So you know. And you’ve observed the spiritual flailing. We pay mediums to connect to our dead ancestors, often just to remind them that they owe us money. Cousin Victoria is a coffee psychic who reads our espresso at the end of a meal. She saw my father’s prostate cancer in my mother’s cappuccino.”
“Is the list over?”
“I’d like to leave it open ended, if that’s all right with you. By the way, and this is a big one, gambling wins aside, we aren’t good with money.”
“That’s a plus.”
“Not that it would matter.”
“Oh it matters. I’m running a business here. We’re making shoes in Argentina. Money matters.”
“Whatever you say.”
“If my family were made of porcelain, you’d be marrying into a bunch of crackpots. You should think long and hard about your decision. Becoming legally bound to our family should require a full work-up by a team of physicians and, at the very least, a consultation with a 1-800 lawyer. It’s in your best interest. Trust me. I’m only a member of this club because I was born into it, but I worry about you. You have to be a little off yourself to choose me.”
Gianluca threw his head back and laughed. “All families are crazy.”
“Why is that?”
“People are involved.”
“But it seems like other families aren’t crazy, only mine. Even your family seems normal to me.”
“We are not. My daughter married a strange family. They never speak in full voice. They whisper and are very remote. Professors.”
“At least they have their keen intellects to hold them together. What have we got?”
Gianluca thought for a moment. Then he said, “You’re shoemakers. So, leather. Nails.”
The romantic rooftop moment plummeted into ruination as Gianluca compared what we felt towards one another to the components of the common penny loafer. “Oh, and love.” He said, catching himself. “Everlasting love.”
“Oh right. That.”
“If you have love, what more do you need?”
Gianluca laughed. “When I asked your father for your hand, he cried.”
“He was disappointed you only requested the hand. He hoped you would take the entire kit.”
“I want the kit.” He said.
Couldn’t Gianluca see that my father’s tears were not from joy but relief?
Ever since Dad got the radioactive seeds implanted for his bum prostate, he’d been an emotional wreck, worried about his children, fearing for our security, hoping that none of us would have to face the unknown of the future alone. (Never mind he also had to take female hormones and for a moment, thought he’d permanently end up in a sports bra and tap pants instead of old manly t-shirt and boxers.)
“You underestimate your father,” Gianluca said.
Dutch Roncalli defined security as marriage, a regular paycheck, and a roof over our heads with a spouse who never hits us. But instead of admitting to that very practical but low bar, I said, “Dad trusts my judgment. He always has. If I choose you, that’s good enough for him.”
“I think his love for you is beautiful. It’s a father’s dilemma: You hope for your daughter’s happiness, but you know no man is good enough.”
“Orsola married a great guy.”
“A father doesn’t see a good man. He only sees the flaws.”
When I married Gianluca, I would have an instant family - his daughter, Orsola, and her husband, Matteo. This was where our age difference was most apparent. His daughter was the same age as Jaclyn, my baby sister. I hadn’t even thought about being a stepmother. Dear God, more to worry about!
Gianluca continued, “Matteo is a good man, but it was the strangest thing. When he came over to ask for Orsola’s hand in marriage, I thought I would be defensive. I wanted to make sure he knew what a treasure he had, that my daughter was so special, he should know it and I would be the one to tell him. Your father felt the same way. He confided that you were his favorite and that he would kill me if any harm ever came to you. Then, he offered to take me for a drive.”
“Did you go?”
“He took Charlie and Tom for a drive too.”
“I see. It’s a ritual.”
“No, it’s an excuse to get the suitor alone and scare him. Charlie was driven to Home Depot. Dad parked by the dumpsters to make his point. Turns out Dad didn’t
actually want to kill Charlie and dispose of the body, Dad wanted to test Charlie’s home repair skills. Dad had Charlie change out all the storm windows on the house in Forest Hills.”
“Did he pass the test?”
“Took him three Saturdays to install them, but he married Tess, didn’t he? And then when it was Jaclyn’s turn to get married, we figured it would be another trip to the hardware store. Mom had been nagging Dad about putting a replica of the Trevi Fountain in the front yard and rumor had it Tom has an uncle with a back hoe. But instead of fountain installation, Dad took Tom to the Queen of Martyrs cemetery, to find the grave of James Hurley, the only other Irishman who had married into our family. By the way, the symbolism was lost on Tom.”
“As it would have been on me. Are you hungry?”
“Starving. Want to go to Valbella’s? We could do the Feast of the One Fish. The crabmeat is unreal over there.”
“Let’s go to your sister’s.” Gianluca offered.
“You don’t want to be with your family on Christmas Eve?”
“Did nothing I just said sink in?”
“I think you exaggerate.”
“Going there would be a mistake.”
“We should share our news with your family.”
“The news can keep till tomorrow. You’ll be their Christmas Day surprise. It’s the feast of the seven fishes. I’m freshly betrothed. I don’t want to smell like fried clams on the happiest day of my life.”
“This is the happiest day of your life?”
“Can’t you tell?” I plastered the biggest smile on my face and stood up straight, because Mom taught me that good posture is always important when you’re selling something. And I’m selling myself tonight. For a moment, I remembered my big mistake earlier that evening and wished I could erase it like a chalk mark on suede. But there were other things I was worried about too. We’d had a grand love affair that started in Italy, exploded in Argentina and had turned to marriage in America. We fell in love when we were apart, and when we were together, there was an urgency to express every feeling and yet, we didn’t. He was in his fifties, so he had a long life story, and mine, even though it was shorter, was no less complicated. There was so much I wanted to know about him but between small fires at work, and the constant tug of my family obligations, we hadn’t gotten around to sharing everything.
“I want to make you happy.”
I threw myself into Gianluca’s arms. “I can’t believe this is happening!” I shouted. I think my voice echoed through the Holland Tunnel and over into Jersey. I decided to be happy. I didn’t want to pick the night apart, thread by thread, and leave it in a heap on the shop floor like linen slag. I wanted to remember everything Gianluca said to me that night and hold it close.
“I told your father we’d be there. He’s expecting us. But I asked him not to tell your mother or the rest of the family. I wanted to tell them our news.”
“You really planned this out.”
My fiancée smiled. And then he said the words that are sheer music to a city girl’s ears, to those of us whose Metro Card is scanned more often than our debit Visas, to those of us who regularly take public transportation and long for a lift on four wheels and a bucket seat instead of twelve wheels and a plastic one.
“I rented a car.” He said.
“In that case.” I actually felt a spike in my sexual desire for this man.
“So, we drive to Montclair, New Jersey.” Gianluca put his arm around me and turned to go downstairs.
“Wait.” I grabbed his arm.
“What’s the matter?”
“Please, give me one more minute on this roof, alone with you. Because when we walk in Tess’s door, our wedding belongs to my sisters and my father and
my mother and my grandmother and your father and Gabriel…and the bridal registry departments at Saks Fifth Avenue, Restoration Hardware, Costco, and Lou Filippo’s Discount Crystal and Morein Forest Hills. I want you to myself before my sisters lay claim to our wedding and go on crash diets so they can fit in sample size bridesmaid gowns.”
“Don’t worry. They’ll do the cabbage diet and be down to fighting weight in six weeks. They won’t have the muscle strength to lift a fork but they will be thin. It’s the Roncalli girls’ seesaw. When the teeter goes up, the totter must go down. It’s all about the dress size.”
“I have a daughter. I know all about it.”
“Anything important that ever happened in the history of my family required a new outfit and therefore a diet to get into the outfit. You’ll see. The first thing my mom will say is What will I wear? And the second thing she’ll say is Have you set the date?
For a woman who never worked in corporate America, she runs our family like the Ford Motor Company. This wedding will become her roll-out of the new models. Or the old model as it is.”
“Do you want a big wedding?”
“God, no. But here’s the problem: my cousins. I went to all their weddings, and now it’s payback time. If I don’t reciprocate, they’ll stop speaking to me.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Depends. You’ve got pluses and minuses either way. I really love some of them, but there will be a caravan of three buses from just Youngstown, Ohio alone.”
“If you want them to come, then we invite them.”
“There will be negotiations.”
“Who will run the show? Will it be Trish Meiser, the wedding planner, or Vincenza Napoli, the event coordinator? My mom will make a big deal out of choosing the best woman for the job and waste three legal pads making lists of why she should choose one over the other.
Then there’s the venue. That’s always a tussle. What borough, do they have valet parking and what is their version of the Venetian table? For the hour of pass hors d’oeuvres, do we go with the mini cheeseburgers or chicken sate on sticks? What do you do with the sticks? Go with the burgers. Skip the sushi. Italians don’t digest it well. Mini crab cakes? Yes. Eel roll? No.
Then there’s the parting gift. The souvenir. In the old days it was an embossed pack of matches with your choice of a cigar or cigarette case loaded with Lucky Strikes, but that was killing people so we switched to The Goody Bag.”
“What’s in this bag?”
“Something to nosh on the way home. It’s not enough that you just ate a nine-course meal, God forbid you drive three miles and have nothing to eat. Do we give a sack of hot doughnuts on the way out or is there a sampler box of Godiva chocolate? Or do we get creative and give them the Sunday Paper tied with a ribbon and a brioche? Come to think of it - I may get Hillary Clinton to do the negotiations. We need a big gun. My wedding planning committee will be one man short of a hostage situation. Do you have cookie trays in Italy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Another Italian American institution. Every woman in the family bakes cookies, dozens of them. They box them up and meet at a disclosed location where they stack the cookies on trays lined with gold doilies. They wrap the pyramid of cookies in cellophane and tie it with curling ribbons that once again, match the bridesmaids’ dresses. As dessert is served, the flowers are removed from the tables and the cookie trays become the centerpieces. They’re pretty and delicious but never forget, it’s also a competition, fig bar against fig bar, but no one sings the National Anthem and gets a medal in the end - you just get bragging rights.”
“I see.” Gianluca said as he pondered the insanity of our cookie competition.
“Dress gloves are not for style, they were invented in the third century in Italy to hide the burn marks from pulling 500 hot cookie sheets out of the oven the week before a wedding. The women bake as though their lives depend on it. It’s cookie-lookie! You got snowballs, pizelles, amaretti, sesames, chocolate biscotti, mini cupcakes, jam centered thumb prints, peanut butter rounds with a Hershey kiss hat, seven layer cookies, coconut bon bons, and confetti - don’t forget those candy coated almonds. They’re good luck even when you crack a molar when you bite down on one.”
“I’ll avoid the confetti.” Gianluca smiled.
“While you’re at it, don’t eat the coconut cookies. They put something in the frosting dye that could survive a nuclear winter.”
I was beginning to lose patience with him, so I spoke slowly, “The frosting on the cookies is dyed to match the Barbie dolls dressed as the wedding party that become hood ornaments on the convertibles.”
“Borrowed cars that carry the wedding party from the church to Leonard’s.”
“Who is Leonard?”
I put my hand on Gianluca’s face. He had the bone structure and profile of an emperor on a lucky Roman coin that turned up in my life and changed everything on a dime.
“I’m getting ahead of myself. Forget all this. Let’s go to Tess and Charlie’s. But step on it or we’ll miss the crab legs.”
Montclair is a sweet village on the coastline of the Hudson River on the Jersey side. We laughed when Tess and Charlie moved to another state and yet they picked a place where they would be close enough to look across the river and see the Angelini Shoe Shop. It’s a comfort to me that I can reach any of my immediate family by car or canoe.
Gianluca parked deftly into a small space next to the driveway on Tess’s lawn.
“God I love Christmas.” I told Gianluca.
My sister Tess knew how to throw around the merry. There was a big Christmas tree in the bay window clustered with red, blue, and green lights that twinkled. She had settled a series of big red and white candy cane decorations up the front walk. On the roof, Santa in his sleigh and Rudolph with a lit up red nose clung to the slates, fully lit and ready for take off. There was a wreath on the door with giant brass bells and red velvet ribbons. Two ceramic elves, the size of my nephews flanked the door. This Santa Village was so elaborate it needed its own zip code.
Gianluca turned off the car. I took a deep breath. He leaned across the seat and kissed me. “Shall we go inside?”
“No. Let’s sit in the car all night and make-out.”
“Your father is watching.”
I looked up at the bay window, and there, next to the tree, was my father’s silhouette. The big head, the square, trim body, and as he turned, you could see the outline of The Roncalli Schnoz I inherited but somehow skipped my sisters.
The sight of my father alone in the window reminded me of all the times throughout my life that he waited for me.
I remembered as he sat alone on the bleachers of Holy Agony gym when I didn’t make the cut for JV basketball, at the foot of the sidewalk with the video camera when I emerged from our house in my First Holy Communion dress and veil, and the night he came over to my studio apartment when I broke off my engagement with Bret Fitzpatrick. He stood in the doorway knowing that I was breaking up with a wonderful man but didn’t stand in my way when I decided to take a different path.
No one in my family wanted to speak to me back then, they were so furious. I had caught a big fish who happened to be my childhood sweetheart, but I threw him back into the river like an old shoe instead of the Wall Street wonder he became. It was typical of me to throw away something good without an alternate plan in mind. No one understood, no one but my father. Dad only wanted my happiness, whatever that meant.
When Bret pivoted a few months later and married a beautiful blonde named Mackenzie from East 81st Street, hit it big on Wall Street, moved to Chatham and had two children, my father was the only one who pulled me aside after the fact and told me I had done the right thing.
Bret and I remain friends, we even work together on the financials for my business, but on the personal side, my father understood why I chose learning to make shoes over becoming a Wall Street wife. My dad wanted me make to own my destiny, instead of helping Bret realize his. At the time I couldn’t do both, but only my father understood.
Dutch Roncalli was the last of his breed, the strict Italian father with a heart made of mascarpone.
“Why are you crying?” Gianluca asked.
“In the very worst of times, or the very best, my dad has always been there for me. He may not have said anything, but he always stood by me. He’s been my witness. I never thought that I’d find someone who loved me as much as he does.”
“I do.” Gianluca promised.
“And that’s why I’m so happy to marry you.”
Gianluca and I walked up Candy Cane Lane. The air had the scent of freshly cut balsam and the oncoming snow. When we reached the porch, my father threw open the front door. The diamond on my finger was nestled inside my black suede glove like a secret. I was about to embrace my dad when he body blocked us from entering.
“It’s bad.” He whispered. “Go.”
Instead of the Dean Martin Christmas album playing, we heard shouting. “How bad is it?”
“I’d turn back if I were you.”
“Dutch? Who is it?” My mother shouted over the fight. “We feel a breeze in here!”
I went up on my tiptoes and looked past Dad down the long hallway to the kitchen. I was suddenly famished as the scent of buttery broiled lobster wafted through from the kitchen. What’s a little throw down before lobster? My father tried to close the door but I placed my hand on it.
I will always choose food over personal safety.
Gianluca tightened his grip on my arm as we heard yelling followed by the banging of fists on the table. “What happened? Did Aunt Feen cheat at cards?” Aunt Feen is my grandmother’s only sister, her baby sister. Feen is only two years younger but has lived in my grandmother Teodora’s shadow since she was born. It is not uncommon for Aunt Feen to attract attention by any means necessary, whether it’s complaining the most, starting small fights that turn into brawls triggered by her passive aggressive comment. It isn’t of any help when she deliberately wears bad theme sweaters and orthodics when the event is black tie.
“I wish. Tess and Jaclyn served the third fish and all hell broke loose.”
I could picture my sisters with steaming plates of fish navigating the small dining room like a military front.
“And your sister-in-law Pamela followed them with the cocktail sauce. Charlie was ejaculating…”
“Oh Dad, you must mean gesticulating- talking with his hands? My dad invented the malaprop, Italian American style.
“Yeah, yeah whatever the word is. The sauce went flying. Let’s just say it looks like a murder scene in there.”
“Okay, so we lost the sauce. But don’t tell me she ran out of crab legs.” I shouldn’t have been thinking about food at a time like that, but I like to think about food, especially at a time like that. “I told her to order a crate from Sarasota. I made shoes for the guy who owns Joe’s Crabs.”
“There’s enough fish. But there’s more agita. Charlie had a couple of drinks and announced that he lost his job and Aunt Feen called him a loser, and now it’s all over but the weeping. Once Feen attacked Charlie, he came out of his corner like an animal and your sister had to be restrained.”
“Charlie lost his job?” My heart sank. Tess had married a good working class man who was solid and stable. He also had so much body hair, when at the beach he looked like he was wearing a brown slanket.
“Company is leaving New Jersey.” Dad explained. “They left the building behind as well as Charlie and about thirty-two other people.”
“He’s soaking his sorrows like a gas rag in a nozzle.”
“Like he’s parched. Your brother-in-law downed a bottle of Prosecco like it was mother’s milk and his name was Romulus. Now they’re all screaming at each other, airing issues that go as far back as 1983.” Dad cocked his head, “Uh oh, they just climbed into the time machine. I heard 1979 mentioned.”
“We’re outta here.” I said to Gianluca.
“Make it quick. They saw your headlights flash through the bay window.” My father reached to close the door.
It was too late.
We heard the stamping of feet, the shoving of chairs, and the tinkling of glasses as my family got up from the table and headed to the foyer. On cue, as dramatized in the Biblical epics, the Israelites came pouring out the living room as they did during the parting of the Red Sea. In this sweet, small house, they appeared like a cast of thousands, except unlike the people of peace, my family was arguing. They shouted. They shoved. They threw their hands in the air. Alfred tried to reason with Aunt Feen (mistake) while Tess tried to soothe Charlie (won’t happen).
The children charged past the grown ups.
Chiara and Charisma embraced me as Rocco and Alfred Jr. fist bumped Gianluca. They ran up the stairs to the playroom. Even they knew retreat was the best tactic when it came to a Roncalli family battle.
“Don’t wake the baby!” My sister Jaclyn yelled after them, her volume certain to wake the baby.
My father raised his hands in the air like Moses without the tablets. “Silence!” He shouted.
The last thing I heard was the clickety click of Pamela’s stilettos against the wood floor as she joined the throng. I was so happy she decided to come for Christmas Eve. She and my brother were working on their marriage, for her sake, for his, and for the kids. Marital therapy was helping them, and tonight, I was jealous.
Had I gotten the psychotherapy I desperately needed all those years ago (instead of building the shoe business) I would have taken a deep breath, turned back down Candy Cane Lane and said, When things calm down, and you all decide to act like adults, Gianluca and I shall return, but instead I lost control.
All my emotional trigger points jammed and my gut spasmed. All I could think was that the happiest moment of my life was being ruined by these nut jobs. So instead of behaving with a level of maturity, I sunk to their level, buckled under the pressure like a hormone enraged tween, and shouted at them in my highest soprano, “What the hell is going on here? What’s wrong with you people? You’re ruining Christmas?”
Tess actually put her hand on her heart, “Aunt Feen ruined it.”
“Don’t blame me that your husband lost his job. I didn’t fire him.” Feen said.
“Downsized. He was downsized!” Tess yelled.
“Shit canned. We called it shit canned in my day.” Feen rapped her cane on the floor.
“Charlie, what happened?” I asked him quietly.
“I was laid off.”
“So? This is a family where there have been lay offs. We’ve all been let go or fired or downsized. It’s part of life. Okay, it’s worse because it’s Christmas, but that’s on them, not on you. You were a great employee. Weren’t you District King or something?”
“Best Salesman in Monmouth County.” Tess corrected me.
“See that? You were on top. And now you’re not. But you will be again. Come on. This is life. You’re not alone in this family. We all have a story to tell. I was fired from Pizzeria Uno in college.”
“I was let go from Macy’s.” Tess offered.
“The Parks Department took a powder on me for six months in ’87.” Dad remembered.
“I’m sure you have people on your side who were let go.” My mother offered. She has spent a lifetime trying to be fair, but somehow, this isn’t her moment. Tess glared at her.
“Look, Charlie. It happens. Jobs come and go. We get laid off and we figure something out. God Almighty, people.” I threw my hands up.
“Valentine is right. We always figure it out.” Alfred looked at Charlie.
My brother Alfred straightened his tie. It occurred to me that my brother is never out of a tie. He even wore one on a family picnic while roasting weenies on a hibachi. He’s a tie guy. Most occasions are formal for him, and it suits him, as he has always been prim. His jet black hair, now streaked with the occasional gray, was slicked back with a side part that was so clean from years of combing, his hair actually grows in the right directions.
My brother gave Charlie a quick pat on the back. “It’s going to be all right, Charlie.”
“See there? All better. Thank you Alfred. Now, let’s all go back to the dining room and finish our meal and talk about something of a non-inflammatory nature.” My mother suggested as she tucked a loose strand of hair back into her upsweep. Her hair reminded me of a similar style worn by Tammy Wynette in 1980, when big hair meant big style. However, Mom made the look her own. She had imbedded a rhinestone Christmas tree brooch in the braid around the bun.
Reason ruled for a moment until Aunt Feen pushed through the crowd with her cane. “Take me home!” She thundered.
“You’re not going anywhere, Aunt Feen.” My mother said as she yanked at the thigh binding spanx under her red velvet chemise. Michaela “Mike” Roncalli was decorated for the holidays, and by God the party would continue. For any person to leave a party before the crystal was back in the cabinet was considered an utter failure by my mother. “You’re not going home.”
“I sure as hell am!”
Mom closed her eyes and simultaneously patted down her false eyelashes with her forefingers. “Well, you’ll have to call Carmel. And they are not likely to have any drivers on Christmas Eve.”
“Damn them!” Aunt Feen barked.
“We’re not taking you home until we’ve served the four remaining courses and the canoli and espresso.” Jaclyn said.
“And the sweet timbale!” Gabriel said from the back of the room. I could hear him, but couldn’t see him.
My best friend of a thousand years, Gabriel Biondi, is perfectly proportioned, but petite. He’s one of those Italian men who has the face of a gorgeous general, but the stature of Jiminy Cricket. The entirety of the Biondi is dead, so we adopted Gabriel and he adopted us. My father calls him his second son.
Gabriel and I are so close we have no trouble living together and working together in the shop. He redecorated the apartment above the workroom, and for my Christmas gift this year, made the roof garden into a Shangri-La on the Hudson complete with a sound system and awnings. “I dragged this timbale to New Jersey like a wagon wheel and by God, we’re going to eat it!”
“We’ll eat it!” I hollered back.
“Yeah, like your brother-in-law eats failure.” Feen mumbled.
“Aunt Feen, where’s your filter? You shouldn’t say everything you think! Boundaries!”
“Oh, boundaries. Big deal. I watch Dr. Phil, too. I know from boundaries. It’s like those candy canes up the walk. They look like a railing, like they’re sturdy, but they’re cheap plastic. I leaned on one for support, and almost keeled over and tasted cement.”
“I caught you, Auntie.” My father piped up.
“Yeah. So what.”
“So what we’re not at the hospital with your head sliced open like a kiwi.” My father fired back.
Aunt Feen ignored him. “The fact is, your brother-in-law is not only unemployed, he’s drunk.”
“Oh and you’re sober?” Charlie countered.
“I can hold my liquor Buster and you can take that to Citibank and get a second mortgage which you probably need since you got shit canned.”
“Feen, your tone!” Gram interjected.
“I can’t abide a drunk in this family.” Feen banged her cane. “I won’t have it!”
“Aunt Feen? You’re on your third tumbler of Maker’s Mark. And I know because I’m pouring them.” Jaclyn said, “You’re drunk too!”
“It takes one to know one.” Feen shouted.
“Okay, now we’re veering towards complete chaos here.” I said evenly. “We’re now agreeing with the disagreements.”
“But Aunt Feen is hammered.” Jaclyn said.
“It doesn’t matter. Feen’ll sober up. She always does.” My grandmother put her arm around her sister. “She’ll have some bread and be fine.”
“I’ll get the tarelles.” Mom headed toward the kitchen for the tarelles, best described as bone-dry bagel shaped crackers we make around the holidays which no one eats so they linger in a zip lock until Easter when they’re fed to the ducks. “Tarelles sop up the alcohol like gravy.”
“What the hell does that mean?” My father yelled.
“I don’t know. I’m trying to make things nice.” My mother’s voice broke and she looked as though she may cry. “I’m trying to get us through this party! It’s like pulling a plow in ten feet of manure! Stop arguing with me!”
“You’re the one who wants to be non-mandatory!” My father pointed his finger at her.
“Non- inflammatory!” We corrected my father in a chorus.
“What the hell do you want from me? They’re only words!” My father thundered.
“Take it down, Dutch. Take it down.” My mother growled.
There was a moment of silence where all that could be heard was the low hum of Aunt Feen’s hearing aid.
“Aunt Feen, you getting AM or FM over there?” My dad attempted humor to break the stronghold of family pain.
Gianluca sensed an opening and went for it.
“Valentina and I are getting married.” Gianluca announced.
If you needed proof that the members of my family were, despite their flaws, supportive of one another, you’d just have to see how quickly they switched from all out war to unification. My family rejoiced at the news as if they’d won the lottery in three states. After all, I’d beat the odds. I was closer to forty than thirty and I was engaged to be married. The scent of relief wafted through the house like the cinnamon in the sachets hanging from the chandelier.
I looked at my fiancée, the smartest man in the room. Here was a guy that understood how to handle my people. They acted like children, so they must be treated as such. When a toddler throws a tantrum, the parent in charge must divert the child’s attention to diffuse the rage.
Gianluca had made our engagement a bright orange squeeze toy.
What a tactic!
No sooner than I removed my glove, my left hand was grabbed as the diamond was ogled, assessed, and blessed. The comments ranged from, Wow, big stone, to Flawless! No Carbon. I love an emerald cut! The baguettes really sizzle. Platinum. Nice. Better than yellow gold. Platinum goes with everything.
Gram kissed me. Dominic gave me a hug and then embraced his son.
(Italian T/K) “I’m so happy for you,” Dominic kissed both of Gianluca’s cheeks.
My nieces came running down the stairs jumping up and down, begging to be junior bridesmaids.
My mother pushed through the crowd, put her arms around me, and then pulled Gianluca close. “God bless you! Welcome to the…” Mom didn’t want to use the word family in the current environment so she said…“It’s wonderful. What a perfect romantic note to end the year 2011! Now, when do you want to get married? What will I wear? Do you have a date?”
“However long it takes me to build a pair of shoes, Ma.” I told her.
Gianluca looked at me and smiled. My fiancée just got the first bit of living proof that I never lie.
“We need a photograph. An official engagement picture!” My mother looked at my father who hadn’t leapt up to capture the moment on film. My mother would tell you that in all of our family history, my father is never ready with the camera unless she insists. “Damn it Dutch. Get out your phone!”
“I’ll take the picture!” Gabriel said, pushing through the crowd. He’s been my best friend for so long he knows about my mother’s photo obsession. My mother handed him my dad’s phone. Soon, my sisters, Gram and Pamela handed their phones to Gabriel as we assumed our positions. The adults formed a long standing row in front of the tree, and then a kneeling row in front of the standing row. The children sat in front of the kneelers. We looked like the Latin Club in the yearbook from Holy Agony. I watched as Gabriel backed down the hallway trying to get everyone into the shot. “Squeeze people! I need to see a squeeze.”
“Wait! The baby!” Jaclyn got up from her kneeling spot and sprinted up the stairs for the baby. We remained crammed. The scent of Aqua Velva, Jean Nate, Coco, and Ben Gay wafted up from my family like sauce on the stove. I turned around to get a good look at them.
My sister Tess, the second eldest in the family after our brother Alfred, looked pretty, her jet-black hair in a bun on top of her head. She did the full Cleopatra with black eyeliner to bring out her green eyes which were bloodshot from the crying jag she went on in defense of her husband. From the neck up, she was a movie star. From the neck down, she was dressed for kitchen duty, including a white apron splotched with red gravy. She looked like she was a dancer in the musical version of All Quiet on The Western Front. Charlie, her burly bear of a husband, had unbuttoned his shirt down to the pocket, exposing more fur than my mother’s mink swing coat.
Jaclyn returned with the baby.
Jaclyn, the baby of our family, mother of one, apparently still had time to go for a blow out at Fresh Cuts. Her jet-black hair had not a crimp, and she still could fit in her pre-baby sweater dress. Her husband Tom still has the Irish baby face of an innocent Kennedy. He’s all freckles, thick light brown hair and white teeth.
Aunt Feen stood next to him in a Christmas sweater embroidered with two cats playing with two blue satin Christmas balls. Her pink lipstick had worn off except for the ring around her lips which matched the kittens’ pink tongues perfectly. My sisters and I call her lipstick look, the plunger.
My Gram, Teodora Angelini Vechiarelli, wore a white winter suit. Dominic looked very dapper in a white shirt, red tie, and forest green Tyrolean vest. Gram had her hair cut short in feathered white layers, while Dominic’s silver hair was combed back neatly. It occurred to me that my grandmother and Dominic actually looked younger since they married. Maybe it’s the slow pace of life in Tuscany that keeps them young. Whatever they’re doing, I want some of that.
My sister-in-law Pamela’s long blonde hair looked white hot against the simple turquoise wool sweater she wore with a black leather pencil skirt. She makes 40 look like 32. Her stilettos were laced with turquoise ribbons. I have to find out where she got them. My brother Alfred knelt dead center in the middle row, looking exactly like the photo from his basketball team at Holy Agony. Aging aside, he was the captain then, and he’s still the captain.
The children were decked out for the holidays in matching ensembles. My nieces Chiara and Charisma wore blue velvet party dresses. Tess had given them French braids in an upsweep with giant bows on the nape of their necks. My nephews Alfred Jr. and Rocco wore dress shirts with bow ties, miniature versions of my brother when he was eight and ten years old.
Gianluca and I stood in the center of the back row, his arm around me. I placed my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes. I took in the scent of his skin, fresh lemon and cedar, and imagined years of burying my face in his neck.
“Get a room, Val.” Gabriel said as he snapped away.
“Here.” Tess said, handing him her phone.
Soon, Gabriel was juggling the phones, snapping the group shot for each of us. He handed the phones back as he finished. “Francesco Scavullo quits. I’m hungry and tired and need carbohydrates. We are all done here.”
“I want you in a picture, Gabe.”
“I have a thousand pictures with you.”
“But you’re my best man. This is what’s happening to gay men world wide. You ditch the maid of honor for the blade of honor.”
“I am?” Gabriel lifted his phone to the best angle, put his cheek against mine and snapped. “Got it.”
“Everybody back to the table. We’ve got plenty of time to plan the wedding.” Jaclyn said. “But two more minutes on the stove and the linguini will be oatmeal.”
“Throw it out if it’s not al dente.” Aunt Feen ordered. I guess she decided not to call Carmel.
“Nothing worsh than mushy homemades.” Charlie slurred. He was definitely drunk and there was no way to sober him up with the overdone pasta. Maybe the clams would cut the insulin spike. Here’s hoping.
“Red or white sauce?” Tom asked.
“Both.” Tess replied. “I want everyone to have what they like. It’s Christmas.”
Mom and Gram grabbed Gianluca and herded him into the dining room. The remaining Israelites turned tail and returned to the far shore as though the Sea never parted.
So went the biblical Roncalli/Vechiarelli Family Epic on that night before Christmas.
I was about to join the family when I turned and saw my father as he stood alone by the twinkling tree, encrusted with more sequin crap ornaments than you could find in a final sale bin at the Dollar Store. He was checking his phone to make sure the photo was good enough. Satisfied, he turned off the phone and slipped it into his back pocket. Then he stood back and watched as the family took their places at the table. There was a small smile on his face. He’s a man of peace and for the time being, we had a sliver of it.
Dad buried his hands deep in the pockets of his winter white Sansibel trousers that he ordered from the Sunday flyer in Parade magazine. A New Yorker through and through, his black dress shirt and white Christmas tie made him look like the holiday version of a black and white cookie. The expression on his face was just as sweet. No matter what, as long as I was making my own choices, my father was happy for me. What more could I ask for?