The Gilded Hour Page 68

I fall asleep every night thinking of that last evening we spent together. I once believed that smells could not be recalled in isolation, but the scent of your skin at the nape of your neck is as real to me as the texture of your hair and the shape of your hands. Your beautiful, clever hands. I feel them on my face.



ANNA SAT WITH Jack’s letter open in front of her, calculating times and distances yet again, just to be sure of her conclusion: he would be home sometime in the late afternoon or evening of the next day. This was very good news, and at the same time, difficult; she really had been putting off the visit to his sisters. Something she would have to do this evening.

The day had been particularly long: two surgeries of her own, assisting at another, a particularly difficult patient who showed up every week because she would not follow instructions on how to care for an ulcerated cheek and would only accept Anna as a doctor, a committee meeting about the usual budget shortfall and plans for raising funds—of all the duties that came with a position on the hospital staff, fund-raising was the worst, without competition.

And at the end of the workday, there was the bimonthly meeting of the Rational Dress Society. It was a commitment she had made long ago but one that she might have let go, if not for the ongoing debate about corsets around the breakfast table, which had renewed her interest and resolve.

All that she had survived, to find herself in the Mezzanotte parlor, watching Celestina fuss with bone china coffee cups as transparent as paper held up to the sun. The rims and handles were decorated with green and gold tracery, the kind of detail that would normally escape Anna, but the china was so delicate and beautiful, it drew attention to itself as surely as a single painting on a stark white wall.

That thought was still in her head when Bambina came in with a plate of long, narrow biscuits dusted with sugar crystals. They were also as hard as rock, as Anna soon discovered when she tried to bite down on one. She watched Bambina dipping a biscuit directly into her coffee cup and followed her example. It was almost magical, the way it crumbled on her tongue to a buttery mass of crumbs that tasted of sweet coffee and vanilla and anise.

“These are very good,” she said, quite sincerely. “The little experience I’ve had with Italian cooking gives me the sense that I will like it all.”

“Experience?” Celestine smiled at her, inviting but not demanding more information.

“Jack once shared a sandwich of roasted pork; it may have been the best thing I have ever eaten. I still think of it sometimes, but I always forget to ask him where it came from.”

Both sisters were smiling. “That must have been Aunt Philomena,” said Celestina. “She’s a wonderful cook. Jack eats with them once or twice a week when we are away at home. Though I suppose—” She broke off, embarrassed.

Anna did not consider herself insensitive, but she saw now that she had been oblivious to one crucially important aspect of their plans, one that would explain much of the nervous agitation in the room. When their brother married, the sisters would find themselves without a male protector. These two were raised to run a household, to care for others and to make beautiful things with their hands; they would never see themselves as independent, even if their needlework brought them sufficient income to make that claim. Unless Anna were to come here to live with all three of the Mezzanottes, Celestina and Bambina faced an uncertain future.

But she could make them no promises, not at this moment. Maybe never. Someone would have to move, and any move would disrupt this household in ways that could only be imagined.

“Um,” she said, tongue-tied for once in her life. “I think I’ll need a map of some kind to sort through all the Mezzanotte relatives. I haven’t even met your uncle Massimo yet.”

Celestina smiled as though she had been handed a gift and shot up from her seat. “What was I thinking? I’ll go get him now, he’s still in the shop. And you haven’t met the cousins—”

“Wait,” said Bambina, but the door was already closing behind her sister.

Bambina looked almost panicked and Anna wondered if Jack had written to express his disappointment with her after all. Anna wondered what subject she could raise that would put both of them at ease.

She said, “This china is very beautiful.”

“Yes, isn’t it? It was my grandmother’s. My mother’s mother.”

“You brought it from Italy?”

“I was born here,” Bambina said. “But it came over with my parents, yes. It came to my mother when her mother died. She was the only daughter.”

And there it was, the opening she needed to ask the question Jack had suggested. But the truth was, after such a difficult and drawn-out day, she had little stomach for what would certainly be an awkward conversation. If not for the memory of Sophie’s expression, the stillness that had come over her when Anna raised the subject of Jack’s sisters, she might have let this go. But she did remember.

“Why did your parents decide to leave Italy?”

Bambina drew in a deep breath. “My brother didn’t tell you?”

“He suggested I ask you to tell me the story.”

Bambina’s fingers began to trace the pattern of chevrons on her jacket sleeve. For a moment Anna wondered if she would simply ignore the question, but then she nodded to herself.

“The families—both of them—disapproved of the marriage,” she said. “My father’s brothers and Grandmother Bassani were the only members who didn’t disown them, and when she died my parents decided to start new in the United States. My uncles Massimo and Alfonso were already here, and that gave them a place to land.”

“But why did the families object?” Anna asked, curious now.

“You are not Roman Catholic,” Bambina said, an odd turn in the conversation. She waited for Anna’s nod. “Neither is my mother. She is from Livorno, the granddaughter of Reb Yaron Bassani. He was one of the city’s most respected rabbis.” She fell silent, her eyes fixed not on Anna, but on the wall behind her.

“Your mother is Jewish,” Anna said in an even tone, one she didn’t have to manufacture. Bambina was expecting her to be shocked and disturbed by this news, as many people disliked Jews on principle. Anna was not one of them, for reasons that she couldn’t list without sounding as though she were pandering.

But this single fact explained so much about Jack and the man he was; it felt almost like the missing piece of a puzzle.

“Did your mother convert when she married your father?”

A muscle fluttered in the girl’s jaw. “No. Which made my father’s family very unhappy.”

“That must have been very hard for her as a young mother. Do you consider yourself Roman Catholic or Jewish?”

Her gaze was steady and cool. “I claim neither. Why is that important?”

“It’s not unusual, I would think,” Anna said. “I’d guess it is even quite common for the children of a mixed marriage to avoid or even reject both sides.”

Bambina frowned elaborately, her brows drawing down to an angle as defined as an arrowhead. “You would call this a mixed marriage, between a Jew and a Catholic?”

“It would be considered mixed by most people,” Anna said. “But my family has been flouting expectations and traditions for a hundred years. My grandfather Bonner’s first wife was Mohawk, and the daughter of that marriage—my aunt Hannah—married a man from New Orleans who had African, Seminole, and French grandparents. We are a complicated and colorful family. We avoid labels.”

The younger woman closed her hands around her cup as if they needed warming and sipped, slowly. Anna took the opportunity to study her. It was true that Bambina was not especially pretty, but neither was she ugly. She had a round face, full cheeks, and a strong nose, but she also had beautiful eyes with thick dark lashes, and a full mouth. And she was intelligent. Just now her expression was much like Jack’s when he was working through a problem.

“You must know,” Anna went on, more slowly, “that after the war New York was overwhelmed with people like your parents, who left one place to start again in another. Sophie was just ten when she lost her family and home and left everything familiar behind to come here. From that time we have been as close as any sisters.”

“My mother is Jewish,” Bambina said. “She is not colored. You can’t compare the two.” Her tone was confrontational and also resentful; she was surprised that Anna would pursue the subject.

Anna met Bambina’s gaze and reached carefully for the right tone. “People descended from African slaves and the Indian tribes have some things in common with Jews. All three have survived despite open hostility and violence and even banishment. The Jews were driven out of Italy at one time, isn’t that so?”

Bambina’s gaze snapped toward her. “Why would you know that?”

“I had a broad and liberal education, and beyond that, we have family friends who are Jewish. I have students and colleagues who are Jewish. Sophie’s mentor is Jewish.”

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