he holiday season after I turned seven, Zuza and her coworkers had strung clear-colored mini-lights around the dress shop windows, as they did every holiday season. A decorated tree blinked with miniature lights from its pedestal in the reception area. The back table had an abundant variety of cookies and cakes. Zuza and my grandmother had shared their homemade cookies. Customers brought more sweets. Fellow storeowners from the neighborhood brought bottles of wine, whiskey, and scotch. Zuza invited customers to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and help themselves to the treats. It was a happy time. All of us kids dashed over to the table as many times as we could, especially since Zuza had decorated it with a candy cane holiday cloth and pine garland mixed with pinecones.
Zuza had been talking in Italian with my grandmother as they stood near the little desk in the back of the shop. The tone of their conversation was hectic and tense.
When my mother arrived, Zuza greeted her politely and yielded to appropriate discourse about the weather. Then, with a subtle shift, Zuza changed gears.
“Grace, you don’t have to pick up the kids or watch them if it’s trouble for you,” she said. “I’ll take care of them. You do whatever you have to do.”
I saw the rise of my mother’s brows as her smile faded. “Maybe you are the one having trouble,” she replied.
“It’s no trouble for me,” Zuza said. “I love them as if they were my own.”
“I don’t?” My mother was incensed, I could tell. “I drop everything to pick up the kids whenever you ask me to.”
“And I did the same.”
“Well, I’ll keep my boys and my little girl, and you just worry about selling your dresses.” She grabbed hold of my arm and shot a glance at Robbie who was several feet away, looking on. “Robbie, get your brother. Let’s go.”
“I love you, Grace,” my godmother said. In her voice, stern resolution mingled torturously with a sympathetic softness. “I love Luca, my brother. I love all the kids.”
My mother pushed all three of us in the direction of the door. We looked back several times, bewildered by our mother’s anger and Zuza’s sorrowful countenance.
Grandma brought up Zuza at dinner that night. “God bless her,” she lamented. “They worka very hard all day, and with two kids. Then she takes care of Joey, Robbie, Danielle, everybody.” She was shaking her head. “Too much.”
“We took turns,” my mother shot back. “We helped each other.”
“Maybe it is a lot for her,” my father said. “She does work hard.”
“So do I. If you wanna know, I am the one who picks them up more—more than her, because I know she’s working and needs help.”
“It’s not the same,” my grandmother said. “They work, no just disappear.”
“And I just disappear?” Those dark eyes widened to unprecedented enormity. “I don’t work? I have three kids here, and you think I don’t work? I disappear? Can you believe this?”
“Hold it, hold it,” my father interjected. “Mama, did Zuza say something to you?”
Grandma shrugged. “It’s not my business.”
He clenched his teeth. “You brought it up, and now you say it’s not your business. Mama, did she tell you it’s too much for her?”
All of our curious eyes fell upon her.
“I no wanna get in trouble. They no say anything. I shut up.”
My parents looked at each other.
“Why didn’t she come and tell me?” my mother asked. “I don’t like that. If it’s too much for you, then say it’s too much for you. Don’t say it’s too much for me. Don’t go behind my back.”
My grandmother defended her daughter. “They wanna do! She can’t, Grace! The shop is too busy. They feed everybody.”
“You gotta be kidding!” my father shouted. “When they are here, we feed everybody, too. We give them everything, whatever they want, and it’s no problem. All right!” he bellowed. “Grace, from now on, you pick up the kids yourself. I don’t want Zuza picking up any of the kids from school. However we have to do it, we’ll do it.”
“Daddy!” Robbie yelled. “Grandma said Zuza didn’t say nothing!”
“Anything,” my mother corrected. “She didn’t say anything. You live in America. Speak proper English.”
“That’s right,” my father snapped. “Besides, don’t you have homework?”
“Then go do it. Take your sister with you.”
“How am I supposed to do homework if I take her with me?”
“Then go play.”
My mother glared at my grandmother. “I don’t disappear! What proof do you have to make an accusation like that—that I just disappear?”
Joey hustled us out of the room, but their discussion raged on with added intensity.
“And where do you go all the time?” my grandmother pressed.
“It’s none of your business where I go!”
“Grace, you don’t bring the kids there no more!” my father shrieked. “You hear me? And you stay here, where you belong. From now on, I don’t want any of the kids to go over there to their house, or to the dress shop, for anything.” He waved his hand in disgust. “They are all dead to me.”
“Sfatcheem!” my grandmother yelled. “Stubborn like the mule.” She reminded him that Zuza was his sister, that it was between her and Grace, and that Dominic and the kids had nothing to do with it.
“I never saw that side of Zuza,” I heard my mother say. “This really hurts me.”
I didn’t know what side she meant. Zuza was nice to me all the time. I never got the impression she thought taking care of us was too much, not even for a minute.
It was awkward running into her now with Angie and Dom Jr. My mother would look away from them. Angie sat farther away from me in school, but Dom Jr. would wave to me in secret with his hand down low. Zuza tried talking to my mom. The sadness in her eyes matched the sadness in my heart. I could feel her love, as it continued to envelop me like the fluffiest blanket. My father said Uncle Dom had tried talking to him a couple of times, but he waved him off and kept walking. We would hear their cherished, familiar voices in the yard when they visited my grandmother. We had to go on eating Sunday dinner as if they weren’t there. My grandmother would come in several times and plead with my father to join them or invite them inside. I could hear all the weariness and frustration in her squally voice, but he wouldn’t budge.
My brothers and I would walk over to the Vaccaros’ house. We stood directly across from it, on the other side of the street, and watched the multicolored lights blinking festively on the windows. They had the same gleaming white Venetian blinds as we had, and had strung lights all around the house. I figured they had placed their usual “Happy Holidays” welcome mat at the front door, but, I thought sadly, it wouldn’t welcome us that Christmas.
I missed them terribly and clung to the monkey Uncle Dom had given me once.
“Throw that thing away,” my mother demanded when I brought it to the kitchen. “It’s filthy, and it’s all ripped.”
“No! No, please!” I cried. “If I let you give him a bath, can I keep him? Please don’t take him. Please, please, you could wash him and sew him. Mommy, please?” I cried so hard.
“It’s not worth it, Danielle. It’s falling apart.” She looked sorry for me, as she tried to pry the monkey from my grip, but I clung to it.
Exasperated, she promised to buy me something at the store. That didn’t soothe me, but I handed him over, tears streaming.
I saw Zuza after the holidays. She headed toward the school as I waited there for my mother. My heart pounded, for I could see my mother as well, at a greater distance.
Zuza came close to greet me. “Hello, Danielle.”
With a yearning in my heart, I lowered my eyes.
She lifted my chin with her delicate touch. “I want you to know I love you with all of my heart. I don’t want you to ever forget.”
“I love you, too,” I whimpered.
“I was very happy to take care of you and your brothers,” she said. “I love you all, your mother, and your father, too, and I’m not gonna give up. I promise.”
My eyes shifted, as my mother was no more than two yards away.
Zuza didn’t scurry off or quicken her pace. She simply moved along.
My mother glanced in her direction before fixing her gaze upon me. “What did she say?”
“She said she loves me, Mommy, and she loves all of us. She loves you, too.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That I love her back. I miss Zuza, Mommy.”
“I know,” she replied. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”
I saw Zuza outside the school again on a blustery February afternoon. The ties of my pom-pom hat were dangling.
She stopped in an instant and stood before me. “You have to cover your ears,” she said, tying my hat. “I don’t want you to get sick.”
She was gone before my mother arrived, and my mother assumed I had tied it myself. The next time she saw me waiting outside with the ties dangling, she asked why I hadn’t tied them.
“I didn’t tie it ever, Mommy,” I confessed. “I don’t know how.”
“I told your teacher not to tie it for you. You have to learn.”
“She didn’t, Ma. Zuza did.”
“I told you to stay away from her, Danielle, and I told you to practice tying your hat. Either you tell Zuza not to do that, or I’m going to tell her.”
“Please don’t,” I begged. “Don’t be mean to her. I promise I will tell her.”
“Your mother is right,” Zuza said. “I shouldn’t interfere. She’s trying to help you, believe me. I have the easy job with you, just to love you. I know you don’t understand. It takes a lot of love to be tough. There is nothing like a mother’s love, Danielle.”
I felt determined and tied the hat in her presence, then witnessed her glowing pride before she departed.
I hung onto hope throughout the winter months. It was like a solitary candle that burned boldly with its singular fury. On Easter Sunday, however, I watched that flame extinguish with the gust of a raging typhoon.
The bell rang. I peeked out the upstairs window and was happy to see Zuza at the front door. She was carrying something in her arms.
My happy delight would soon become agony, as my mother held the door open below. “What do you want?” I heard her say.
“Hello, Grace,” Zuza greeted her. “I brought an Easter bunny for Danielle—chocolate—and a little something for Robbie and Joe. May I come in?”
“Get out of here,” my mother snarled. “Take your bunny and whatever else you brought, and get the hell out of here.”
“Danielle is my godchild,” she protested. “We all miss each other. Grace, please, let me give this to the children—at least, to my godchild. Or you give it to them, if you want.”
“My kids don’t need anything from you. Whatever they do need, they’ll get it from me and their father.” She closed the door.
I had but a second to glimpse the pain on my godmother’s face, then cried on and off for hours, knowing how much courage it must have taken for Zuza to do that, and how my mother had turned her away like a piece of dirt. Dear Zuza! It was more difficult to accept the pain inflicted on her than the pain I was feeling. I would never forget her face, nor her amazing humility, dignity, and grace under the circumstances. It truly broke my heart. More disturbingly, I barely recognized the woman who had sent her away, though I’d seen glimpses of her before.
After dinner that night, my mother presented us with chocolate Easter bunnies, saving one for herself and one for my father. She nibbled at her bunny as we nibbled at ours, giggling with us. She put out the jellybeans we loved, remembering how much I loved the black and red ones. Before I went to bed that night, I saw she was alone in the dining room, doing her manicure and pedicure as if all was right with the world.
Come fall, there were no Vaccaros at my birthday party. The holiday season was upon us once more. We were having dessert in the dining room—the whole family enjoying lemon meringue pie—and my grandmother had a meltdown.
“Oh, Dio, oh, Dio,” she began, shaking her head. Tears were streaming down her face.
“What’s happened?” my father asked.
She shook her head and then began what seemed an exhaustive, emotional discourse in Italian. “I make a mistake.” She kept shaking her head.
My mother shot a glance at my father.
“It’sa no true,” my grandmother said.
My mother’s eyes fell upon her. “What’s not true?”
“Zuza no say anything. I say. I feela sorry. She worka hard.” My grandmother was bawling like a small child, and she continued to apologize.
My father clenched his teeth. “Then you thought it was too much for Zuza, and you put words in her mouth. But, Mama, why don’t you mind your own goddamn business? Do you see the trouble you caused? Unbelievable! And you probably said the same thing to Zuza, I bet—that it was too much—and she thought it was Grace complaining. Why do you do that? Goddamn it!”
My mother pressed for clarification. “You’re saying Zuza never said anything about it being too much for her to take care of the kids and about me disappearing?”
Grandma was shaking her head. It was then she told us that there was something wrong with Dominic Jr., that he had a heart condition.
My dad turned to my mother. “Grace, call her, please. Call Zuza.” He went on chastising my grandmother, and she continued to cry.
Zuza would confirm that my grandmother was the one who insisted it was too much for her daughter. She’d also given Zuza the impression that Grace had complained.
“Can we go see them?” I begged.
“We’ll stop by the dress shop tomorrow,” my mother said.
Zuza was dressing a mannequin in the window when we arrived. I ran to hug her, and she laughed merrily, her arms full of me. She kissed my head and cheek several times, then hugged Joey and Robbie.
“I’m sorry,” my mother conceded, her arms outstretched.
Zuza reached back, smiling. “I’m sorry, too, Grace.”
They laughed, cried, and hugged for nearly five minutes.
“I couldn’t believe it when she told me this,” my mother said. “I was shocked.”
Zuza’s eyes matched her beaming smile. All I could see was admiration. “That’s Mama,” she said. “Mama is Mama, and she’s always gonna be. She wants everybody to be happy, but she doesn’t know when to keep quiet. God bless her.”
They talked about Dom Jr., and Zuza seemed optimistic, unless she was putting on a brave face. I couldn’t tell. The next thing I knew, that sweet boy was hooked up to monitors at Hartford Hospital and turned mostly on his side, in too precarious a state for frequent visits or visits by anyone other than his parents.
We had all believed that, somehow, he’d pull through. My mother began working at the dress shop and taking care of Angie, so that Zuza could visit him often. When my father said Dom Jr. had passed away, I couldn’t sleep nights trying to comprehend that. It had me obsessing about whether there was an endless nothing or this fabled “Heaven” where God waited to welcome us. I tried to imagine myself being no more, and the fear overwhelmed me.
The first time I saw Zuza after that, she was folding clothes in her bedroom, and I told her I was sorry that she had lost her baby.
She set the clothes down and turned to me. Scooting down to meet my gaze, she placed her hands on my shoulders. “Yes, I lost my son, one of my babies,” she said, “but God will take care of him. I know your father gets mad and says a lot of things, but never stop believing, Danielle. You have to believe in and trust God.”
I wondered how it was fair that Dom Jr.’s precious face would be no more, and yet there would be the fierce eyes of Tommy Catalano, still watching, lurking, and waiting in the wings.
“Will the angels fly with him to heaven?” I asked.
“They better!” She smiled. “I don’t think he knows how to get there by himself.”
“Will he get wings?”
“Will he still look like him?”
“I imagine so!”
“What’s it like up there?”
“Beautiful,” she said. “He will be very happy.”
“Could we ever visit him, and stay with him for a little while?”
“One day, honey. One day, we will all be together again.”
“But would he remember me?” I began to cry so hard that she scrambled to grab me.
“How could he ever forget you?” She hugged me tight and rocked me gently back and forth. “You are such a beautiful, wonderful girl. I will always miss him, too, but I’m gonna take care of the rest of my babies, my children, including you. I am very lucky to have you, Danielle. Thank you.”
God, I loved her! In that moment, she was the most wonderful woman in the world to me.
Deadly Veils Book One: Shattering Truths was originally published as Deadly Veils: Book One: Provenance of Bondage copyright © October 2015 by Kyrian Lyndon. The revised edition, Deadly Veils: Book One: Shattering Truths was published in December 2016. Cover design by KH Koehler Design.