“Lucy, are you dressed yet?
“Be right there Mom!”
“Hurry or you won’t make it back on time for lunch. You know how your father hates it when lunch or dinner are served late.”
It is morning, on the eve of Christmas, in Montreal. Lucy’s mother is yelling above all the chatter in the kitchen. Christmas is a highly charged time of year for an Italian family, immigrated from the south of Italy. The preparations begin days in advance, with all the matriarchs busy creating their magic in the kitchen.
“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t run down the stairs, I swear you’ll break your neck one of these days.”
Lucy enters the kitchen ready to head outdoors into the cold.
“What did I tell you about having your boots on in the house? Just because we’re at your aunt’s house, the rules don’t change. Now do what your aunt tells you.”
Barely eleven years of age, Lucy is the eldest of three sisters. A tall spindly girl with big brown eyes and thick stubborn hair, which drives her neurotic mother crazy, as nothing seems to tame Lucy’s unruly mane.
Her mother is high-strung, chain-smokes, and keeps a tidy house. “You’re putting too much flour in the mix, it’s gonna bake as hard as your head.” She punctuates her comment with a fake slap across the back of her husband’s head.
The entire family has gathered at Aunt Angelica’s home for the Christmas holidays as is customary. Aunt Angelica is the closest thing to a grandmother Lucy has since she’s never met her grandparents, who lived and died in Italy. Her aunt Angelica is dressed in black, from head to toe. Her widow’s pale skin and tiny frame are misleading, she is far from fragile. Aunt Angelica is a lioness, fierce, loyal and at times scary, or at least this is how Lucy perceives her.
“Lucy, remember, light 3 large candles, one for uncle Fabio and 2 more for your grandpa and grandma, then 2 smaller ones for the twins, God bless their souls. Don’t forget to say a prayer as well, asking God to let them out of purgatory.”
“What is purgatory like Aunt Angelica?”
“Purgatory is like a waiting room Lucy, a place where you wait your turn, where all sinners go and have to wait their turn.”
“Like going to the Principal’s office at school?”
“Purgatory is not meant to be easy Lucy, it’s a place where we pay for our sins, in order to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the gates of heaven and that can take years.”
“Years? That is a long time.” Lucy tries to imagine what years must feel like. Time is funny that way. She’s noticed that when she is waiting to see the Principal, for example, or the dentist, it feels like forever and even the clock on the wall moves slower.
“Some people sin more than others, so you see Lucy, the souls in purgatory need our help.” Angelica hands Lucy a pile of change, “Your uncle Fabio he was a good man, bless his soul, but he was no angel either, he could use a little extra help.” Lucy puts the change in her coat pocket.
“Lucy, Lucy, men are weak when it comes to sins of the flesh, the flesh is weak. One day, when you‘re a woman, you’ll understand what I’m telling you.” Lucy makes a mental note, not to commit any sins of the flesh, as these sound serious.
Lucy understands more than the adults give her credit for. She has seen some of the boys at school give away their lunch money so they don’t get beat up. It’s all clear and straightforward to Lucy. In order to avoid unpleasant circumstances, trade-offs are necessary even for the dead.
“Be careful now and don’t stop,” Lucy interrupts Angelica, “to talk to strangers, I know aunt Angelica.” Lucy gives her aunt a kiss on each cheek and heads out into the cold bright morning.
It had snowed all night, big fluffy flakes. The sun is blinding, as it bounces off the icy blanket of snow, as far as her eyes can see. This is North Montreal in the mid-sixties, flat open fields, ready to dig and start building as soon as the snow melts. Not a single tree left to stop the wind from blowing the powdery snow in swirls and gusts.
As Lucy makes her way towards the Church she ponders upon her uncle Fabio’s predicament. She tries to put herself in his place or the twins, she imagines it can’t be very pleasant being in-between places, paying for sins. On occasions, she’d been sent to the Principal’s office, where she was told to wait outside, in a small adjacent room, and sit on a hard polished wooden bench. On these occasions Lucy recalls her tummy feeling all knotted up in anticipation and fear of the punishment which might be awaiting her. The Principal is a very serious man, just like God, he never smiles and whenever the children have done something deemed inappropriate, they are sent to the small room with no windows and the hard wooden bench, where they wait in angst to pay for their wrongdoings. Similar to purgatory but not as bad, at least she gets to go home after detention.
Lucy and her sisters often spent the holidays at their aunt’s house, their aunt being the eldest Matriarch in the family who had immigrated to Canada. Lucy gets to sleep in her aunt’s bed, now that her uncle is in purgatory. Placed on the dresser, in her aunt’s bedroom, is a small oval picture frame with a black and white photograph of her dead uncle Fabio’s head. His picture is lit by a tiny bulb, which is encased at the base of the frame. In order to avoid her uncle’s floating head and unmoving stare in the dark, every night, Lucy turns on her side, her knees curled up to her chin and pulls the blanket over her head.
Lucy has reached the Romanesque church with its two steeples. She is playing with the loose change in her pocket. She feels very small once she finds herself reaching for the immense bronze cast doors. She steps into the cold, echoey interior, her boots make clickety-clack sounds that reverberate throughout the church.
There is no one, it is empty at this hour. For the Christmas midnight mass, only a few hours away, there would be standing room only.
Lucy removes her mittens and dips the fingers of her right hand in the holy water recipient, a marble carved vessel, framed by three winged chubby cherubs. She executes a quick sign of the cross, realizes she crossed over to her right shoulder instead of her left. She immediately corrects this, then heads towards the bank of votive candles on the far left wall.
The morning light spills through the stained glass windows depicting the Sixth Station of Christ when Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. There is a strong scent of amber and frankincense in the church. Lucy twitches her nose, she does not care for the smell.
She is debating whether to follow her aunt’s instructions entirely or make slight adjustments, as she did on previous occasions. Lucy retrieves the coins with which she has been entrusted, to save the souls of unknown dead relatives.
The church offers 3 different-sized candles, for different budgets, which clearly indicates, God is not one to judge the dead by the size of their candles.
Lucy lights 3 medium votive candles for the dead adults, they cost less than the large ones and one medium-sized candle for the twins to share, leaving her some spare change.
She performs a rapid sign of the cross, accompanied by a clumsy curtsy in place of saying a prayer, as she had been asked to by her aunt Angelica. Lucy doesn’t feel comfortable asking God for favors or anyone for that matter, she prefers to keep her transactions with God simple and detached as she does with the Principal. She finds it’s best not to get noticed at times.
She doesn’t exactly like churches either and the only time she goes is when her Aunt Angelica is around and during the holidays. Lucy is grateful that her parents are not churchgoers. They never pray at home, not before dinner, nor before bedtime. One last sign of the cross and Lucy hurriedly dashes for the doors without looking back.
Once Lucy is out on the street, she feels relief rushing through her. She crosses over to the other side of the street, where she walks into a shop. The sweet scent of chocolate and vanilla brings an instant smile to her face, it is a nice respite after the amber and frankincense that still clung to her clothes and nose.
“The usual young lady?” Asks a friendly face, from behind the counter, at the pastry shop where Lucy has practically become a regular client.
“I will have two chocolate eclairs today please, thank you.”
“Two eclairs! That deserves a nice box with a pink ribbon then.” The man behind the counter places two eclairs in a small pink box with fancy gold script on the lid and a pink ribbon to match. “There you go Miss, two chocolate eclairs, that will be 50 cents. He hands over the box to Lucy and she places the change in the small plate provided on the counter.
On her way home, Lucy stops at a nearby park, where she brushes the snow off one of the swings and sits down, placing the box of pastries on her lap. She slowly unties the ribbon and opens it. She picks up one of the two eclairs and takes her first bite. Her eyes close as she sinks her teeth into the crisp coating of dark chocolate, followed by the velvety cream filling flowing into her tiny mouth. She saves the second eclair for later and heads back to her aunt’s for Christmas Eve preparations.
That night, as soon as her mother has folded Lucy into her aunt’s bed and turned off the lights, Lucy finds herself alone with her dead uncle’s floating head, again. She has been practicing staring back at her uncle Fabio in the dark and she can now manage several seconds before shutting her eyes. In the dark Lucy pulls out the pink box, from the night table next to the bed, slowly and quietly opens it. Thoughts of purgatory and chocolate eclairs are colliding in her little girl’s mind, as her uncle’s severed head watches her biting into the pastry shell, savoring the cream and chocolate mix.
Lucy gasps as she sees her uncle break into a smile. She shyly smiles back and as she does, the tiny bulb flickers and dies, her uncle vanishes, swallowed by the darkness.
The following morning, Christmas morning, Lucy is eager to tell her Aunt Angelica the good news.
“Uncle Fabio is out of purgatory Aunt Angelica, You don’t need to worry anymore.”
Angelica is moved by the child’s statement. “Sweet sweet child, it is true then, God does speak out of the mouths of babes,” she hugs Lucy, “the best Christmas gift I could ask for.”
Everyone is happy just as Lucy intended. The wait is over for Uncle Fabio. Aunt Angelica no longer needs to worry about his soul. There is one less soul to rescue, which means one less candle to light at church. One could say Lucy has found her own way of living with the dead.