Nana poked me hard in the ass with her cane again. “Get down there, Willy,” she said as we arrived at the alley steps descending to the church basement.
Looming above, South Philly’s Holy Redeemer Catholic Church appeared as gothic as a medieval castle in the Saturday morning rain–more haunting than holy. A steeple of angular stone ascended and faded into the mist. Candlelight flickered behind stained-glass windows of solemn, robed saints spreading arms wide like sorcerers.
“C’mon, now … while the cupcakes are still fresh,” Nana continued.
Another poke in the ass.
“Yes, sir, General, sir!” I said in my best military cadet voice while scurrying down the stairs. At the bottom, I held the thick door open with my bruised rear end, balancing the covered
tray of cupcakes in one hand and saluting Nana with the other.
The cupcakes were for Holy Redeemer’s Annual Bake Sale, put on by the church’s fundraising committee, and Nan treated them like jewels from the moment they left her oven. I knew she had something to prove today, especially with Cynthia Kaminsky having commandeered the committee now, but as accustomed as I was to Nan’s overbearing ways, she was making me wish I had stayed in bed.
Waddling through the doorway, her butt cheeks undulating under her floral dress, she pursed her wrinkled lips. “Don’t ‘General’ me, smart ass” she said. “I know how you and Paulie mock me. Too damn clever for your own good, you two.”
I chuckled. My older brother Paul had dubbed Nana “The General.” In actuality, she was Contesta Maria Leone, a hot-blooded Sicilian-American whose physical presence–
plump, squat, with a helmet of salt and pepper curls–belied her commanding manner. Paulie said anyone who could take charge as naturally as Nana must’ve been reincarnated from an ancient Roman military leader. For the longest time, he and
I had been Nana’s overworked, never-paid, teenage soldiers. Only now, Paulie didn’t join her missions anymore. He was
too busy chasing sorority girls at Penn. “Besides,” he said to me
one day, “I did my tour of duty. It’s all on you now, pimple-head.” Since then, aiding The General was unfortunately
my cross to bear and mine alone.
“The Lord’s work requires running a tight ship,” Nana said inside the entryway as she folded her Nativity scene umbrella (never mind that Christmas was six months away.) “If your Grandpa was here right now...”
“… he’d tell me how it is,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Damn right, kiddo,” she said. “Now let’s knock ’em dead today.”
Which struck me as an odd choice of words considering everyone involved with this bake sale was pushing eighty and suffering a variety of ailments.
The entryway barely fit us. In it was a small table holding church bulletins, a coat rack draped with colorful raincoats, and a small, unframed mirror on the wall. A hint of incense hovered in the air. Ear-piercing giggles seeped in from the adjacent room. I carefully placed the dish on the table
and helped Nana wiggle out of her raincoat and paisley headscarf. Eyeing the mirror, she primped her curls, which were noticeably grayer than they had been a few months ago.
She flicked lipstick crumbs from the corners of her mouth.
Nan seemed more antsy than usual. Considering recent events, I couldn’t blame her.
She moved to the inner doorway and peeked into the basement. “I don’t see Cynthia in there,” she whispered over her shoulder. “Maybe she isn’t coming, Willy.”
I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Cynthia seemed to push Nana, who was always so guarded with her emotions, to the brink of an outburst. It hadn’t happened yet, but I wanted to see that impassioned side of my grandmother. She wasn’t one to wear her heart on her sleeve, though I’d sometimes see it in subtler ways—in how she squinted ever so slightly when she watched people enjoy one of her meticulously-made lasagnas, in how her upper lip revealed the tremor of a grin when something amused her, or in how her fingers softly drummed on her cane handle when she felt inspired.
With this reserved air, Nan had ruled the fundraising committee at Holy Redeemer without challenge for years. A quick glance of her penetrating hazel eyes or waggle of her cane sent the committee ladies–also known as “The Hens”–hopping like delirious birds to handle fundraiser particulars: scheduling events, arranging venues, preparing food. Nana got shit done. But after the newly widowed Cynthia moved to South Philly last year and joined the group in the spring of ’86, a crack had appeared in Nan’s pedestal. Here was a slightly younger woman with an equal measure of self assurance, if a divergent ambition. Whereas Nana’s goal was to raise funds for people in need, Cynthia wanted to “give money back to the church”–which, according to Nan, typically meant Father Michael’s personal bank account.
“Cynthia only cares about scoring points with Father,” she grumbled to my mom one Sunday after church. “Like he’s handing out flyer miles to heaven or something and she wants to go first class … idiot.”
By “idiot,” I didn’t know if she meant Cynthia or Father. I assumed both.
In the entryway, I picked up the cupcakes and waited for Nan to give me the go ahead. Rechecking the mirror, she adjusted her glasses over her eye patch–the one her doctor had told her two months ago she needed to only wear for two weeks. I thought she kept wearing it to intimidate people because it looked pretty badass. Mom, however, said she did it for security, like a kid with a blanket.
“Let’s check out the goods now, Willy,” Nana said, tightening her trademark Sistine Chapel apron around her waist.
I lifted the cover from the cupcakes and held out the plate.
She peered at them, her one eye scanning the cakes under their
veil of cellophane. They sat in glittery golden cups and were adorned with white chocolate doves nesting on cloud-shaped mounds of light blue icing. The beaks of the doves held small silver ribbons bearing Bible verses written in Nana’s flawless cursive. I honestly wasn’t sure whether to eat one or genuflect.
“Yes. Yes. What a blessed sale this will be, Willy,” Nan said.
I smiled and met her gaze. Suddenly, her expression turned wistful. She studied my face, then gave my cheek a firm pat. “You look more like your grandpa every day, kid,” she
Then she was all business again. She took her crucifix necklace in her hand, shut her eyes, and muttered a prayer. As I waited, I looked in the mirror myself and saw what she saw. I did look like Grandpa: the straight nose, the thick, wavy hair that fell over my forehead, the prominent Adam’s apple. A lump formed in my throat. I wished he were here now to see our reflections side-by-side, twins of different generations.
After whispering “Amen,” Nan shouldered her canvas handbag and motioned for me to walk into the basement. On one end of the room, a large rectangular window revealed a small kitchen. In front of the window, the Hens gathered near a large folding table filled with frosted Bundt cakes, cannoli, and homemade cookies, their sugary scents flirting with my nose. The five elderly women came in all varieties, too–petite, pumpkin-round, long-limbed, and lanky–wearing large hoop earrings, too-snug leather skirts, polyester tracksuits, and low-cut pink dresses. Among them, there seemed to be a united attempt to squeeze out whatever youth they had left. In fact, there wasn’t a blue hair in sight. Rather, these women donned bouncy ’dos and short spiky coifs in dyed black, red, lavender, and yellow tints, as if they were the newest 80’s alternative rock band, only with slightly less mascara.
The Hens talked hysterically and touched each other’s shoulders. At the center of the flock stood Father Michael, his arms folded and lower lip pushed out. He had a beard and long brown hair, taking a page from Jesus’s style guide, I suppose, though I don’t recall seeing Jesus with a double chin and paunch. Nevertheless, in typical fashion, the Hens fawned over Father, spoiling him with attention, boosting his ego to celestial heights. I was glad Nana refused to subscribe to this shameless ass-kissing. I’m sure the pompous priest would’ve preferred the same adoration from her that he got from Cynthia and the others, but he seemed to respect Nana anyway. She treated him as an equal and saw such doting as beneath her. Some said she
had too much pride; Grandpa said it
was more like too much dignity.
Once Nana strolled into the room, the chattering and squealing ceased. All eyes shot to her. It had been several months since she had directed the committee, and at first everyone looked as if they were seeing a mirage. Nana took her time crossing the room, reaching with her cane and holding her chin high.
A brief pause, then greetings spewed forth from the giddy women. “Oh, Contesta, thank God you’re here. How are you?” “We couldn’t do this without you,” “Those cupcakes are stunning, dear,” and “Contesta, your grandson is getting so handsome.” I smiled, not for the compliment, but for Nana–
The General was back.
Holding a firm gaze, she spoke to each Hen, asking about their health and families. Then she nodded toward Father Michael, who returned the gesture. After that, all the women seemed to stand at attention, and The General wasted no time positioning them: “Okay, let’s get this shindig started, shall we, girls?” she said. “Angela, we’ll need some chairs and small tables. Priscilla, can you brew coffee and bring out napkins and plates, please? And Helen, set some fans on the tall stools and place them around the table to keep the baked goods cool. It’s muggy down here.”
I stood there, still holding the cupcake tray, transfixed with Nan’s control as she waved her cane around, a maestro moving everyone into a rhythm with her will. Across from me, Father Michael smiled, enjoying her display of effortless power.
“Willy!” she said, turning to me. “Get those cupcakes on the table and put some prices on the goods. Two dollars a cupcake. No time to waste. Hungry people will be arriving soon.” As I started to move, she squeezed my arm. “And Willy?” she whispered. “Make sure there’s a separate donation box for the homeless shelter.”
I got to it, but minutes later, a thick waft of floral perfume suddenly punched me in the throat. Turning, I saw Cynthia Kaminsky strutting in. I’m sure Cynthia had been a real beauty in her youth–fine features, tall, shapely–but now she clearly put a lot of effort into milking her golden years with fake eyelashes and an abundance of blush. She sported a white velvet jumpsuit gathered with a shimmering gold belt
covered in rhinestones, the kind you would see on an Elvis impersonator. And yet, her most striking feature was her white pompadour that was so tall and perfect it seemed to have oozed out of a soft-serve dispenser.
Behind her, a thin boy from my school, with a cowlick protruding from his crown like an antenna, carried an enormous covered cake plate. He struggled with it, swaying under its load. Cynthia’s eyes lit up as she sauntered forward. I looked toward Nan, who leaned both hands on her cane, her mouth pressed tight. The Hens stopped and looked up in unison, reminding me of a twitchy herd of deer.
“Cynthia!” Father yelled, his arms apart as if welcoming a favorite daughter.
“Cynthia, thank God you’re here,” cried one of the Hens.
“We couldn’t do this without you,”
They surrounded her, dabbing at her arm with their fingertips and nodding.
Nana took a step back and watched everyone with a straight face. Cynthia eyed her sideways.
“Contesta?” she said, clearing her throat. “How are things? You’re looking better than usual.”
“Fine, Cynthia, thank you,” Nan answered flatly.
A corner of Cynthia’s generously lipsticked mouth crept up: “How’s the eye, dear?”
“Getting better,” Nana replied.
They continued to size each other up in a sort of church-lady jiu-jitsu–much like they’d done at last year’s Holy Redeemer Seniors’ Spaghetti Dinner and Dance. Of course, Nana had “requested” my services then too. Fortunately, Paulie joined us. In between filling glasses with red wine and sneaking swigs of beer in the church’s alley, my brother and I marveled at the antics of the old partygoers. They groped each other like teenagers, drank themselves silly, and made pained expressions as they shook replaced knees and hips to Madonna, INXS, and George Michael under a mirrored ball.
During the evening, Nana went to a microphone and asked for donations for a children’s hospital, but then Cynthia followed Nan’s speech with requests for offerings toward Father Michael’s Vatican trip. This, of course, earned Nana’s scorn, but it hadn’t been the worst of it. Her real irritation came when Cynthia flirted with Grandpa, pulling him on the dance floor and poking him in the ribs. When Nana made her way over to where they shimmied, Paulie and I did too, repeatedly stacking the same empty Styrofoam cups as we eavesdropped.
“Having fun?” Nana said as Cynthia and Grandpa came off the dance floor, sweaty and smiling.
“Contesta!” Cynthia said, squeezing Grandpa’s shoulder.
“Tony is so fit for his age.” Grandpa grinned and flexed a bicep.
“Yep,” said Nana, eyeing Grandpa.“Two stents in the arteries, too.”
“And a war veteran.” Cynthia said.
“Uh-huh. He was in communications. Didn’t see much action.”
“I have to admit, Contesta,” Cynthia said, as she put her arm around Grandpa’s waist and squeezed. “If you weren’t around, I’d …”
“Right, well, unfortunately, I am,” Nan said. “Do you think you could help Alice set up some fans, Cynthia? You know, get the bad stink out of here.”
Cynthia’s smile morphed into a straight line. “I’ll ask Angela.
I need to talk with Father about details for his trip.”
Nana nodded as Cynthia walked away. Then she whacked Grandpa in the butt with her cane. He laughed, and Paulie and I did too.
“You can do better than that,” she told Grandpa.
“I did,” he replied, gazing at her.
In the basement, the circle of Hens–with Cynthia and the cake plate in the eye of the storm–moved as one toward the table where I stood. I had to squeeze my way through a gauntlet of floppy arms and floppier boobs just to get air again. Each Hen took turns complimenting Cynthia’s hair, clothes, and makeup, and wondering “what in heavens” was under that enormous cake cover.
Cynthia laughed, saying, “Thank you,” and “Wait until you see.” Meanwhile, Nana stood to the side, pursing her lips, saying nothing.
The struggling boy happily placed the cake plate down, and Cynthia slid Nana’s cupcakes and the donation boxes away to make room. She positioned the plate in the center of the table and turned. She was about to speak when the boy held up his open palm to her. Sighing, Cynthia handed him a few bucks from her dainty purse, and he left. “And now,” Cynthia said, and she slowly lifted the cake cover to reveal the most opulent cake I’d ever seen.
A unified gasp rose and bounced off the low-paneled ceiling. The cake stood three tiers high, each layer covered in white icing and trimmed on the edges with gold icing ribbons. On the bottom layer, a complete church choir made of chocolate encircled the cake. On the second tier, little white stallions ran
through pink roses. And on the top, an angel sat on a swing underneath a white cloud of cotton candy.
Everyone’s eyes bulged. Jaws fell open. My mouth watered.
I was so enthralled, I barely heard Cynthia speaking.
“… And Father, as we know, is in desperate need of a new car, so the take from this can go to that cause. I’m thinking $12 a slice. A thin slice,” she said, making a wafer thin space between her thumb and index finger.
At this, Father and Cynthia howled, their guffaws reverberating in the air blowing from the fans, sounding like a pair of cartoon super-villains.
I tore my eyes from the cake and sought out Nana. She remained still. Her face appeared flush. She gazed at Cynthia’s cake with not admiration, but despondency. For the first time, I thought Nana appeared fragile. It felt odd, and it even hurt, to view her this way. Yet at the same time, I liked seeing this sliver of vulnerability in her. For all the times I’d accompanied Nana on her missions, I can’t say I ever felt as close to her as I did in this moment.
In our younger years, Paulie and I used to provoke Nana to try to get some sort of rise out of her. She’d always been an enigma to us, a puzzle we had to solve, so we schemed to uncover whatever sensitivities lurked beneath her concrete exterior by playing pranks on her. Like when we took her underwear and bra and put them on the marble statue of an Italian girl that stood in the corner of her bedroom.
“They’re too sexy for her,” was all Nan said, before tottering away. Try as we might, we could never break The General.
Though she didn’t look quite broken now, she certainly seemed worn down.
“Nan?” I said.
She stared at me for several moments, looking wistful again.
“I never did any of it for myself, Willy. Your grandfather knew that,” she said in a quiet voice. “You know that, too. Right?”
“I do,” I said.
“I know you do,” she said, and she put her arm around me, leaned over, and kissed me on the cheek. I flinched, trying to remember the last time, if ever, Nan had done that. The wetness of her lips lingered, and I wanted to touch the spot, as if to hold it there, but Nana was still smiling and I felt if I moved, the moment would pass.
My thoughts turned to Grandpa. It had been three months since he passed away, his heart finally calling it quits. Mom, Dad, Paulie, and I cried for days, huddled in our living room. And I wondered what display of pent-up emotion would seep out of Nana once the grief penetrated her hard shell. But Nana remained as resigned and controlled as ever. Her face appeared slightly more gaunt and her shoulders sagged a bit, but I never saw so much as a tear. She simply wore an even more determined gaze and charged ahead, making funeral arrangements and cooking and planning for guests after the services.
The burial took place on a chilly, March morning in a small cemetery overlooking the Delaware River. Wearing dark coats and somber faces, we gathered around Grandpa’s coffin. Many from Holy Redeemer attended, including Cynthia and the Hens. I sat next to Nana, who appeared unruffled. Maintaining a steely gaze, she peered skyward, taking in Father Michael’s thoughts and prayers. At one point, I noticed her eyes roam toward the plot of grass next to the hole awaiting Grandpa–the place where we would lay her to rest one day–and her hands trembled slightly. She folded them on her cane to steady them and noticed me watching. Leaning close to me, she whispered, “No rest for the living, Willy.” And I just pushed my lower lip out and nodded, which is how I often reacted when I wasn’t sure what Nana was getting at.
After the funeral, she’d stepped away from church committee duties, and Cynthia happily filled the power vacuum. Nan’ seemed to want to spend more time with her family. She often asked for Paulie and I even when she didn’t have anything big for us to do. Once, I walked with her to a lawyer who handed her a check for $10,000 as part of some military benefit Grandpa had stowed away. Probably the most money she’d ever held in her life. But she didn’t seem that impressed with it. She just put it in her canvas handbag and shrugged, as if it was no more important than a pack of tissues.
At times, during those weeks, I’d been frustrated that Nana appeared so impassive and unchanged by Grandpa’s death. But now, at the bake sale, the weight of that containment seemed to have finally taken its toll on her.
She leaned toward me and said softly, “I’m feeling tired, Will.
I think these girls have it covered, don’t you? Let’s leave them to it.”
I wanted to tell her that it was okay to feel scared. It was okay to let go. But, when I opened my mouth, the words didn’t come.
Still, I think she knew what I was thinking, for as she looked at me, her one eye softened and that tremor of a grin on her upper lip showed. She reached up and patted my face again.
Moments later, she walked over to the twittering gaggle of women and said, “Ladies? Father? I’m afraid I’ve suddenly come under the weather. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to go, before the people show up. Don’t want to get anyone sick.”
“Oh no, Contesta!” said a Hen.
“Oh, please take care of yourself,” said another.
“Thanks for coming, Contesta,” said Father Michael.
And Cynthia, looking away, said, “We’ll see you around, Contesta. It was a pleasure, dear.”
Nana nodded, and everyone else did too, but just as quickly, they all returned to lauding Cynthia’s cake. Nana walked toward me, adjusting her handbag on her shoulder, and motioned toward the door. After a few steps, however, she suddenly stopped and a glazed look came over her. She didn’t move, save for her fingers drumming on her cane handle. Then she stood more erect, and her spirits appeared to lift with her posture, an energy recharging.
“Actually, I don’t think we’re done yet, Willy,” she said.
Her eyes narrowed and jaw clenched as she turned and shuffled toward the baked goods table, near where a fan buzzed on its stool. Suddenly, I felt a surge of anxiety as I imagined what would happen next: the crack in Nana’s armor bursting open like a gas line explosion; near the table, Nana knocking over a stool with her cane; the stool falling and the spinning fan balanced on it slipping facedown into Cynthia’s cake; blotches of icing, cake, and dismembered sugar stallions showering the room.
But it didn’t happen.
Instead, Nana reached in her handbag and took out a pen and the check she’d received from the lawyer. “Yes, $10,000 should do the shelter nicely,” she said to everyone, and she endorsed her check to the Philadelphia Homeless Shelter before slipping it into the charity box. Father and the Hens went silent. Cynthia frowned.
“Now,” Nana said, scanning the table of baked goods. “I should take a treat for my contribution, I suppose. Which one? … Ah, yes. Willy?” she said, waving me over. “Could you get that?”
I paused and looked at her.
“Yes, the whole thing, kiddo,” she said.
With considerable effort, and to the gasps of the Hens, I lifted up Cynthia’s cake and stumbled a little before regaining my balance.
“Perfect. Let’s go Will,” Nan said, and we turned to leave.
“Contesta?” Cynthia called out.
We looked back. The color had left Cynthia’s face; her eyes blinked rapidly. Next to her, Father Michael’s brow formed wavy lines. Everyone else stood motionless. “You’re taking all of it? But, the people coming? The money for … the church?” Nana smiled, her cheeks lifting her eye patch. “It’s a record amount, Cynthia. The shelter will remember you for it. And I’m sure God will, too. I’ll return your plate later.” I turned away, listening to the huffs, the whirring fans, and the tapping of Nana’s cane as she marched out, and I grinned so hard my cheeks hurt.
Once Nana and I slipped our jackets back on, I carried the lavish cake up the stairs into cones of afternoon sunlight now pushing apart the rain clouds. Nana climbed up behind me. At the top, she stopped and took a letter opener from her handbag.
She told me to place the cake on a low brick wall bordering the steps. With the opener, she sliced a wedge of cake and held it up. “This is for you, Willy.” Then, she nodded in the direction of a dumpster several yards away.
“You can put the rest in there,” she said. I picked up the cake, walked over, and tossed it in.
When I returned, Nan extended the remaining slice toward me, white frosting oozing between her fingers. “Have it, kid” she said. “I saw you eyeing it in there. You’ve earned it.”
I took the slice, walked back to the dumpster, and tossed it in as well. Nana beamed, and I knew I would hold on to that image for the rest of my days. After wiping her fingers on her apron, she headed down the sidewalk, holding Cynthia’s plate like it was a trophy. Her squat, hobbling form glowed in the sunlight.
“C’mon, Willy,” she said, thrusting her cane forward.
“Let’s go clean Grandpa’s wardrobe out. Donate some stuff to The Salvation Army. And then we got to get dinner going. Lots to do, kiddo. Follow me.”
And so, I did, gladly.