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A Seamstress


ISSUE:  Winter 1985

A week before the wedding, the bride’s sister awoke to find the bride blue in the face beside her in bed. From that moment, the wailing didn’t cease. The two old ladies, Zia Lucia and Zia Rita, saw to that, and the godparents were sent for to add to the clamor. But Filomena, the seamstress the family had brought in to sew the trousseau (their own fingers were too fine for the task), didn’t see what Donna Maruzza was grieving about. She had had only the two daughters left to marry, and now that the older was dead, of course the younger would have the other’s intended, and Donna Maruzza could sleep all day if she wanted. Was that why she mourned? Did she wish she had the luck of Filomena, who could rejoice in six daughters still unmarried, with no money, no prospects, and no brother to defend them?

But the family didn’t bother to explain themselves to Filomena. By the time they remembered she was there, the table was already piled high with food the visitors had brought—more food than Filomena’s daughters would see in a month, though they could make it disappear in an hour, since being single didn’t lessen their appetites. Donna Maruzza’s son came out to Filomena, who was by then at her regular place, at her machine outside the front door. The house was on the piazza, and from her bench Filomena could see the people walk by as she worked. Nino looked more solemn than usual, and he usually looked as if his sister had just died. All the same, he had not lost the expression all young men wore when addressing Filomena, an expression that said, “Pardon my formality, but enjoy it, too; for you’ll never know me at closer range.”

“Here’s your pay,” said Nino, holding out his hand. Filomena counted the coins with her eyes.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Your pay,” Nino repeated.

“But it’s less than half what you owe me,” Filomena observed. “And I’ve almost finished the clothes.”

“My sister no longer needs your clothes,” said Nino. “I’ll take you home in my cart.”

“Forgive me,” said Filomena, “but I can’t take less than my work is worth.”

“Truly,” said Nino.

“You’ll need the clothes for the younger girl, won’t you?”

“I don’t know what the custom in your family may be, signora, but in ours we don’t prepare the wedding of one daughter when her sister is lying dead. You might as well take this money. Possibly we’ll consider hiring you again when the time comes for another wedding.”

“Possibly?” Filomena asked, her eyes wide.

“Possibly,” Nino repeated in cold blood.

“And what if there isn’t another wedding?” Filomena inquired.

“Now that God has given the boy a second chance, maybe he’ll come to his senses?”

“Thank you for your concern, signora,” said Nino, “but in our family the daughters don’t have to beg in the street for husbands.”

“Because they can buy them in the market?” Filomena asked, but Nino didn’t reply . “All right,” Filomena went on, “in that case, I’ll take the clothes I’ve finished instead of my pay.

“Your sister, should she find a man, will no doubt want a finer seamstress than myself; and your mother will be able to pay her with the money she’s saved today.”

“If you don’t take what I’ve offered, signora, you’ll leave with nothing at all,” said Nino.

“Not the trousseau? Not my pay?”

Nino jerked his head upward, meaning “no,” after each question.

“Well, then, if I must,” said Filomena, and she pushed away the hand held out to her, rejecting his money. Nino puffed himself up like a rooster. “I’ll send for my husband to take me home. May I wait here until he comes in his cart?”

“You may wait here until you rot, signora,” said Nino, and he walked back inside.

Sitting alone outside the house, Filomena naturally spoke to the visitors arriving with their condolences. And if she was going to speak at all, how could she keep back the way Donna Maruzza had cheated her, with her own daughter lying dead in the house? Filomena admitted that she shouldn’t complain about having been cheated, for she had no one but herself to blame, in accepting work from such a woman. She was wrong to have expected everyone to be as honest as herself and every woman to respect her daughters as Filomena respected her own. “After all,” Filomena said, “Donna Maruzza will no doubt tell you that flesh and blood passes like water, but gold lasts forever.”

“No, Filomena,” they assured her. “The gold Donna Maruzza gets this way will turn to ashes in her hand. Don’t let her rob you, Filomena,” they advised.

But Filomena insisted that being robbed was less painful to her than seeing so wealthy a family disgrace itself. And it was the groom Filomena felt most sorry for, she said. When he arrived and saw the people gathered around the seamstress, he naturally joined the group to see what was wrong. He was a fine-looking young man, though his eyes were red with grief. He wore a thick mustache, with long spikes at the end—full enough to have served for a hairpiece.

Filomena tried to reassure him. “Myself, I’ve never believed that you marry a family’s reputation in marrying its daughter,” she said. “And I’m sure you don’t believe it either, or you wouldn’t have betrothed yourself to the child of a woman like Donna Maruzza, am I right?”

“But what’s happened?” the boy asked.

“So what if she tries to profit from her daughter’s death?” asked Filomena. “So what if her daughter’s honor isn’t worth enough in her eyes for Donna Maruzza to keep the contract she made with me? You shouldn’t let this trouble you, you’re marrying the sister now, the family says, and I’m sure they value her honor at least as much as they valued your bride’s. And after all, don’t riches excuse all things?”

When they told the groom the details of how the family had denied Filomena her pay, he threw his cap on the ground (so much does honor mean to the young). Filomena tried to calm him, telling him she would rather give up her pay than have a spot rest on the departed spirit of his former bride-to-be, but he refused to be calmed. He put his hand on top of Filomena’s black sewing machine, as solemnly as if it were the stone on his mother’s grave, and said, “I’ll see that you’re paid.” Then he went into Donna Maruzza’s house.

They could hear him, even through the shutters, which had been properly closed since dawn, and above the wailing, for the two old ladies were no match for his strong young voice. They could hear Nino’s voice, too, and a new cry, which must be Donna Maruzza. Was she pleading with him to leave his money behind? For the next thing they knew, the young man had stalked back out of the house. His departure raised new shouts inside, and other mourners followed him out, returning to their homes without waiting for the funeral. Even the dead girl’s godparents brushed past Filomena’s machine, the loving godfather, and the godmother, who had found the fine groom that Donna Maruzza had now so foolishly lost.

By the time the priest arrived, few mourners were left except the old women, who naturally expected a gift in return for their labors. As he approached the door, Filomena stopped him to ask him his blessing; and as he made the sign of the cross, she told him what had happened. But the learned man went inside all the same. You had to have six unmarried daughters to know for what it was the value of prayer. And it helped if your daughters were like Filomena’s: like Rosalia, pretty enough but with a sickness that put her to sleep if she sat still more than two minutes at a time; like Maddalena, so clumsy with the fingers remaining to her, and Pasqualina, who couldn’t count past one; like Pia, who combined the worst of all her sisters, and was the oldest as well, so that she naturally expected to be married first. Such daughters instructed you in God’s love for his children.

Was Donna Maruzza waiting to see if Christ Himself would come, in the absence of other mourners, to attend the funeral, or was the priest only waiting until she offered a big enough bribe? For it was a long while before the wailing quieted and the priest’s chanting began. But at last Filomena heard the sound of the funeral through the shutters. Then some note of the priest’s reminded Filomena of one of the songs she often sang to accompany her work, and it inspired her to begin hemming a sheet while she sang. An unmarried girl wouldn’t have sung it, but there was no harm in it for an old married woman like Filomena. The song was about a foolish girl who went to the fields to collect greens for her mother and found more help than she expected—a good song for working, because there were so many stanzas, you’d think it never ended.

But Filomena came nowhere near the end. Hardly had she begun before Nino was standing in front of her again. “I thought my tongue would have to be separated from my body before it would speak to you again,” he said. “But Donna Maruzza, a widow as well as a bereaved mother, has asked me to ask you to let my sister receive the last rites from God.”

“Am I stopping them?” Filomena asked, with an expression of surprise.

“I won’t deny that I tried to talk her out of it, but my mother has asked me to tell you that you can have the part of the trousseau you’ve finished if you’ll keep quiet until the funeral is over.”

“For a song, she’ll pay what she wouldn’t for my sweat, and for her own word?” Filomena asked.

“She’s offered you what you want,” said Nino. “What more can you ask for?”

This was a question worth thinking about. While Filomena pondered it, she asked him another. “Tell me this: your sister’s groom will be sorry he’s missing her funeral—where do you suppose he’s gone?”

“To hell, I presume,” Nino replied.

“To seek his bride, do you think?”

“I’m surprised you don’t know his intentions, signora, as friendly as the two of you are.”

“Friendly? I haven’t heard him ask for my daughter’s hand.”

“That only proves that he’s a man, signora,” said Nino, “not that he isn’t your friend.”

Then Filomena thought of the answer to his question. “Tell your mother,” she said, “that I’m willing to take what she offers, if she’ll add a little something for my wasted morning.”

“A little something? And what’s that?”

“Not much,” said Filomena. “Only a husband.”

“A husband,” Nino repeated. “Don’t you have a husband? The whole town thought it was one of God’s miracles, like the parting of the sea.”

“Ah, Nino, a mother never thinks of herself. I mean a husband for one of my daughters.”

“Filomena, not even the devil could find a man to marry your daughters.”

“You’re too modest, signor. I’m sure you can find a protector for one of my girls. You need to find a husband for your own sister now, don’t you? While you’re looking for one, just look for two. And I’ll tell you this: so confident am I of your abilities, I’m going to accept your mother’s offer, and take a little relaxation from my work.” With that, Filomena took the sheet from under her needle, folded it, returned it to her basket, and closed her hands on her lap.

Nino looked at her. “I don’t know what’s in your mind, Filomena,” he said.

“Go,” she said, “pray for your sister’s salvation. After all, anything is possible.”

So Nino went inside, and Filomena sat idle. She looked at the houses on the piazza, deciding which she would live in if she were rich. She shooed away a chicken that became too curious about the finished blouses and undergarments and bedding she had piled in her basket. She nodded to several women who passed by, bringing food out to the men in the fields. She asked a child to bring her some water from the fountain, since she didn’t want to leave her post; it’s not so easy to accustom yourself to leisure and freedom when you’ve had a life of work and servitude. And in the background all the time was the sound of the priest’s voice.

Then the door opened, and the family emerged. Donna Maruzza, supported by her daughter, was hidden in a shawl, her body bent over halfway to the ground. Filomena tried to get her attention, to convey her sympathy, but not once did the mother or daughter seem to notice her. Nino, on the other hand, never took his eyes off Filomena, even as he and the priest, for want of other men, lifted the coffin into Nino’s cart. He watched Filomena as if a harmless old woman could kick out like a donkey or strike like a snake. Even as he walked off with the cart to the churchyard, followed by Zia Rita and Zia Lucia—for Donna Maruzza was apparently too feeble to go with them—he cast more than one look back at Filomena. What wickedness was he imagining?

When he returned, he stopped the cart which had carried his sister’s body and said to Filomena, “I’ll take you home.”

“No, thank you,” said Filomena. “I’ll wait here.”

“So is that it?” Nino asked, rearing back. “Are you going to stay here for the rest of your life as our guest? I’m afraid you might find it inconvenient, since you won’t be allowed in our door to sleep or for any other reason.”

“But lower your voice, Nino. Your mother looked quite weak to me, you shouldn’t upset her,” said Filomena. “I admit, I’ll miss the opportunity to share my bed again, as I had to the last two nights in your house, with the donkey and the chickens. But in fact, I’ve sent for my husband, and I’ll be leaving when he comes.”

“In that case,” said Nino, “I doubt I’ll be speaking to you again—until I’ve found a husband for one of your daughters, of course. But it’s just possible, you know, that your death will come first—maybe the one who dozes will drop a candle and set fire to your bed or the one you sometimes take along for your helper will step on the pedal of your machine when it’s your neck under the needle, instead of one of her fingers. Since this might happen, let me say to you now that I hope God judges you as kindly as I do.”

“I thank you for your good wishes,” said Filomena, “and I sincerely wish you the same.”

She didn’t speak to Nino again for several days. He didn’t visit her at her house nor did she go seeking him. The first day she had the time, she went to sell in the market, as she did on days when she had no work on her hands. Mostly it was eggs she sold, and occasionally an extra garment she had made from cloth she had spun and woven herself. But now she had almost a whole wardrobe to dispose of, and of the best fabric, too, as she assured buyers with her cries. “Blouses! Petticoats!” she sang, planting herself before the closed shutters of Donna Maruzza’s house. “Linen and silk, the finest work! Made for Donna Maruzza’s daughter, who never wore them! Buy them from a poor woman, cheated and abused!”

She only made a few sales the first day, but this was partly her fault, since she passed up an offer to buy her entire stock. She hadn’t been selling long that day when Nino came out of the shuttered house.

“So it’s my mother’s death you want, Filomena?” he asked.

“How kind of you to come out to see me,” Filomena replied.

“Do you think I would be here if my mother, who barely has the strength to talk today, hadn’t pleaded with me to come? What do you want?”

“But you know what I want,” said Filomena.

“My mother is willing to throw her money away on something that already belongs to her,” said Nino. “She says she’ll buy whatever it is you’re selling.”

“How nice to have money,” said Filomena, “to be able to buy a trousseau you’ll never need.”

“Filomena, even if I could buy you a husband, you’d have five daughters left. What does one matter out of so many?”

“It would be a start,” said Filomena. “But it wasn’t my daughter I was thinking of, it was your sister. Have you been able to buy a husband for her? I haven’t seen many young men visiting your family today, or many visitors at all, and that’s surprising for a family in mourning, not to mention a lady who’s ill. They all want to talk to me, though. Why should my word mean so much to them, do you think?”

But Nino offered no solution to this mystery, and Donna Maruzza had as few visitors the whole time of Filomena’s selling. That was a number of days, for Filomena didn’t have as much success at the market as she might have, and she was compelled to return again and again, until she had worn a rut in the dust before Donna Maruzza’s house. Filomena liked to talk just as well, however, and she had told the truth to Nino: those who were hesitant to buy were very willing to take her story for free. After a while, there were few people who didn’t know how Donna Maruzza had tried to pick Death’s pocket, had dishonored her daughter by cheating the woman who had the sacred duty of making the virgin’s trousseau. They had kept back Filomena’s pay and then tried to placate her with part of the trousseau. Filomena had consented, of course, to avoid a scandal, but what use was a trousseau to her? Everyone knew the chances that her daughters, poor girls, would ever need one. Cash was what she had been promised, and cash was what was needed to keep her family from starving, from being buried alived by their debts. So what else could Filomena do but walk off her feet at market trying to make a few pennies from the clothes, worthless to her?

Some suggested she would demand of Donna Maruzza the original sum agreed upon. But Filomena asked them if they thought she would touch money now from such a family? The young men especially took up for her, naturally enough, since she’d done them a favor by informing them of the respect in which the family of Donna Maruzza held its daughters. And the boys knew she was only telling the truth and not speaking out of jealousy, since she so frankly admitted the limitations of her own daughters. After all, joke as people might about those poor girls, the bigger joke would now be on anyone so foolish as to marry Donna Maruzza’s child.

On the rare occasions when Nino appeared in the piazza on some errand for his mother, he would be the object of much wit. When they spotted him with his donkey, they called out to ask if he was on his way to the madhouse in Palermo to find a brother-in-law.

The truth was sadder, they learned soon enough. It was medicines and doctors he was after, for his sick mother. And when these had failed, it became known that he had risked the shame of going to plead with the fiance of his dead sister; it was Donna Maruzza’s wish that he would visit her once more. Everyone knew what that meant, for Donna Maruzza naturally could not leave an unmarried daughter behind her on earth. But the fiance rightly refused to come.

In the town’s conversation, blame passed between Nino and Donna Maruzza. The father being dead, Nino was responsible for the family’s decisions, some pointed out. But others answered that Nino was such a dutiful son, he acted only the will of his mother. Whoever was at fault, it was certain that the girl would not be showing her face again soon. If it was sickness that kept the mother home from church, it was shame that kept the daughter. “Thank God my own daughters don’t know such shame,” Filomena observed. The young men nodded, but they showed no more personal interest than if she had remarked that a diet of cicidi will give you gas.

Then, one evening—when everyone had gone home to prepare dinner, and Filomena herself was thinking of her hungry daughters, who couldn’t have cooked a chicken if it had jumped into the pot—the door of Donna Maruzza’s house opened behind the seamstress.

“Well, Nino!” she said when her old friend presented himself before her. “Have you come to invite me to your sister’s wedding?”

“I’ve come to beg you to stop throwing dirt on our family,” said Nino.

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Filomena, and she turned away from him.

“Forgive me, signora,” said Nino, touching her arm. “It’s still possible you could tell people it was all a misunderstanding, isn’t it? I don’t believe you’re a heartless woman. Think of my mother.”

Filomena turned back. “Tell your mother,” she said, “that I’m only selling what’s mine.”

“Filomena!” cried Nino.

“The poor must live, as well as the rich.”

“Filomena!”

“I’d give her good health if I could, but that’s only in the power of a just God. Now excuse me, signor,” she said, pushing him away with her basket, “I see another buyer.”

“Filomena, tell me about your daughter Rosalia!” said Nino in one breath.

Filomena paused and looked at him. His fists were clenched and trembling, his eyes downcast, as is not unusual in young lovers. Filomena held out the basket to him, and he relieved her of her burden. Then the two of them began walking in the direction of her home.

“I have a better idea,” said Filomena. “Let me tell you about my daughter Pia. She’s my favorite.”

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