From the start, as far back as I can remember, all my memories begin with flowers.
For those who know me, this may not come as a surprise since my father owns a flower shop in Lower Manhattan. What is surprising is that I am moving out of the city to start my own life after the murder of my husband Arden Mapolee. Always an outsider to the family business, which by the way was not really flowers, Arden was always willing to do whatever they asked of him. Little did he know, it would eventually lead to his demise. I learned to use words like that when I was a child, because my father detested the word “murder” when applied to the family business.
Off track betting and numbers running paid my college tuition to Columbia University. Fronted by his flower shop known as Marty’s Florist, my father ran a tight ship when it came to the family business.
“Sophilia, one day all of this will be yours.” He would tell me on the chauffeured ride to our family estate from St. Agnes, my private parochial school where his brother Father Angelo Caparelli ran from private donations. He would park the limousine in front of the shop. Walking in, the floral bouquets would fill my senses with the sweetness of flowers of every variety. My mother, Miz Liz as the customers called her, would be standing behind the counter smiling at me, “How was your day, Sophie?” She would ask as she spritzed some of the carnations in a vase.
“Fine mama.” I would answer as I made my way to our apartment over the shop. Once I was on my way upstairs, I would hear my mother and father engage in a conversation in language I did not understand. Papa said it was the language from the Old World he spoke when he first came to this country.
The strange language from the Old Country mixed with the fragrance of the flowers as I passed to the safety of our apartment. Replacing the fragrant aroma of flowers, the tomato sauce simmering on the stove exploding with oregano and basil bubbling away, eradicated any trace of other possible smells trying to invade our home.
I distinctly remember the overpowering scent of flowers at my Grandpa Gabe’s funeral. I was nine years old at the time and I had never seen so many flowers. There was a parade of men dressed in black suits and ties, all wearing fedora hats. They formed a single file line and kissed Grandma Tess’ ring removing their hats as they passed Grandpa Gabe’s casket. Each of them spoke that strange language from the Old World to my grandma as they passed.
My mama had me dressed in a somber colored dress, white gloves and black patent leather shoes. She pinned a carnation to my lapel as I stood respectfully still in the church pew as the men passed.
Soon after that my papa took over the flower shop. Grandma Tess stayed with us until she passed away a few years later from the big C as mama explained it to me. Later I understood the Big C was actually cancer. Grandma Tess was a chain smoker who smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes one after the other.
Grandma Tess would also provide hints about the Family Business as she rolled the pasta she had made from scratch just like her mother taught her when she was a child.
“One day, Sophie, you will run the business.” She would tell me as she dangled a cigarette out of the side of her mouth, careful not to let the ash fall on the sheets of pasta dough. At the time I thought she was talking about the flower shop, but later I learned differently.
Once a week a policeman would stop by the shop. Mama would fish out an envelope and hand it to him. The policeman would look in the envelope and smile as he tipped his cap. “Much obliged, Mrs. Caparelli.”
When I was old enough to help around the shop, I saw what was in the envelope the policeman had.
“What is all that money for?” I asked mama.
She smiled and patted me on the head, “Just a way of thanking them for the job they do.”
Even then I knew she was not telling me the truth.
Sometimes my papa would disappear for weeks at a time. Mama would tell me he had gone to Florida for business. Again, the way she said it, I knew she was not being truthful.
“Sophie.” Father Angelo would sit with me out on the playground during recess, “My brother Martini needs your prayers.”
“Why?” I asked in all my innocence.
“Because the business he is in can sometimes be dangerous.” He lit a cigarette and blew a large cloud of smoke from his mouth, “I pray for him every day. I know he does what needs to be done and sometimes he must do things Jesus may not agree with.”
“Like what?” I asked him, because I know that Father Angelo would never lie to me.
“Things I cannot talk about.” He blows another cloud of smoke.
“There are people who do not wish anyone to say anything about the family business.” He shrugs.
My cousin, Celeste, got married when I started high school. I remember she was tall, olive skinned and very beautiful in her white wedding dress. There were bouquets of flowers at every table and every table was covered in a pure white table cloth out on the church grounds. Her uncle, Father Angelo, had said the wedding mass. Her father Antonio was all smiles as he posed for countless photographs with his daughter and new son-in-law Marcel. Uncle Tony ran a mortuary on the other side of town and Celeste was one of my role models as I grew. She was always gentle and kind, smelling like a fresh field of wildflowers.
So I was horrified when I heard that she and Marcel were killed on their honeymoon in Las Vegas by a car bomb. Uncle Tony was beside himself with grief as Father Angelo begged him to pray for Jesus for guidance, but he cursed his own brother and left on a flight to Sin-City. Papa would later speak to mama in that language in the shop about the war that raged between his younger brother and another family. Santo, Uncle Tony’s youngest son, could translate the language from the Old Country, told me what was being discussed.
At that moment, I realized that the family business was a lot more than what I had been led to believe it was. As I clipped some of the flowers in the shop, I tried to clear my mind of some of deepest darkest fears.
“You should be grateful you are who you are.” Emma Fargert, my best friend at school, told me at lunch when I told her about the family business. Never did I realize that in my disclosure, I was putting her own well-being in jeopardy.
“I want to be normal.” I whined.
“Your father owns half of the city.” She shook her head.
“How doya figure?” I sighed heavily.
“My dad is a lawyer and tells me how the family pays off law enforcement.” She said as if this was common knowledge. Then I remembered the envelope and how once during a family outing, Celeste told me about her father’s business and how some of the caskets her father had made had false bottoms. At the time this all seemed so made up, but it was all starting to make sense. “One day they will make you the princess.”
“I don’t want to be a princess.” I replied as the bell sounded for us to return to our classes.
Once I got my driver’s license, I began to make deliveries. Papa assured mama that I would be safe in my new capacity. She never seemed at ease when I was sent off to deliver flowers.
A few months later, I was getting an order ready in the back of the truck when I heard gunshots. As I entered the store to make a delivery to a customer, I stopped when I saw a man lying on the floor with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.
“You better get the hell out of here.” A woman whose face was white with terror told me in a trembling voice. I did not hesitate. With the flowers in hand, I hustled back to my delivery truck. For the rest of the day, I was unable to speak and my tears would not stop.
It was the first time I had seen someone who had been brutally murdered, but all I could remember was the sweet scent of the flowers I was sent to deliver. Flowers that would never be delivered.
It was my father’s fiftieth birthday. There were over a hundred people gathered in the park as a band played on a raised stage with cut flowers at every table.
Papa stood with Angelo and Uncle Tony talking about the good old days in that language. Papa was dressed in a three piece suit and a white carnation pinned to his lapel with a scotch and tonic in one hand and fat cigar in the other. Father Angelo had on his priest collar and Uncle Tony had on a Hawaiian shirt. Standing together, there was no doubt these three were brothers. I sat with mama who kept telling me how grown up and pretty I was in my dress.
As the band started playing “My Way,” two men concealed by the shrubbery stepped out and opened fire on my papa. With an expression of complete astonishment, he grabbed his chest and fell forward. The two armed gunmen discarded their weapons and ran for cover as Uncle Tony, gun in hand, ran in pursuit. One of the fleeing men drew another gun from his jacket and fired at Uncle Tony who ducked behind a tree. Recovering, he saw the men had gotten away successfully into a running car in the parking lot.
With the scent of flowers filling the air, I knelt by my papa’s side as he died in my arms.
“No papa, don’t go!” I held him close, his blood soaking into the material of my pretty dress.
He mumbled some words I could not make out, but one of them was “love,” that much I was sure of.
Father Angelo refused to do the funeral service for his brother, but once again the church was full of flowers, some no doubt had been sent by the family that sent the triggermen. Father Sean McGanty delivered a fitting service as Father Angelo sat flanked by my mama and his brother Tony who hid his red teary eyes behind dark sunglasses.
At the small reception, I sat next to my uncle, asking him, “So when does all this shit stop?”
I could see by the bend in his eyebrows over his opaque sunglasses that he was trying to pretend he didn’t know what I was talking about.
“I don’t know what you are speaking about, Sophie.” He shook his head.
“This! All of this!” I pointed toward the cemetery where my father’s casket now rested until the workmen could fill in his grave.
“Hush my sweet, not so loud.” He put up his chubby hand. “It was all part of the business.”
“I’m sick of the family business.” I crossed my arms.
I did not see the slap coming so when his hand contacted my left cheek, I nearly fell to my knees.
“Dochu ever…” He raised his other hand to finish the job if he needed to, I duck away. His cheeks now red with anger, he spoke through his teeth, “Not on the day when I had to bury my own brother.”
“Yeah, my papa.” I felt the sting of my tears stream down my face.
“Business is business, sweetheart, dochu ever forget it.” He waved his hands in my face.
“I’m sick of it, Uncle Tony.” I hissed.
“Is that so? Well sweetheart, the family business has paid for your tuition to that fancy university.” He snarled.
“Yeah, where they send all the blue bloods to…the rich kids with the silver spoons shoved in their mouths. The ones whose own families had no used for us WOPS. No matter how many A’s you get in that place, nothing is gonna change the fact you’s one of us. Doncha ever forget it, sweetheart.” He patted gently on my stricken cheek with his open palm. I could no longer control the flood of tears that washed down both of my cheeks. Mama waited, but then she embraced me as our tears mixed together.
I met Arden at a dance in the main hall decorated like something from out of Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Even without the ambiance and decor, the evening was magic. Gallantly taking one of the flowers from one of the tables, he presented me with a makeshift corsage. I did not dance with anyone else the entire evening.
Not long after that, we got an apartment off campus together and played house. It was the first time I can remember not being involved directly or indirectly with the family business. I did not dare tell him where I had come from, but just like Uncle Tony had foretold, I could not hide my background for long.
On the night he proposed, he asked me about my family and I lied out of self-preservation. I had learned that two of my cousins had been ambushed at an uptown restaurant while they ate pasta in meat sauce. A week later there was story in the newspapers about four men from another family who were burned alive in their car as they were staking out some business associates.
“Man.” Arden whistled as he read the story, “I can’t imagine being burned alive like that.”
“It happens.” I tried to say without a hint of emotion, but the fact was the names were familiar. I was sure that one of them had come into the shop to buy some flowers.
“You sound pretty apathetic.” He shook his head and closed the newspaper in front of him on the table.
“Sorry…it’s just that this type of stuff happens all the time.” I sighed.
“I suppose you’re right.” He bowed his head.
We got married after graduation in a full field of flowers on the lawn of the back of the church. Arden could not get over that Father Angelo was my uncle. But I did my best to lead him away from Uncle Tony who was taking center stage at the reception since he helped pay for the shindig complete with oysters and champagne and all the fixings. Despite my best efforts to veer Arden from my uncle, Tony had his eyes on the newest addition to the family and would not be denied.
As we sat in the airport terminal waiting for our flight to Hawaii, he asked me, “I did not know you were part of the famous Caparelli family. Why didn’t you tell me?”
There are things that can hurt you in a nondisclosure and this was definitely one of them.
“I did not want you to know, because I am planning to get away.” I bowed my head.
“Oh, I get it. I am your ticket out then?”
“Oh Arden, it isn’t like that.” I could feel myself falling into a pool of tears.
“Then what is it?” He did not state it in a kind way.
“My father was murdered right in front of me during his fiftieth birthday.” I turned my head away from him.
“I am sorry, but this is something that would have been good to know.” He said dryly.
“Why? Because it offends your proper upbringing?” I could not help myself, because cruelty seemed to be my only defense.
“No, because it is something that I had a right to know.” He shot back.
Conversation from then on was limited to monosyllabic exchanges and grunts. Even lounging on the beaches near Diamond Head, we seemed at a loss for words to express our true feelings.
When we came home, Arden told Uncle Tony that he was available for assignments. Uncle Tony welcomed Arden with a big kiss on both cheeks.
I knew in my heart, he was in over his head, but then I found out I was pregnant and all of that was forgotten. Celia was born two years before Arden was killed in a hit paid for by one of our rival families.
With flowers surrounding his casket at St. Agnes, I sat there dry eyed holding Celia as she squirmed to get out of my grasp.
A month later, I was driving across the country to San Diego where I live at an undisclosed location near the beach. Celia has a lot of questions about Arden. I told her he died in an accident. One day, I promise I will tell her the truth, but for the time being, I will know all my memories being with flowers. Some of the memories are bittersweet and some remind me of the promises made to me when I was younger. Promises I now give to Celia as we wade into the surf. I feel the heartbeat of my new life wash over me like the waves.