December 18, 2012
by Dorothea Helms
Josephine pats her hand against her blouse, just below her collarbone, and feels for the circle of hope camouflaged by the lacy bodice fabric. She allows a small grin to widen when her fingers locate the ring, and she glances right, then left, to make sure no one in the room notices.
Papa is sitting at the head of the table, absorbed in the newspaper and drinking black coffee with a shot in it. Mama is stirring the spaghetti sauce Josephine started earlier in the day. The mother holds up the wooden spoon to her mouth, takes a bit of the sauce onto her tongue, frowns and searches the cluttered counter for the sugar. “Bitter,” she says. The older woman always adds a tablespoon of sugar to Josephine’s sauce.
The daughter caresses the tiny diamond ring with her fingers and smiles at her delicious secret. She sniffs her fingertips for the tenth time to make sure she has gotten the smell of garlic off them before she resumes sewing beads onto the sleeves of Anna’s wedding dress.
“Josephine, how is the dress coming?” the mother asks.
“Fine, Mama. I have only a few left to attach.”
“Well, be careful. You always make a mess of it when you hurry. And you know how fussy your sister is. She must look perfect.”
Yes, oh yes, she must look perfect, Josephine thinks. But if she is so perfect, why did it take her until twenty-four years of age to find a husband? Josephine places her hand on her chest again to reassure her success at age eighteen in finding a man who wants to marry her.
Augie Colangelo holds up his cup in Josephine’s direction and mumbles, “Coffee.” His eyes never stray from the newspaper. The daughter places the wedding dress sleeve back on the table and jumps up to fulfil his request. His attention is diverted by a knock on the door. He looks at Josephine, who runs to answer it.
“Uncle John,” she greets the old man. “Come in.”
Josephine’s uncle removes his cap and enters the kitchen. He hugs his sister-in-law Nellie and slaps his brother on the back. “Wedding week. How is the old man holding up?”
“Ah, you old dog,” Augie says. “The women are buzzing. A man can barely read the paper in this house. And the news is not good. Germany has invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and now Mussolini has threatened to involve Italy. I fear it will be soon.”
“Yes,” John says. “And how long until the United States sends our sons to fight?”
Just then, Anna bounces down the stairs and rounds the corner to the kitchen like a gymnast on a graceful exit from the horse. She screams, “Uncle John,” and jumps into the waiting man’s arms.
“Ah, my sweet Anna,” he says. “You are looking beautiful, and you should. This is an exciting week. Just think, soon you will have a home of your own, and children. A lot of children, hey Augie?”
His brother smiles, and Nellie approaches John. “Come, sit down,” she says. “Have some coffee. And I baked cucidate this morning.” She places the steaming mug laced with whisky on the table in front of him, along with a plate of the fig cookies.
The men slurp coffee and munch on the baked goods as Anna runs to her gown, holds it up against her body and fills the room with swirls and squeals. Nellie smiles at her eldest daughter, then laughs and chastises her. “Anna, stop that right now. If you get that dress dirty before Saturday, young woman…”
“Oh Mama, it is so beautiful. Josephine, you have done a wonderful job. Maybe you can wear this dress when you get married.”
Everything in the room stops. The men hold their cookies in mid-dunk. Nellie lets the spoon fall against the sauce pot. Anna ends a pirouette and stands still. Josephine looks at the floor.
“Come, come,” Nellie says as she swoops over to Anna and grabs the dress. She places it back onto the work table and shoos both daughters out of the kitchen. “You two need to get ready. The shower is just two hours from now, and it will take us half an hour to get to Margaret’s. Hurry.”
Josephine and Anna go upstairs to their bedroom, followed by ambient awkwardness. They sit on their respective beds, and Anna speaks first. “I am sorry, Josie. But you will get married someday. Mama and Papa cannot stop you.”
“I am the youngest, Anna. Nick and Peter are already married and on their own, and Saturday, you will be married. I am the last one left in the house. You know my responsibility as well as I do. I have to stay with our parents.”
“It is not fair, Josie. I have seen the way Angelo looks at you. Talk to Mama first. She will soften up Papa.”
“Anna, this is your week. We will worry about me another time.”
Josephine walks to the bathroom to get ready. She closes the door and looks in the mirror. Her cheeks are as red as the plum tomatoes she used to start the sauce this morning. The closer Anna’s wedding gets, the closer she is to seeing Angelo again. She pulls the ring out from under her blouse and slips it onto her finger. Then she looks at herself in the mirror, slips off the ring, hides it under her collar again and washes up.
One week later, she sits at the head table in her lavender maid-of-honour gown with the beading on the sleeves and hopes her cheeks do not betray her feelings. Angelo steals glances at her and, when their eyes connect, they both look away.
Halfway through the reception, Angelo approaches Josephine and asks her to dance. She looks around. Her parents are busy with relatives and do not notice. She nods, takes his hand and follows him to the dance floor. “Angelo, do you think this is wise?” she asks as he leads her to the rhythm of the song.
“Josie, I cannot keep my hands off you all night. The way you look … I cannot wait for you to be my bride. ”
“Oh, not so tight, Angelo, people will notice.”
He loosens his right arm. “Only a few days, Josie,” he whispers in her ear. “Next week at this time, you will be Mrs. Angelo Francisco. I have everything taken care of. Gino is going to drive us to the Justice of the Peace, and he and Mary will stand up for us.”
“Angelo, eloping is such a … it is not exactly … it is a sin, Angelo.”
“Oh Josie, we have been through this before. We can go to a priest someday later on, once our families accept the fact that we are husband and wife. Josie, do you believe God would deny the deep love he gave us for each other?”
Josephine purses her lips and then smiles. “Oh Angelo, I love you so much.”
“The ring. Where is the ring?” he asks.
“This dress has no collar, so I sewed a small pocket inside just below the belt. She glances down, as does he. “I have worn the ring next to my body since you gave it to me. Once we marry, I will never take it off, Angelo.”
After the dance, they go back to their respective tables. Josephine looks around and envisions what her own wedding could be like — women in beautiful gowns and stylish dresses; men smart in their dark suits and white shirts; dancers in a large circle stepping, swaying and sweating to the tarantella, tables overflowing with rich pastas and succulent meats; wine flowing like ceremonial lifeblood; pizzelle, gianduia, cantucci and Papa’s favourite fig cookies waiting to be paired with strong coffee after the meal.
Her uncle John interrupts her reverie. “Josephine, come. Dance with your old uncle.” She nods and takes his hand. “You look sad, little one. This is a happy day.”
She forces a smile. “I am sorry, Uncle. I am happy for Anna. Very happy.”
“Perhaps you dream of a wedding with a different bride?” he asks.
Josephine blushes and buries her head in his shoulder. “There, there, child,” he whispers. “Sometimes life is not fair … but people can change.”
“Not Papa,” she says. She lifts her eyes to meet her uncle’s. “Not Papa.”
After an hour, Angelo asks her to dance again. Sensing that enough time has passed that no one will be suspicious, Josephine agrees.
She feels a slight shiver from her toes to her shoulders when the handsome young man takes her in his arms. Neither speaks, but their hold on each other is tighter this time, more intimate. She can feel his masculinity against her, below her waist, and the tingling inside her wants to erupt into an explosion of passion.
His right hand is on her lower back, pulling her toward him as though somehow she can melt into his body, dissolve the satin and lace and wear only soft skin that meets his rugged flesh. Her own body becomes weak; she feels as though only his arms are holding her from slipping to the floor. Their eyes lock, and Angelo whispers, “Just a few more days, Josie. Just a few more days.” The music ends and, after the briefest of hesitations, they separate and walk in different directions.
One week later, they walk toward each other with the intention of meeting in front of the Justice of the Peace office. The Friday morning crowds are thick along Main Street, shoppers glancing at elusive temptations through store windows, businesspeople who survived the Great Depression rushing to meetings, delivery boys on bicycles weaving in and out between sidewalks and road. Josephine melts into the dazed human mélange, a faceless puppet dancing to someone else’s choreography, propelled by a medley of romance and rebelliousness punctuated with staccato moments of realization.
From a distance, she can see that the pacing Angelo is dressed in his best suit, the dark blue one that is just starting to show its wear around the cuffs. She has chosen blue as well—the dress with the empire bodice that she made for her parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary party earlier that year. In his hand, Angelo holds a yellow rose with a blue bow tied to the stem.
Before he notices her, she ducks into the portico of a closed tailor shop, one of the casualties of the country’s recent economic problems. She leans against the wooden porch wall, closes her eyes and twists the diamond ring around her finger … around and around. She straightens her left elbow and flexes the fingers on her left hand to savour the effect of the gem against her skin. When she swings her hand out of the shadow and into the sunlight, a tiny sparkle imbeds itself onto her retina, then disappears.
She leans over and glances toward Angelo again. His back is turned. She stands up straight and allows tears to spill onto the bodice of her dress, creating tiny splashes of darker blue that look like forget-me-nots popping up in a neglected field.
Josephine removes her handkerchief from under her left sleeve, wipes her eyes and nose, and squares her shoulders. She steals a look toward Angelo again. When he pivots to pace in the opposite direction and she is sure he will not see her, she steps out into the crowd and heads home.
When she arrives, she slips up to her bedroom, places the diamond ring in an envelope and writes Angelo’s name on it. She changes into her old yellow cotton-printed shift—the one she wears when she does not mind sauce splatters staining the fabric that covers her heart.
“Tradition” won Third Prize in the 7th Annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest, awarded in April 2012.
Dorothea (Monago) Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy®, is an
award-winning, internationally published writer and poet. She
has been teaching creative writing to adults for nearly two
decades. Dorothea’s proud Italian ancestry inspired “Traditions.”