Since the day I made my First Communion when I was five, in the lacy dress that looked like a wedding ensemble with veil included, I attended Mass with Mamma or Papa or both of them in Our Lady of Angels.
The organ music gave me chills, and I knew the religious songs. I adored all music for that matter, and loved to sing. My mamma was partial to that church because her name was Angelica and she believed in those heavenly beings with or without wings that help us human beings in dire need of salvation, and anything else a human needs to survive on earth. Every Sunday, I’d set a match to a candle in the alcove and pray on my knees in the lambent light for one thing and one thing only—to fall in love, the way Mamma loved Papa and vice versa. My thoughts usually went like this: maybe it hasn’t happened yet because the saints above aren’t listening; or maybe because I don’t always drop a coin in the box before lighting the candle—little vixen that I am, Mamma always says. But it will happen; I know it will.
Even though I was only fifteen, I felt as though I was on the brink of womanhood, and in recent weeks, Gianni had been on my mind more than I’d like to think of him—is that love? When I saw him, I’d get this feeling of excitement. It felt like some gossamer sensing in the pit of my stomach wanted to rise, making me believe I could almost fly. But his family was difficult. Were they just protective? No, they appeared to be belligerent and snobbish—although somehow his gentle mannerisms and those soft hazel eyes and sweet disposition made me uncaring of their hoity-toity attitudes. Smart, wiry, athletic, and maybe even a little too handsome, he was entertaining, kind, and humble, not like his older brothers—not one bit. He was always polite and respectful toward my parents, shaking hands with Papa and asking after his health and kissing Mamma on both cheeks—he adored her, and she him. He was the only one I’ve ever seen rob a meatball or dunk the heel of an Italian loaf in her Sunday sauce and get away with it. Even Papa would get his hand slapped, if he dared try. But not Gianni. He had this knack. First he’d make moon eyes at her and then nod his head toward the pot. Next thing I knew she was handing him a plate and fork or a piece of bread and a napkin. It didn’t seem fair, but I loved her all the more for doing it and him for getting away with it. I always thought it was because his mother died when he was so young. It was tragic to think of it.
What I’d heard about his mother was that she had caught pneumonia on the freezing dock, the wind restless and scavenging, while she waited for Gianni’s brother Giuseppe, who had left the seminary in Sicily and was coming to live and work with his brothers in their importing business on Stillwell Avenue. The poor woman had the day of his arrival wrong, and when her son finally did get to see her, she was laid out in a bier in the family’s living room. What a shock that must have been for Giuseppe. Although I felt sorry for him, I can’t really say that I liked him. He was one of those know-it-all bossy types who lorded everything over my Gianni, who doesn’t work in the office or store with his brothers. Instead, they sent him out on routes to deliver provisions of olive oil and cheese.
The day after Christmas, Gianni came over and joined Jack and some of the neighborhood kids sledding down our hilly street. After an hour or so, they tired of that, and we all had a snowball fight. We broke into teams. Jack and Val built one fortress of packed snow, and Gianni and I made the other. At the end of the game, Jack and Val, being the absolute winners, quit to go have some hot chocolate. Gianni and I made angels in the snow. Then he chased me and tried to douse me with snow. I begged for mercy, and he caught me, trying to put snow down my collar.
“You’re a more playful kid than Jack,” I said.
“You have red apple cheeks,” he said, knocking snow off my hair and scarf. “I’d like to take a bite.”
“Don’t you dare. I’m out of breath—you soaked me.”
“All’s fair in love and war, they say.”
He pulled off one of his gloves and stuck it in his pocket, and taking my hand, pulled the glove off and handed it to me to put in my pocket. We walked back to the house, my hand snug in his.