Buffalo, New York
June 15, 1941
Angie Makowski hurried down the elm-lined avenue toward Zajac’s Market as fast as she could manage on her high-heeled pumps. If she kept her head down and avoided eye contact, perhaps none of her neighbors would notice her.
But on a beautiful Saturday morning in the working-class neighborhood of Black Rock, what else could she expect but that everyone who lived on Glor Street happened to be in their front yards, mowing the lawn, watering flowers, or visiting on their stoops.
Wearing a hot pink satin bridesmaid dress didn’t help.
“Hey, Angie!” Mr. Poppazyk guffawed from the lawn chair on his front porch, his ever-present cigar dangling from his fingers. “Today’s the big day, huh? When’s it gonna be your turn?”
Drat it. The bride, her sister Sofia, had managed to ruin her last pair of silk stockings, forcing Angie to run out for another pair at the last minute. She flapped a hand at him and scurried past. On the next corner, Mrs. Lewandowski and Mrs. Kolacki had their heads close together, talking on the drive between their homes. Angie sped up, hoping they were too busy exchanging the latest gossip to notice her.
“O mój Boże!”
Oh, my God was right. Mrs. Kolacki’s shrill voice sliced through Angie. Too late.
“You look so pretty, Angie!” Mrs. Lewandowski clapped her hands together. “Soon it will be you, yes?”
“No, no, Agata, she’s a career woman now.” Mrs. Lewandowski laughed, setting her triple chins quivering. “Isn’t that so, Angie?”
Angie smiled, waved, and increased her speed, a dangerous idea wearing heels. Breaking an ankle, however, would be a sure bet to get out of this wedding. Although incredibly happy for Sofia, Angie had dreaded this day for weeks. With the wedding reception sure to last at least until midnight, there would be an endless amount of time for all the elderly Polish and Italian relatives to subtly express their disapproval or their sympathy that Angie remained unmarried at the ancient age of twenty-three.
By the time she arrived at the old wooden steps to the corner store, she’d been shouted at three more times. They meant well, she knew. But tiresome didn’t begin to describe how she felt about it.
She stopped to catch her breath and opened the heavy, glass-fronted door of Zajac’s Market, greeted by the familiar scents of sauerkraut and ripe cheese, kerosene and lard, soap and coffee that had pervaded the store for as long as she could remember.
She headed past the long line of rounded glass showcases selling everything from buttons to seeds and oranges to walnuts. Behind the cases, drawers, bins, and shelves held everything a body could need or want. Tools and brooms hung from the ceiling, and in one corner stood a barrel of pickles bobbing in brine.
At the back counter, Mrs. Zajac glanced up from her newspaper and her eyes widened as Angie approached.
“Oh, please don’t ask me when I’m getting married, Mrs. Zajac.” She raised her hands to stop her before she could start. “I’ve already heard it from everyone in the neighborhood.”
Mrs. Zajac put down her cigarette and laughed, a deep, throaty growl. “I won’t say a word. I know it will be rough with all those babcie in the same place. Not to mention all the Italian grandmothers in your family.” She looked Angie over. “I’ll only say you look lovely. That pink suits you fine.”
She folded the newspaper and tapped the headline with a red-lacquered nail. “I don’t like what’s happening over there.” She turned the paper so Angie could read it.
RUSSIAN-GERMAN SHOWDOWN REPORTED NEAR
“I know. Papa’s been worried since Germany invaded Poland. He has a brother in Silesia we haven’t heard from since then, and he fears the worst.”
“I had family there, too. But they left when we did. They’re over on the west side now. So, what can I do for you this morning?”
“I need a pair of silk stockings for Sofia, 5½ average?”
“I can check.” Mrs. Zajac turned to search a bin behind her. “But silk is getting scarce, you know, with the war in Europe. I haven’t been able to add any inventory in months. Let’s see now.” She shook her head. “Nope. Not in 5½. But I have them in nylon. A nice medium beige.”
“That will have to do.”
Mrs. Zajak laid the package on the counter. “That will be $1.35.”
“And a pack of Lucky Strikes.”
“18 cents for the smokes. Matches?”
Angie took the stockings, shoved the matches and Lucky Strikes into the pocket of her dress, and hurried out of the store. Now to run the return gauntlet.
Back at home, Angie stopped short in the kitchen doorway, struck by the contrast of her sister in her white gown and veil against the vivid backdrop of braided garlic, peppers, and onions that hung from the ceiling. The Philco tabletop radio, Mama’s pride and joy, played softly in the background, tuned to WHLD, while the Sunbeam electric coffeemaker perked and Mama fussed over the wax orange blossoms in the bridal crown while Sofia squirmed on the stool.
“You look lovely, Fee.”
Mama nodded. “She does. Now tell her to stop fidgeting.”
“Listen to Mama. Sit still.”
Sofia grinned and relaxed on the stool. “You look pretty, too, Ang.”
Angie wrinkled her nose in her sister’s direction. The sweetheart neckline of her bridesmaid dress mirrored Sofia’s, but instead of long lace sleeves, Angie’s had tiny puffs, something more fitting for a five-year-old than a grown woman. But she’d kept her mouth shut. It was Sofia’s wedding, after all. But that shiny pink satin? After the wedding she’d never wear the thing again.
The quiet in the coffee and cinnamon-scented kitchen disappeared as her brother Anthony’s three small children, six-year-old Tony and four-year-old twins Paola and Pia rushed into the kitchen, giggling and pushing each other. They slid past Angie on the linoleum floor to stare with round eyes at the huge trays of anginetti, glazed lemon knots, mostaccioli, and pignoli cookies waiting for delivery to the Polish Cadets hall.
Angie’s grandmother, plump and round in her best black silk dress, shuffled into the room after the children. “Via via via, non toccare! Don’t touch, bambinos.” She turned the children away from the trays and pulled a plate of cookies off the stove top. “These for you. Then you go, keep the birds away from the grapes, si?”
She slipped each of the children a cookie and shooed them out of the kitchen, then turned and looked from Sofia to Angie with a sigh. Shaking her head, she reached out to straighten a ruffle on Angie’s dress and her shrewd black eyes narrowed. “It should be you, mia bella,” she whispered, leaning closer. “The oldest daughter in the family should be married first.”
Angie’s lips tightened. Here we go. Angie had no pressing desire to marry anyone, not even her handsome boyfriend, Luca. No one, not even Sofia, her closest sister, knew that Angie had been considering ways to leave the neighborhood she’d grown up in. She wanted to bust out of Black Rock and travel around the world in eighty days like Phineas Fogg. Jules Verne and the old stacks of National Geographic in the bookshelf upstairs could be blamed for her secret desire to see the world and leave Buffalo behind.
“Oh, dear, nonna, Anthony’s gotten into the cookies again.” The six-year-old had snuck back into the kitchen behind his great-grandmother’s back and had already eaten three pignoli from the tray.
Her grandmother whirled around and shrieked. “Basta! Esci dalla cucina adesso! Out, out!” She grabbed the broom from the corner and chased Anthony out of the kitchen.
Sofia winked at her. “Don’t pay any attention to nonna.” She glanced sideways at her mother. “You’ll get married when you find the right man, no matter what nonna thinks. Right, mama?”
Their mother straightened and adjusted a final blossom on the bridal crown. “Mah.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Maria Angela has always done exactly as she wishes. I only pray I see her married before I die.”
“Mama!” Sofia pretended to smack her forehead. “Enough with the dramatics already. Not today, please.”
“Si.” Mama smiled at both of them, the skin around her eyes creasing, her brown eyes warm. “And thanks to your sister, you will have the wedding of your dreams.”
Angie caught her breath at the unexpected praise. Mama seldom referred her to her nursing job at Buffalo General Hospital in a positive light, preferring to leave it out of sight and out of mind.
“I was happy to help, Mamma. You know that.”
“I know, amore. She lifted her hand to cup Angie’s cheek, her touch light as a butterfly wing. Her dark eyes were deep and unfathomable, the network of fine lines at the corners a testament to a hard-working life. “Just don’t leave it too long, eh? You’re not getting any younger.”
Angie turned away, her lips tight, and placed the stockings on the kitchen table. Why did her mother always do that? Give praise and then say something hurtful? “No silk stockings available, Fee. I had to get nylon.”
“Nylon? I need silk.”
“No one will see your stockings, Sofia.” Nonna shrugged her thin shoulders as she reentered the kitchen and replaced the broom behind the great green glass wine jug in the corner. “What does it matter?”
“Hank will.” Sofia’s pretty face flushed pink. “You know—later.”
“Nylon is supposed to be even better than silk, Fee. Don’t worry.” Angie flashed her sister a wicked smile. “I’m sure Hank will be so excited to take them off he won’t even notice what they’re made of.”
“Smettila! Stop it!” In unison, Nonna and Mama turned at the same time, fixing Angie with a gimlet glare.
Sofia giggled. “Okay. If you say so. Oh—I love this song!”
Sofia jumped off the stool, turned up the volume, and grabbed Angie as the plaintive strains of “I’m In the Mood for Love” came over the airwaves.
“…simple because you’re near me-e-e-e-e…” Sofia sang, waltzing around the kitchen with Angie.
“Girls, girls, it’s almost time.” Mama smiled indulgently.
“Okay.” Sofia stopped and smoothed her skirts. “As they say in show business, let’s get this show on the road.”