Mrs. Testa was an old curmudgeon. She lived alone on the fifth floor of my building; rarely did she leave her apartment. It was rumored that she once was a beautiful countess in Milano. She may have been; I know she was very wealthy. It was sad that no one in our neighborhood ever knew her first name.
Mrs. Testa spoke to no one but me. It was a business arrangement. Once a month I'd wash her windows. After holding on for dear life, five floors above the pavement, I'd walk away with an extra dollar. I would have done it for nothing, because I loved living on the edge.
I felt sorry for her, sorry that she was alone and she didn't care that she was. Mrs. Testa lived alone not because she enjoyed solitude. People like her have tried to blend into the world before, but were disappointed. It was just easier for her to stay home because she was weaker than her fear of people.
Sylvia Plath said, “The loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” This is especially true during the Christmas season. There are few things in life more awful than feeling empty and alone at Christmas. The relentless pressure to be jolly, to feel happy, and to be surrounded by loving friends leaves many people feeling isolated and miserable at this time of year. Loneliness is the malaise and love is the tonic to the alchemy of Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, 1964 the Bronx was paralyzed by a terrible storm. The pipes in our apartment building, which was adjacent to our deli, froze, then burst. The result was no heat. Our deli had a large wood-burning stove. We filled it with coal and fired it up. The only place on the block that had heat was Puglia's Delicatessen.
My mother and I scurried throughout the building, inviting families to the deli to escape the cold. People came and lingered for the heat, but stayed for the magic that was happening. I fired up some 55-gallon drums filled with coal and placed them in front of the deli. My dad poured shots of whiskey and opened a gallon of wine. My mom and other women prepared coffee and a large pot of pasta. The older folks sat on milk crates, mothers held babies, little children played at the adults' feet. We shoveled a path in the snow from the building to our store. The Bronx Boys and the men hung outside by the fire, passing a bottle of hooch.
Everyone had been accounted for except Mrs. Testa. “Why isn't she here?” my mom asked. I ran up the stairs to her apartment, but she wasn't there. She had us worried.
Later, a black limousine pulled up to the deli. A chauffeur emerged and delivered cakes and boxes of cannolis from Ferrar's Bakery in Little Italy. He returned to the limo, opened the door, and escorted Mrs. Testa into the deli.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Testa!” people exclaimed.
“Buon Natale,” she answered. Her being there was a noble adjustment of circumstance. For a lonely woman experiencing the doldrums at Christmas, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor. This Christmas, as we partake in our merriment, we might think of the lonely souls who have no one.
I hung outside that night, keeping warm and dancing to the flames emanating from the old oil drum. Through the frosted window of the deli I saw people laughing, eating and drinking. I heard voices singing “Silent Night,” muffled by the windowpane. One voice was out of sync; it was Mrs. Testa singing in Italian.
I have always wondered what broke the evil spell that had condemned her to a life of loneliness. It was more than the magic of Christmas. From that day on, Mrs. Testa passed along the love.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.