The Undertaker’s Wife

A young girl gets a glimpse at a different life from an older, more worldly woman.

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On a warm Holy Thursday, Sister Agatha defied April’s cruelty and released the children of St. Ephraim’s early, into the sunshine, where they scattered like stars, undetected in their brightness. Some charged over to Smith’s drugstore to investigate mystery candy bags, some skipped to McKinley Park to make wooden swings scrape the sky, and some lined up to resume their battles of Kick the Can and Double Dutch jump. The older ones stood around preening and pretending not to notice one another. Josephine Pagano alone said goodbye to her friends and ran straight down Fort Hamilton Parkway, to a stately brick house that was shaded by a pear tree, next to Borga’s funeral parlor, where the undertaker’s wife waited for her.

At the top of the stairs, Josephine caught her breath and made herself as presentable as circumstances would allow. She tucked in her starched blouse and unwound the cotton stockings that twisted themselves like serpents around her ankles, before pressing a small white button until the buzzer sounded, unlocking the door. Once inside, she removed her shoes and ran through the dark hallway, coming undone again, until she reached Mrs. Borga’s bedroom. Mrs. Borga was sitting at her vanity gazing into the moon mirror that hung above it, watching Josephine enter. She was probably the same age as Josephine’s mother, though less round and more arranged, from the small waves of her auburn hair to her feathered silver slippers. Her eyebrows were shaped into smooth brown arches, and soft gray lines were drawn across her eyelids, intensifying the lapis blue of her eyes. Her mouth was a scarlet hunter’s bow, painted to match her long, oval nails. Even her eyelashes had makeup on them: raven black ink that made them long and spiked. Josephine had never seen her in an apron and could not imagine her wearing one any more than she could have pictured the Mona Lisa draped under a sheet. Standing there, in the room with someone who looked so perfect, Josephine felt proud that she had been chosen to visit and yet unworthy. The single bobby pin that dangled from a loose strand of her hair like a baby monkey did not help any. She pushed it behind her ear.

Mrs. Borga turned and held out her arms. “I’m so happy to see you! I was worried you might not be able to make it this close to Easter. How was school?”

Josephine hugged her and said, “Martin Grande called me Four Eyes again. I wanted to smash him with my lunchbox.”

“Did you?”

“No.”

“Did you tell Sister Agatha?”

“No, but this time I made sure he atoned for his sins. I waited until quiet prayer, and whenever Sister wasn’t looking, I kicked his chair. He couldn’t make a peep because Sister would have done him in.” Josephine could still feel the pleasure of watching Martin’s neck redden with each bump against his seat.

“Well,” Mrs. Borga said. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

“I didn’t turn the other cheek,” Josephine confessed.

“Martin Grande will not make fun of you again.” She slid perfume bottles across the vanity top like chess pieces.

“I wonder if it counts as a sin.”

“That’s between you and God. Remember: Bullies do not understand diplomacy. They require their own language, and you spoke it. Hold out your wrist. I’m going to anoint you for your courage in the face of silly boys, who will, in time, grow into silly men. Or, as some would say, patient wolves. The sooner you start managing them, the better.” She selected a bottle and removed the crystal stopper. The gold ballerinas hanging from her bracelet kicked against the glass, ringing like little bells. Josephine pushed her sleeves up to the elbow and stood with her best posture, arms extended, as Mrs. Borga dabbed a drop on her wrists and then one behind each ear.

Josephine brought her wrist to her nose and inhaled.

“It’s called Adieu Sagesse.”

“Lily of the Valley, mixed with something else,” Josephine said.

“Musk,” Mrs. Borga said, dabbing some on her own neck. “A hint of musk.”

Josephine took in the room, as she had a dozen times before, marveling at the diaphanous curtains and running her hand lightly across the back of the velvet chaise longue. There was a tall dark dresser, with curved claw feet and a lamp that had a fringed white shade. “Whenever I’m here, I feel like I’m in Egypt. Or, maybe, Oz.”

“Poor Dorothy,” Mrs. Borga said. “She would have been better off with a good peep toe.” She laughed. “Enough of that. I have something special for today. You’re thirteen now, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Josephine said with pride, and then, before she could stop herself, blurted, “I need to be home by 4:30 to help with the Easter pies.” Her mother was in the kitchen already, boiling grain and stirring ricotta filling in the big black pot. Josephine would work the dough and cut scalloped strips for the tops, while her blind grandmother crimped the edges. Though the roles had changed over the years, they had worked this way since Josephine was tall enough to reach the cutting board.

“Of course!” Mrs. Borga said. “Your mother is blessed to have you.”

Josephine smiled.

“Thirteen is a wonderful age. On the cusp of so much. Actually,” she said, touching her neck for a moment, “every age is wonderful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.” She shook her head.

“Mrs. Borga,” Josephine began. A question had been nagging at her since her grandfather died. Each time she tried to ask, she had panicked and asked something else instead.

“It’s okay, Josephine.”

“Do you help Mr. Borga with the makeup?”

“Do you mean do I help to prepare the deceased?”

Josephine nodded.

“Yes,” Mrs. Borga said. “I am skilled in the art of cosmetics.”

Josephine remembered how her mother had urged to kiss her grandfather goodbye as he lay in his coffin and she had refused. “What is it like?”

“To touch the dead?”

Josephine nodded.

“Like working with stone. They are not there. The makeup is for the living; it helps them to enjoy one last fantasy, usually involving their sleeping loved ones.”

“Does it make you think about death all the time?”

Mrs. Borga shook her head. “Just the opposite. It makes me take my own heart in my hands every day and ask, ‘How do I know I am alive?’” She cupped her hand under her breast and pressed. “And then I have to listen for the answer!”

“Like this?” Josephine pressed and felt a rapid thrumming against her ribs that reminded her of their parakeet, who often slipped his cage and hid until Josephine retrieved him from the umbrella stand.

“Yes, exactly. Now, ask how you know you are alive. While you do that, I’m going to check on Mrs. Sturbinski in the kitchen and get us some treats. Help yourself to the jewelry box. Pick out beautiful things that make you dream.” She walked out, her bare feet encased in backless silver heeled slippers adorned with tufts of pink feathers. The feathers puffed a little as she moved, which made them look as if they were birds about to take flight. She called them mules, which always made Josephine think of her mother and aunt, loaded with groceries as they returned from the market.

When the Borgas opened their funeral parlor in Bay Ridge, everyone offered a theory about Mrs. Borga, whose tantalizing accent could not be placed: Italian princess, German heiress, Polish nun escaped from the convent. The men speculated about the convertible Cadillac she sailed around Fort Hamilton Parkway; the women gossiped that she had her hair done in New York City. She wore a black mantilla and seamed stockings to church and held on to her husband’s arm as they walked up the aisle. The Borgas did not receive communion, which didn’t trouble Mrs. Pagano, who never went to confession and so did not receive either. “I tell my sins to God,” she said.

When Josephine completed her first Holy Communion, Mrs. Pagano released her from going to confession, too. “Do not worry. God knows what you do,” she said. Kneeling in the pew with her mother while the others went up to receive the Eucharist, Josephine thought about what she would have confessed. There was so much. Fighting with her cousins. Impatience with her grandmother. Wanting the older boys to kiss her. Josephine looked over at the Borgas, who also knelt by themselves, eyes closed. She tried to imagine what Mrs. Borga was thinking.

One Sunday, following a sermon about lust, Josephine and her mother stood outside of church talking in Italian. Josephine asked when she would be old enough to date. “Girls who start too early become the talk of the neighborhood,” Mrs. Pagano said. Josephine was about to repeat her question when Mrs. Borga walked up to them and marveled at Josephine’s pronunciation. “Senora,” she asked Mrs. Pagano, “would it be all right if your daughter visited me after school from time to time? I would so enjoy speaking Italian with her.” Flattered that they had been singled out, Mrs. Pagano looked around to see if the others were watching and then quickly replied, “Certo.” That night, as Josephine prepared for bed, her mother explained: “When a woman is barren, she suffers. She knows she has no life on earth after death. God gave me you and your cousins, too. It would be selfish of me not to share.” Josephine danced a little, even as her mother added, “You will tell me about everything that you and Mrs. Borga discuss.”

In the Borga bedroom, a love scene repeated across the bedroom’s wallpaper: a smiling man pushing a laughing woman on a swing, her bosom squeezed to the top of a pink dress that was puffed with petticoats. The only traces of Heaven in the room were embroidered blue angels playing lutes and dancing across a gold brocade bedspread. There was not a single statue of the Virgin Mother or painting of Jesus or even rosary beads draped on a corner of the headboard. There was no candle burning to honor someone who had died, no photographs of the dead or small metal pot of incense. There were chairs wrapped in velvet and a very big closet and a gleaming white phone that Josephine had seen only in movies. When she was in the room, she had no desire to look out the window. She wanted to absorb every inch of her surroundings until they became part of her.

While Mrs. Borga was in the kitchen, Josephine did not ask herself how she knew she was alive. She did not want to be rude to Mrs. Borga and tell her that sometimes she felt too alive, too exposed to every wisp of existence, so raw and tender that air itself could move her to tears or laughter. She did not need to hear her heart through her fingers because most of the time it yelled through its cage, tap dancing and waltzing and galloping, calling out from between her ribs to be released. She was alive all right.

Opening the largest of the red leather boxes, she removed a bracelet made of two gold snakes with emeralds for eyes and slipped it all the way up until it cuffed her arm. She took off her glasses and picked up the receiver of the gleaming white telephone, squinting as she admired herself in the mirror and wondering what her mother would say if she saw her. Her family did not own a telephone; once, when Josephine’s uncle was taken to the hospital, his wife called Smith’s drugstore down the block, and Mr. Smith came and brought Mrs. Pagano to the phone.

“Oh, hello, Phillip,” Josephine said, flashing a coy smile. “No, I can’t come to lunch with you today. I–”

Mrs. Borga returned with a tall metal coffee pot and a glass plate of madeleines. “Sorry to interrupt,” she whispered, as she placed the tray on the table. “Afternoon coca.”

Josephine replaced the phone and turned scarlet. She wished that she could have poured scalding cocoa all over herself or jumped through a window. At the very least, she wanted Mrs. Borga to scold her so that she could feel the familiar cloak of shame.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Mrs. Borga said. “I enjoy that phone, too. Every word spoken into it feels like Shakespeare. There is no such thing as idle conversation. Here, I want to show you something.” She went to the closet and pulled out a long brown fur coat and held it up, pointing to the lapels. “Tuxedo front,” she explained, “and large sleeves so you can slip it over anything, even a suit jacket.” She began stroking the fur. “It’s mink, not dyed lamb.”

“Did Mr. Borga give this to you?” Josephine asked.

“No,” Mrs. Borga said. “But that’s a story for another day. Hop up on the bed.”

Josephine obeyed, and Mrs. Borga fanned the heavy coat across her, radiating warmth all the way to her waist.

Mrs. Borga seemed pleased by Josephine’s reaction. “I have something else for you. Women need to know about more than making bracciole.”

Josephine wiggled under the heavy coat, which was beginning to feel hot. She lifted it to let some air in and quietly moved one of her legs out from the coat. “Yes,” she agreed. “But not what we learn in school.”

“You’re a smart young woman,” Mrs. Borga said. She went to the top drawer of the high dresser and pulled out a gossamer ivory gown. Holding it by the shoulders as if she were about to dance with it, she shook it and filled the room with lavender. “This is from France. Pure silk.” Mrs. Borga caressed her cheek with it.

“It’s beautiful!” Josephine exclaimed, reaching out to touch the smooth fabric. “Is it a nightgown?” The coat had grown heavier across her body.

“It’s a negligee.” Mrs. Borga leaned toward Josephine and whispered, “It has a secret.” She brought the gown close to her chest so that the plunging V-neck fell across her bosom revealing lace insets across the breasts.

Josephine felt as if she had walked in on Mrs. Borga in the bath. She could not stop thinking about the pictures her cousins kept in a coffee can buried in the backyard. Some of the women in them looked startled and ashamed, others beckoned and pursed their lips. They wore garters and brassieres or robes of lace with nothing underneath. One of them sat on a horse, and another stood in front of a mirror, her leg raised up on a stool. Every week the boys snuck out to the can, as if possessed by the images in the dirt. Couldn’t they remember what they had seen? Did they think that something in the pictures had changed? Did the women in the pictures have any idea how much power they had over these giddy, nervous boys? Mrs. Borga must know all about such things, and Josephine needed to say something that would demonstrate she was worldly enough to be taken into her confidence. “It must be expensive.”

“It is,” Mrs. Borga said, pulling the negligee close her waist. “But it’s very useful, and it’s an excellent reminder of something that women should always bear in mind. Remember: Never let anyone see you completely naked.”

Josephine stroked the mink on her lap as she took in this last bit of advice. “Not even your husband?”

“Especially your husband,” Mrs. Borga said.

Josephine had never heard an adult talk that way about marriage. When she got her first period, her mother explained the fundamental workings of the honeymoon night as she was cutting up a chicken for the oven, and there was no more talk after that. “Will I have to wear something like that when I get married?”

Mrs. Borga laughed. “No, Josephine. But some day, you might enjoy everything that comes with having a gown like this. Or not. It’s good to know, at least, that such things exist and that the men in your life should never feel that they have enjoyed a complete meal.”

The mink coat had become unbearably hot. Josephine slid herself out from it, but, ever mindful of Mrs. Borga’s feelings, kept one hand on the lapel, while she lifted a diamond pendant from the box with the other.

Mrs. Borga looked pleased. “You’ve selected the most valuable piece of the lot. It’s not worth the most, but it is the most precious.” She fastened it around Josephine’s neck. “My parents smuggled diamonds out of Russia by sewing them into the lining of my mother’s coat. It was all they had to give to us for a new start. If they had been caught, they would have paid with their lives. Mr. Borga had this one made into a necklace for me.”

The diamond felt cool against Josephine’s skin. She touched it lightly. “How did you and Mr. Borga meet?”

“I was starring in The Good Fairy. He bribed an usher to take him to my dressing room. After that, he came to my performances with long-stem roses, every night.”

Josephine struggled to imagine Mr. Borga the undertaker as a lovestruck fan. She had seen him after mass winding the stem of his pocket watch with long, tapered white fingers while his wife chatted with the other women. When he had had enough, he touched her on the elbow and they left. “What was it like?”

Mrs. Borga picked up a photo of herself wearing an elegant hat and a long, beaded gown. “Magnificent. I performed all across Europe: France, Spain, Germany, giving people what they wanted to feel. They gave me the love you can give only to strangers, when you don’t want them to be anything more than what you imagine. They cheered, they called my name and applauded as though their hearts would burst. Men waited outside the theater, even in the pouring rain, begging for a glove or a handkerchief —”

Josephine whispered, “A relic.”

“— I felt as powerful as a goddess.”

“Why don’t you act here?”

Sono sposata.” Mrs. Borga pursed her lips, on the verge of saying something more.

“So?”

“Mr. Borga’s family did not approve his marrying an actress. They felt I had seen too much of the world.”

“But he married you anyway?”

“Yes. And I gave up my vocation.”

“How could you?”

“Marriage is a series of trades. To get something you must give something.”

Mrs. Borga looked in the mirror, first at Josephine’s reflection and then her own. “I got the better end of the bargain. Mr. Borga is a good man. Much better than most. And if I am honest, I must tell you that the power I relinquished did not amount to very much.”

Josephine shook her head. “How can you say that? You had everything!”

“I thought so too, at the time. But while I was bowing and taking in applause, Mussolini and his thugs marched on Rome. My being a goddess did nothing to change that.” She laughed and turned the photo face down. “Such a naïve creature. Perhaps if I had been more Diana and less Venus …” She poured more coca, holding back the lid of the tall metal pot.

“Why did you leave Europe?”

“Mussolini’s poison was already killing Italy. They would come for us next.”

“Why?”

“We were Jews.”

“Jews? But you go to church.”

Mrs. Borga looked at Josephine, her face a mixture of sympathy and curiosity. “The Sinti say that they are stars scattered in the sight of God. That is what I am. A star scattered in the sight of God.”

For the second time that day, Josephine felt she had come upon Mrs. Borga in the bath. She had never met a Jewish person, knowing them only through the catechism lessons that stressed one belief above all others: “Sister Agatha says that Jews cannot get into Heaven. She told us that they could never be saved.”

Mrs. Borga bit her lip for a moment and then exhaled very slowly. “Do you believe her?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think your Sister is correct: whether or not I am a Jew, I will not get into her Heaven.”

“Don’t you want to get into Heaven?” Josephine worried she might cry. All of her thoughts fell from her at once. “There was a ship of Jewish people that wasn’t allowed to come to America. I read it in the newspaper. The president said that we didn’t have enough room. He said that more Jews would come if they were let in, and that they might be spies. He sent them away.”

“Heaven. Ports. They are the same,” Mrs. Borga said slowly. “Once people think they are through, they transform into adept sentinels. Or they sew their eyes shut better than any undertaker ever could, so that they can sleep at night.” Mrs. Borga thought for a minute. “I did not expect us to go down this road.”

Josephine felt something inside her start to tear. She put her glasses back on and removed the pendant, returning it to its satin bed.

Mrs. Borga gathered cups onto the tray, her eyes moist. She glanced at the clock; it was well after four. “I think we’ve had enough theology for one day,” she said, her voice trembling on the edge of anger. She stepped back, the light from the window coming across her face, joining her to the tableau on the wallpaper. The woman on the swing and the man at her side played on. Josephine hugged Mrs. Borga goodbye.

As she walked home, Josephine planned what she would say to her mother and grandmother. She would tell them again about the elegant white telephone. She would describe its gleaming finish, the way it sparkled like a jewel that brought the world to the Borgas’ bed. She would find the perfect words to warm their bellies with sweet cocoa and fill their mouths with delicate vanilla sponge. Like a skilled baker, she would trim out all the parts about the negligee and Mrs. Borga’s past and Mrs. Borga’s beliefs, so that pain dropped away from the perfect symmetry of the pies, scraps of soft dough falling from her floured hands. That night, under the gauzy tent of wakefulness and sleep, Josephine pressed her fingers against her ribcage. She dreamt that she saw Mrs. Borga, naked.

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Comments

  1. My father was a funeral director. When I was a teenager, I, along with the rest of my family, moved above the funeral home. On evenings when there were calling hours, we made sure to be quiet. Made sure to pass from one room to another on our tiptoes. When going down the front stairs to go out the front door, the smell of flowers would gag me if there was a body in a casket in one of the very large display rooms. My father never liked the gladiolas. He’d complain they were hard to display nicely with all of the other floral arrangements. I loved living there. Over and over again, I saw on display the thin line between life and death. And if I forgot about that thin line, my father would remind me. He was a kind man. He too would have loved this beautifully written story.

  2. I really enjoyed this well written sort of coming of age tale of this young girl. Mrs. Borga is a life-loving and wise woman relaying many truths to her young friend – the most important of which is to enjoy life to the fullest in all it’s varied beauty. Excellent story.

  3. An interesting story to be sure Ms. Lebduska, filled with all kinds of wonderful descriptive (including erotic) imagery. Josephine’s time with Mrs. Borga was just part of her education, I suppose. It doesn’t mean her life will in any way will resemble the older woman’s, but has given her memorable points of reference nonetheless.

    I love the opening photo selected by the way, that definitely looks to be from the mid-1930s.

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