October 1971

“Alessandra, you little brat!” Fifteen-year-old Guendolina di Bartolomeo shouted from the door of her room.  “Get out of my things!”

Seated at Guendolina’s dressing table and staring into the mirror while carefully applying frosted purple eyeshadow, her nine-year-old sister jumped and her arm jerked.  An open bottle of frosted lilac nail polish sailed off the table and landed upside-down on a fringed suede shoulder bag.

“Look what you did now!”  Guendolina’s voice went up an octave.  She grabbed the nail polish and tossed it into the wastebasket, since the remaining liquid was now coating the outside of the bottle.  “That was my favorite purse.  Get out of here, now!”  Picking up the purse from the floor, she waved it in front of her sister. A blob of opalescent polish spread over its surface, absorbing into the suede as it did. 

Alessandra’s brown eyes were smudged with mascara and ringed with sparkly shadow; her cheeks had been enhanced with frosted blush in deep rose, while her lips were outlined in far too much frosted plum lipstick.  At Guendolina’s tone of voice, tears rolled down her face, streaking it with black, purple, and frosty particles.   

“I wasn’t hurting anything until you came in,” she insisted.  “I wasn’t!  I just wanted to look beautiful—like you!”

“Get out!”  Guendolina’s teeth were clenched as she ground out the words.  She didn’t trust herself to say any more.  Her little sister scuttled out, and she sighed as she looked at the mess on her dressing table, also smudged with frosty purple fingerprints.

Half an hour later, her side of the bedroom was almost back to its usual state of controlled chaos.  But another problem had surfaced.  She couldn’t find her favorite embroidered jeans anywhere.  Her friends at school were throwing a going-away party for her that night, and she’d planned to wear the jeans.  She was leaving for America in two days and would spend the rest of the current school year as an exchange student in Sleepyside, New York.  A heavy feeling of dread was settling in her stomach.  She took a deep breath and marched to her other sister’s bed, across the room.

After clearing a path among the discarded garments and schoolbooks littering the floor, she sprawled on her stomach and reached underneath the bed.  Dust bunnies scattered and floated in the confined space and she coughed and choked, but stubbornly continued to reach into the far corners.  Finally, she spotted the elaborately embroidered seam of her jeans and backed out from under the bed.  She made her way back to her own side and shook out the jeans.  If they weren’t dirty, she might still be able to wear them.  Adriana was good at sneaking and trying on her clothing and then deciding not to wear it after all.  But this time, she spotted some dried mud around the hem and frowned.  Was there time to wash and dry the jeans?  She turned them to see the back side, and a red mist rose in front of her eyes.  One of the back pockets was ripped partially away; worse, the cloth below the pocket was torn.  The tear would be obvious even with the neatest mending job.  Tears of rage and frustration spilled from her eyes and she dropped the pants back on the floor for a moment.  After taking several deep breaths, she grabbed them again and stormed off in search of Adriana.

Downstairs, she started her search in the kitchen and made her way out to the front hallway.  The niche that held the Bartolomeos’ telephone gave her the clue she sought.  While the phone’s base rested in the niche, its coiled extra-long cord stretched to a nearby closet, the door of which was closed.  Guendolina didn’t have to guess why the phone was in the closet.  She pressed down on the switch hook to disconnect the call.

“What do you think you’re doing?!?”  Her fourteen-year-old sister burst out of the closet, dark eyes flashing and straight black hair flying.

“You ruined my new jeans!”  Guendolina thrust the garment into her sister’s face.

“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose!  Sorry!”  Adriana shrugged and ducked to the side.  Obviously she wasn’t anxious to stick around and discuss the topic.

“Sorry!  You sound like it.  I was going to wear these on the plane to America, you little witch!”  She grabbed her sister and shook her, but Adriana jerked away.

“I said I was sorry, and that’s what I’ll tell Mamma and Papa.  They’ll believe me.  I’ll give you my allowance, but that’s all I can do about it.”  Adriana stuck out her tongue and pivoted away.

“Your allowance won’t help me much around here.  I’ll never be able to find a cool pair of jeans like this again.  My life is over.”  She threw the jeans at Adriana and stomped back upstairs to their shared room, where she threw herself across the bed and gave vent to her anger and frustration in a storm of sobs.

When her emotional tempest was spent, she lay on the bed, numb at first but soon her mind was filled with thoughts of herself meeting new friends in America, blessedly away from the bratty sisters who ruined everything she owned.  Since she had exchanged several letters with her host family, she knew Honey Wheeler had only one brother, who was older, and she lived in a large home out in the countryside.  Blessed privacy would be hers in the Wheeler household.  She began to feel happier.  Honey had mentioned that they could go into the city for a weekend once Guendolina arrived, and do some shopping on Fifth Avenue.  Surely on Fifth Avenue she’d be able to find cute clothing in the latest styles.  In her mind, she saw herself dressed in a miniskirt and a maxicoat, with patterned hose and the most fashionable high-heeled boots to be found in the city.

Too soon, she heard her mother come in from the market nearby.  “Girls!  Come and help me get your father’s supper ready,” she called.  Guendolina sat up with a start.  She’d completely forgotten she was supposed to prepare a light antipasto and ensalata while her mother was gone.  She dashed down the steps and into the kitchen.  Neither Adriana nor Alessandra was to be seen.

“Hello, Mamma,” she said, giving the older woman a hug and kiss.

“Hello, mi cara.”  Her mother returned the embrace.

“I’m sorry I didn’t have the antipasto and ensalata ready,” she apologized.  “Do you know what those two brats have done?  Alessandra ruined my suede purse and Adriana tore my best bluejeans.”

“Oh, dear!  I’m so sorry, cara.  I wish there was time to go into Napoli to shop for another pair of jeans.  Your papa will give you some extra money and I will speak to your sisters.” 

“Are you going to punish them?”  She began to arrange ripe olives, tiny cherry tomatoes and marinated artichoke hearts on a plate.  Not satisfied with the appearance of the dish, she added some thinly sliced prosciutto and scattered cubes of provolone cheese among the meat and vegetables.  Finally, she placed a few arugula leaves around the edges for garnish.

“What your papa and I decide to do with your sisters will be between us.”  Her mother was concentrating on the calamari she was cleaning, and did not look up as she responded.  “Yes, I want them to respect your property.  And they will have to make restitution.  But there is no time to replace the things before you go.  You will have to find another pair of pants and another purse to wear on the airplane.”

“I guess I’ll live,” she said with a sigh.  “Does this look nice?”  She showed the plate to her mother.  Signora Bartolomeo nodded, smiling at her eldest daughter in pride.  “You will be a wonderful femmina cuoco.

Contrarily, Guendolina frowned.  “I don’t want to be a chef—I’m going to be an engineer.  That’s one reason I’m going to America.”

Cuoco, ingegnere.  Everyone needs to eat, everyone needs to be able to prepare a meal.”  Her mother scraped the small amount of waste from the calamari into the garbage and began to slice its tentacles into rings. 

At dinner, the Bartolomeo family listened as Guendolina’s twelve year-old brother gave a play-by-play description of the soccer game his school team had played that afternoon.  His parents and youngest sister followed every gesture and clapped as he described the winning goal, in which he had assisted.  Adriana and Guendolina rolled their eyes at each other, for a few minutes declaring a cease-fire.

“That’s my boy, Giacomo!  You’ll be the next Sandro Mazzola.” 

“Or maybe a sportscaster on the television,” his mother suggested.

Guendolina’s father suddenly snapped his fingers.  “I just remembered!”  He pulled a pocket-sized calculator from his pocket.  “Here you go, son.  A salesman gave it to me today and I’m sure you could use it at school”

“Sure, thanks.”  Giacomo reached for the device and set it down next to his plate without even turning it on.  Guendolina couldn’t believe her eyes.

“Papa!  I’ve been asking for a calculator since last year, and besides, I’m the one who’s going to take advanced math classes.  I’ll need to know how to use a calculator for engineering school.”  Knowing she was treading a fine line already, she blundered on.  “Giacomo is going to be a football player or a sportscaster—he certainly won’t need a calculator as much as I will.”  Angry tears trembled at her lashes.

Her father looked at her, eyebrows raised in surprise.  “Guendolina, you are going to America.  Part of the reason we agreed to this student exchange is so that you can visit some American colleges for engineering.  Your trip cost much more than the calculator, even if I had bought it.  I’m surprised you would begrudge your brother this small thing.” 

“Pooh!”  Adriana was not impressed.  “Teachers won’t let you use a calculator in class anyway!  But who cares?  I’m going to be a fashion designer.”

“Giacomo is a boy, mi cara,” her mother interjected.  “You may be a fashion designer...” she pointed to Adriana.  “And you may be an engineer...” she turned to Guendolina.  “But once you marry and have children, you will be at home with them.  Giacomo will have to work always.”

Well, of course!  Giacomo, as the only son, was always catered to and praised.  She held her tongue, although it was an effort.  Maybe she would marry and have children someday, but why couldn’t she design the structures that allowed traffic to flow smoothly and improve the narrow, twisting roads that comprised Italy’s “highway” system in the meantime?   She pressed her lips together to keep from lashing out at Adriana the future fashion designer, who had ruined her jeans.

“I want to be just like you, Mamma,” Alessandra said, “the bestest cook in all of Napoli…and the most beautiful.”  She beamed, her big brown eyes shining.  Only a few tiny sparkles of the eyeshadow remained, catching the light and brightening her eyes even more.  Guendolina was annoyed all over again. 

Mi bambina, mi cara.”  Her mother patted the little girl’s hand, and looked across the table to her husband.  “If only they could always stay so sweet.”

Guendolina scraped her chair back from the table and began to clear the dishes away. 

Why couldn’t she have been an only child? 

“Trixie!  Trixie!  You won’t believe it!”

Trixie Belden paused in her job of sweeping the Beldens’ terrace free of the leaves that were already falling, although it was only the first week of October.  Although she shaded her eyes as she turned around, she didn’t have to see to recognize her best friend.  Honey Wheeler almost danced down the shallow stone steps of the pathway between her home and Crabapple Farm, waving a sheet of paper above her head.

“What won’t I believe, Honey?”  Trixie asked, laughing.  “I try to believe six impossible things before breakfast, you know!”

“Guendolina is coming next week!  She has her visa and she’ll be here for the rest of the school year!”  Honey had reached the terrace and she threw her arms around Trixie in her excitement.  “I was starting to think it would never happen.”

“After she had to have her appendix out, we were both afraid she wouldn’t get to come at all.  If she’d had complications she would have missed so many weeks she wouldn’t have been able to get in enough school time.”  

“Still, we’ve only been pen pals for six months,” Trixie reminded her.  “That doesn’t seem like much time to get through all the red tape of applying and getting arrangements made.”

“I know!”  Honey bobbed her head in agreement.  “I just hope she’ll like it here.”

Trixie pushed some stray curls away from her face.  “How could she not like it?  You’re a great hostess and we’ll keep her busy.  Do you suppose she’ll teach us some Italian?”  She wielded her broom more vigorously.  “I’m almost finished, and then you can help me finish getting supper ready.  Will Jim be home in time to eat with us?” 

“Oh!  This is bellissima—beautiful!  Guendolina couldn’t believe her eyes.  Her hostess’s bedroom was huge, with two double beds, each dressed with white organdy ruffled bedskirts and a white organdy canopy.  A fluffy white rug lay on the polished wooden floor, and an open door led into a full bathroom with pale tiled walls, a glassed-in shower and large sunken tub.  She had never seen anything like it.  “And all this—for you?  You are so...fortunate.”

Honey waved her hand dismissively.  “It’s nice, I suppose.  But I’ve always wished I had a sister to share with.  Someone to talk to at night, someone to talk to about boys and things at school.  Now I have some really good friends, almost as good as sisters.  But I’ve always thought how wonderful it would be to have sisters, like you do.”

“My sisters?  Right now I am angry with both of them.  I’ve always wanted to have my own room, have some privacy.  And they’re always bothering my things.”

“I guess we all want what we can’t have,” Honey acknowledged.  “You are supposed to have your own room, you know, and we have a room set up for you.  But I thought you might be lonely and you’re more than welcome to stay in mine, if you like.”

“Staying in your room would probably be just like having my own room, from what I can see.”  Honey seemed super-nice, but after all, they didn’t know each other yet.  What if they didn’t get along?  What if all Honey wanted to talk about was boys and clothes?  “We can try it and see how it works out.”

“I hope you won’t mind,” her hostess said.  “I’ve invited my two best friends, Trixie and Diana, and Trixie’s brother Mart, and our friend Dan, for dinner tonight.  I thought it would be nice for you to meet some of my friends before you have to meet everyone at school.  We spend a lot of time together outside of school, since we live so far from town.  Otherwise we’ll be knocking around this big place by ourselves, with just Miss Trask, Regan, and the staff.  My parents will be back this weekend, and my brother Jim will be home from college for Thanksgiving next month.” 

The idea of knocking around the Wheeler’s huge home with no younger children sounded heavenly to Guendolina.  But she was here in America, and she did want to meet American girls and boys.  Since Honey was so nice, her friends would probably be nice, too.  “That would be fun,” she replied.  “I’d love to meet your friends.”

Guendolina was awed by dinner at the Wheelers’ home, but she tried to act like she was used to being served.  Honey had told her they were serving minestrone and pasta e fagioli in honor of their Neapolitan guest, so she complimented her on the food.  It was different from her mother’s cooking, but it was good.  She spent the meal concentrating on memorizing the names of Honey’s friends.  Fortunately, siblings Trixie and Mart resembled each other, and the two non-siblings both had dark hair.  If she could just remember that the Belden siblings were Honey’s immediate neighbors, she should be all right.  After dinner, the teenagers moved out to the veranda to enjoy the coolness of the evening. 

“Guendolina, tell us about your family,” Honey urged.  “You have a brother and two sisters, don’t you?  Wasn’t it hard to leave them?”

“Hard to leave them?  Um...no.”  Guendolina snorted.  “My sisters are always using my belongings—and usually ruining them—without asking.  My parents think my little brother is the smartest and most talented child ever born, and every time he gets interested in a new hobby or sport, he gets the best equipment they can find.”

“Hey, I know how much trouble a little brother can be,” Trixie agreed.  “Still, if I had to be away from Bobby for nearly a year, I know I’d really miss him.”

“I know I wouldn’t want to be away from my family for a year,” Diana said.  “I’d be homesick after a week.  It’s terrible because if I can’t leave them, I’ll never be able to make my dream come true.”

“What is your dream?” Guendolina asked.

“To study art in Europe for a year during college.”  Diana sighed.  “I hope I can get over this feeling before it’s too late.”

“Well, I don’t miss my sisters and brother—not  yet, anyway—but my parents told me if I did the student exchange and got too homesick they would pay for me to come home early.  But I can’t go home for a visit and then return here.   Since I hope to tour some colleges to look at their engineering programs while I’m in America, I mean to get all of my time in.  It was a sacrifice for my parents to let me come, and I’m going to make the most of it.” 

“Daddy is taking a few days off in two weeks, and we’re going to visit Jim in Boston for the weekend.  We’ll be able to do campus tours of several colleges in Boston,” Honey told her.  “Trixie, did your parents decide if you can come with us?”  She turned to Guendolina.  “Trixie’s brother Brian is Jim’s roommate.  You’ll be able to meet both of them.”

“They said I can go, but please don’t plan anything for my benefit,” Trixie answered.  “I’m not likely to be accepted at any of the colleges you may be looking at.”   

“You want to study engineering, didn’t you say?”  Diana looked at Guendolina.  “How did you get interested in that field?”

“I’ve always liked taking things apart and putting them back together, and figuring out solutions to problems,” Guendolina explained.  “We have so many winding, twisted roads in Italy, and I know I want to design improvements to make them safer.  I had a cousin who was killed in a traffic accident ten years ago when his car went over an embankment in a sharp curve.  It wasn’t marked well, and he was going too fast.”

“That’s a great ambition,” Dan said.  “It just goes to show, you can do work that helps people, no matter what profession you choose.”

November 1971

Six weeks later, eight teenagers lounged around the fireplace in the Lynches’ indoor terrace, relaxing after cleaning up from the Beldens’ Thanksgiving Open House.  Crackling flames warmed their faces, but did not take all of the chill out of the long room.  Jim and Trixie sat next to each other on a large floor cushion while Mart, Diana and Dan occupied another.  Brian lay stretched out before the fire, a few feet away from Honey and Guendolina on the third cushion.  From time to time a hand would reach out for a handful of popcorn from the three large bowls available for snacking.  The Lynch twins and Bobby watched a Christmas special on television at the other end of the long room.

“So, when shall we have our Bob-White Christmas party?” asked Trixie, bouncing excitedly.  “Do we want to do it before or after Christmas?”

“When do you do Christmas parties in Italy, Guen?” inquired Honey, using the shortened form of her name her new friends had adopted.  Everyone turned toward the dark-haired exchange student. 

“Some people celebrate on Christmas Eve,” she answered.  “But my family has a party on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.”

“You might know it as Twelfth Night,” Mart explained loftily.  “Or the twelfth day of Christmas.”  He threw a handful of popcorn into his mouth.

“Or the day you take down the outdoor Christmas lights,” Dan retorted with a smirk.

“How interesting!” exclaimed Diana.  “Many Mexicans celebrate Three Kings’ Day on January 6, too.  Uncle Monty says the Ortiz family’s children leave a shoe by the doorway where the Wise Men will enter on the night of January 5.  In the morning the three Kings have left gifts for them.  So, did we set a date for our Bob-White party?”

“When do Brian and Jim get home from college?” Diana replied, pulling her pocket calendar from her purse.  She stood and walked over to the telephone table and rummaged in its drawer for a pen.

“I’m finished with finals December 10th,” Jim offered.  “But classes don’t start back until January 17, so I’m available whenever.”

“My last final is the 10th, too, and I start back the same time as Jim,” Brian said.  “Somebody throw out some dates and we’ll go from there.”

“Well, the rest of us are in school until the 22nd and we go back on January 3.”  Trixie made a face.  “It’s totally unfair, but it’ll be really hard to do our party before Christmas Eve.”

Bobby Belden jumped up from the television and ran up to Brian.  “Brian!  Can I use your pen?  And some paper?  I need to make my Christmas list.”

“Why can’t you just wait until we go home?” Brian asked, reaching for his pen anyway.

“I might forget,” Bobby explained.  “They’re showing all the best toys on TV today, and I need to make sure to ask for something good.”  He hopped up and down.  “Hurry!  The commercial’s almost over.”

Jim pulled a pen and notepad from his shirt picket.  “Here you go, Bobby,” he said with a smile.  Bobby ran back to the television.

“How do you have that stuff on you over a holiday weekend?” Mart demanded in surprise.

“Oh, you know, I like to be prepared.”  Jim shrugged.  “You never know when you might need to take down a phone number compare a price.”

“Let me introduce you to Jim Frayne, dear almost-twin,” Trixie said with a smirk.  “And how long have you known him?”

“Whatever you say, dear little sister!  Our esteemed neighbor continues to reveal new and mystifying facets to his personality.”  The others laughed.

“Seriously, since Christmas is getting closer, I’ve been keeping a list of possible gifts and jotting down things when they come up in conversation.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to remember anything.”  Jim shrugged.  “I don’t have so much free time I can afford to wander around in the stores—if I could even stand to do that.”

“Focus, people!  Do we have any suggestions on a date for the Bob-White Christmas party?”  Diana tapped her pen against the pocket calendar, but she smiled in spite of her words.  Before anyone could answer, one of her twin sisters appeared and pulled at her sleeve. 

“Di-di,” she almost whispered.

“What, Barbie?” Diana replied, pulling the little girl onto her lap.

Barbie put her lips to Diana’s ear.  “Will you write something down for me?” she asked in a loud whisper.

“Sure.  What is it?”

“Space Walker Shoes, I need Santa to bring them to me.”

Diana jotted down the name in the back of her pocket calendar.  “Okay, I’ve got it,” she said.

“Thank you, Di-di.”  Barbie struggled down and scampered back to the group. 

Honey pushed her hair back over her ears and shook her head, as if to clear it.  “Now, where were we on the party planning?”  

“Di-di!”  This time it was Diana’s little brother Larry, and his twin, Terry.  “When are we going to see Santa?  I gotta give him my list and I’m not finished with it yet.”  

“Next weekend, sweetie,” his sister replied.  “Do you need me to write something else down?”

“We need another Hot Wheels track, so we can have races,” Larry explained.  “We need it.”

“Okay,” Diana agreed.  She added to the items already requested.  “Now, you kids stay over there and watch the show.  We’re having a Bob-White discussion.”

“Okey-dokey,” Larry agreed.  He and Terry dashed back to the group of younger children.

“Now, where were we?”  Honey repeated the question.

“Maybe we could do it on the eve of Epiphany?  In honor of Guen,” Dan suggested with a smile for their guest.  Guen smiled back at him.  Never had she felt more thankful to be away from the chaos her little brother and sister and their young cousins could generate.  Compared to the di Bartolomeos’ holiday parties, the Lynch kids and Bobby were shy and retiring.

“I like it,” Trixie agreed, nodding her head so hard her curls bounced.  “We won’t have any conflicts with family Christmas parties.”

“That works for me,” said Brian. 

“Me, too,” Jim agreed.  He stretched his long legs.  “But I thought you guys go back to school January 3.”

“The 5th falls on Wednesday,” Diana said, consulting her pocket calendar.  “Do you think that will work?”

Just then, both of Diana’s sisters ran up to her, Bobby right behind them.

“Di-di!  You got to write down my list for Santa!”  one of them cried.

“Your pen is out of ink, Jim,” Bobby said, holding out the empty pen.  “Does anyone else have one?”  After the space of a breath, he added, “Please!”

“So did we settle on January 5?”  Jim asked the group.  “All in favor, say ‘aye’.”  A chorus of ‘aye’ was his answer.  “Okay, then.  It’s settled.  Tell us more about your traditions, Guen.” Jim turned the conversation back to the topic of Christmas traditions, leaning forward as he asked the question.

“Christmas Day is a national holiday in Italy,” Guendolina explained. “Government offices, banks, and schools are closed.  Other services, like taxis, trains, and bus lines, are limited.  So most Italian families stay home and celebrate with their families.  In the last few years, we have Santa Claus, or Bappo Natale, who brings gifts for good children on Christmas Day.  He drives a sleigh with reindeer and carries a big bag of toys, just like American Santa.  But we also have la Befana.  She’s an old lady, often she is pictured riding a broomstick through the air, wearing a black shawl and covered in soot, because she enters the house through the chimney.  She carries a bag of candy and gifts, and visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany.  Good children have their socks filled with candy and presents, and bad children get a lump of coal or coal candy—Carbone della Befana—instead.”

“Coal candy!” Trixie exclaimed.  “What is it made of?”

“It’s made of sugar, egg whites, and black food coloring—I helped Mamma make it last year.”  Guen giggled, recalling her brother and sisters’ faces.

“She sounds like a fascinating character, Guen,” Honey commented.  “What’s the origin of La Befana?”

“It’s an ancient tradition, according to my Nonna,” Guen replied.  “According to legend, Befana is a housewife who spends her days cleaning and sweeping. One day three wise men, came to her door in search of baby Jesus. Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. That night, she notices a bright light in the sky; she thinks this must be the way the men were going and decides to visit the baby Jesus herself. She packed some baked goods and gifts for the baby in her bag, and took her broom to help the new mother clean.  By this time, the wise men were far ahead of her, and she didn’t know which direction they had taken. She never found the Baby Jesus, although she searched and searched. Befana still searches today, after all these centuries. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to every house where there is a child and leaves a gift. Although she has been unable to find the real Baby Jesus, she still leaves gifts for good children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.”

“That’s a beautiful story.”  Trixie sighed.  “But aren’t kids afraid an old lady who looks like a witch?”

“Oh, yes!  Sometimes they are.  I’ll never forget how my baby sister cried the first time she saw la Befana.”  She chuckled, remembering how the toddler Alessandra clung to her mother’s skirt and hid her face.  “But she loves her now.  My mother is from Sicily.  She told me in many poorer parts of Italy, and especially in the Sicilian countryside, Befana places a stick in the stocking of a naughty child, instead of coal. But she does good deeds, too.  As a good housekeeper, many people say she will sweep the floor before she leaves, sweeping away of the problems of the year. Families often leave a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of local food for the Befana.”

“I love it,” Diana said.  “Our family does an Advent calendar, but after Christmas we don’t have any major celebrations.  My little brothers and sisters write letters to Santa, and I’m helping them to make some special ornaments for our parents and grandparents.  But I guess our family is very Americanized—we don’t have any culturally based traditions.  What about the rest of you?”

Trixie spoke up.  “My mom’s family, the Johnsons, came here from Sweden about a hundred years ago.  She said they never carried on any ‘old country’ traditions when she was a girl, but when she started having children, she read up on Swedish Christmas customs.  On Saint Lucia’s Day, the oldest daughter of the family dresses in a long white dress with a wreath on her head, and carries a tray of Lussekatt—St. Lucia’s bun’s—to her family for breakfast.  The wreath has nine candles on it.  We did that one year.”

“Yes, and Trixie tripped over the hem of her long dress and fell on the bread,” Mart said, demonstrating his impression of Trixie tripping and falling.  “The wreath caught the tablecloth on fire and Dad had to learn how to use the fire extinguisher very quickly.”

Trixie’s face flushed and she threw her moccasin at him.  “You just had to bring that up, didn’t you?”

“Well, you can see why we didn’t try Saint Lucia again,” Brian concluded.  “Now we do stockings, Moms bakes the special Swedish bread, and we all get new pajamas for Christmas.  Moms sings in the choir on Christmas Eve and we wear our new pajamas all day long on Christmas Day.”

“That sounds relaxing,” Guendolina remarked.  “We celebrate St. Lucia’s Day, too—but I’ve never seen girls wearing the candle-wreaths on their heads.  On Christmas Eve we have a big dinner with different kinds of fish, and we go to church on Christmas morning.  My grandparents come to stay with us the week after Christmas and we visit other relatives and friends every day until Epiphany, when La Befana comes.  The day after Epiphany, it’s back to school.”

“My parents always made a big deal out of Christmas,” Dan told them.  “When I was really little, Dad and I would always go shopping for Mom’s gift.  I’d get to sit on Santa’s lap.  I always tried so hard to tell him all the things I wanted, and Dad would always tell me to let Santa carry a few toys to other kids.”

“We never had any real traditions until Jim came to our family,” Honey said with a smile for her brother. “Sometimes my parents and I would visit my grandmother in Boston, but my mother and grandmother don’t get along very well.  Daddy preferred to spend a few days at their beach cottage in Florida.  When Ben—that’s my cousin, Guen—when Ben’s parents were married, they’d stay with us in Florida.  But since the divorce, Aunt Natalie usually joins friends for a cruise or something.  Ben came here last year, but I think his dad is back in the country for awhile and he’s supposedly going to spend the holiday with him.”

“Don’t forget, Honey—Mother and Dad have always taken an Angel Tree family, and they let us do all the shopping last year,” Jim added.  “And don’t forget Mother’s little tree in her room, with all your Christmas ornaments from school, and the pictures of you and me.”

“That’s true,” Honey admitted.  “I used to think Mother didn’t care about our family Christmas, but she always takes that little tree with her if she and Daddy travel in December.  And what about the Kerstkransjes—Dutch wreath cookies—your mom used to make?  Mrs. Vanderpoel gave us a recipe last year and you said we’d make them this year.” 

“We all probably have some traditions we don’t think about until something in our lives changes,” Brian observed. 

Something in my life is changed this year, Guen reflected.  I wonder what traditions I’ll miss the most

The next day, Guen and Honey had just finished eating breakfast when the telephone rang.  Miss Trask answered, and Guen could hear her side of the conversation.  “Good morning, Diana.  How are you today?”  After a short pause, she spoke again.  “Yes, she’s right here.  Just a moment.”  She set the phone down and walked into the dining room where the two girls sat, sipping hot chocolate.

“Honey, it’s Diana calling for you,” the older woman said with a smile.

Honey jumped up and hurried to the phone.  A moment later she turned and called to Guen.  “Diana and her mom are going to the city to shop the Black Friday sales.  Do you want to go?”

“Oh, yes!  I think it will be fun,” Guen agreed.  “Is Trixie coming, too?”

Honey exchanged a few more words with Diana and turned back to Guen.  “Di already called Trix, but she said she’s too tired from the Beldens’ Open House yesterday.”  She laughed and added, “And besides, Trixie hates shopping.  Going out on Black Friday would be a fate worse than death for her.”  She spoke into the phone again.  “We’ll be ready to go in a half hour.  See you then!”

Guen was excited; she’d only made one other trip into the city since she’d arrived in Sleepyside.  There was something exhilarating about the very air in New York City, and Honey had told her so many stories about the elaborately decorated store windows, she couldn’t wait to see them.  She and her hostess hurried to dress and fix their hair.

It seemed to take no time before Guen heard the Wheelers’ doorbell ring.  She and Honey galloped down the steps to see Diana standing in the foyer speaking to Celia, the Wheelers’ maid.

“I suppose Tom went out hunting with the boys,” she said.

“Oh, no,” Celia replied with a giggle.  “Tom wants to shoot a deer.  The boys just want to shoot pictures of deer this time.  Tom was going into a completely different part of the preserve as soon as he got back from taking Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler to the airport this morning.” 

Guen found that the city was just as exhilarating as she recalled.  The window displays at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s were amazing.  She saw long lines of children waiting to sit on Santa Claus’ lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.  One little girl looked a lot like Alessandra from the back.  She pushed on, making her way back to the sports section to find some kind of gear for her sports-loving brother and a doll for her youngest sister.  Those two items stricken from her list, she hit the junior clothing racks and soon found a cute pair of studded jeans for Adriana.  It was really hard, but she tore herself away from the clothing suited to a teenager and moved on to something her mother might appreciate.  A handy multibladed tool seemed like the perfect gift for her dad, and what about her grandmother?  The ladies’ nightwear department drew her in.

Honey stayed close to her and selected gifts for various family members and friends while Guen shopped for her family.  Occasionally the girls crossed paths with Diana and her mom, but the stores were so crowded, Guen was amazed they were able to keep up with each other.

After two hours in Macy’s, the foursome met at the checkout counter and took their places at the end of a long line. 

“Let’s see what you got,” Diana said eagerly.

Guen showed her the doll, jeans, goalie gloves and other gifts, and Diana showed her the dolls and small footballs she’d bought for her siblings. 

Honey held up the building set she’d purchased for Bobby Belden and the miniature race cars for Diana’s brothers.  For the Lynch twin girls, she’d chosen doll clothes to fit the dolls Diana bought them.  “It’s a good thing we came today,” she said.  “You probably need to mail your gifts this week so they’ll be sure to reach Italy in plenty of time.”

“Yes, I will.”  Guen said the words easily, but was surprised to find her eyes filling with tears.  To distract her friends from noticing, she took a deep breath and looked around.  A Christmas tree decorated with cutouts of angels caught her eye.  “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the tree.

“Oh, that’s an Angel Tree,” Diana explained.  “Kids who are in some kind of emergency status and whose parents can’t buy gifts for them, have their names entered into the program.  Each angel represents a child and has their wish list on it.”

“You can pick out an angel, buy some of the things on the list, and leave it with the store,” Honey added.  “The store will ensure the gifts are delivered to the Salvation Army, which coordinates the program.  Each child has a Christmas and gets some of the things they really want as well as some of the things they really need.”

“Can we get one, do you think?  I hate to think of any child getting no gifts for Christmas.” 

“Oh, yes!  Let’s do,” Diana exclaimed.  “I hate the idea of that, too.  Mummy, can you hold my stuff while I go pick some angels from the tree?”

“Certainly, Diana.  Get a couple for Daddy and me, too.”  Mrs. Lynch smiled at her daughter.  “Aren’t the Bob-Whites doing a toy drive for needy children in Sleepyside next weekend?”

“Yes, we are,” Honey answered.  “But I know my parents would like to do an angel, too.”

Diana left the line and plucked seven angels from the tree and brought them back.

Guen was glad to notice the discussion of the Angel Tree had distracted Honey and Diana from her sudden attack of homesickness, and had even taken her mind off her family for a few minutes, but during the train ride home later, she dropped into an unaccustomed silence.  After trying to draw her out several times, Honey and Diana left her alone.  Guen stared out the window and hoped they didn’t notice her brushing tears from her face.  Back in Sleepyside, Mrs. Lynch dropped her and Honey off at the Manor House.  Honey helped Guen carry her packages inside, but while Honey lingered outside saying her goodbyes, Guen was overcome by her feelings and hurried upstairs.  She went into the room designated for her, rather than Honey’s room where she normally slept, closed the door, threw herself across the bed and buried her sobs into her pillow.  

Ever since she had arrived in Sleepyside, Honey and all of the Bob-Whites had welcomed her and included her in all of their activities.  The American high school, football, Halloween, Thanksgiving…so many things were new and different for her.  She’d been so busy practicing her spoken English, keeping up with her classes, and taking in the cultural differences that she had not missed her younger siblings at all.  She saw a fair amount of the Lynch twins and Bobby Belden, but they were far enough away that she could overlook the personality traits that drove her crazy in her own sisters and brother.  First and most obvious, Bobby and the Lynch twins didn’t live in the same house and didn’t go into her room.  In fact, it had been a relief in many ways to be free from her siblings and their annoying ways.  She hadn’t cut contact with her family—every weekend she wrote letters home and read those her mother sent; she’d spoken with all of them on the telephone at the end of her first month.  But now… today…seeing the children in the stores and how excited they were at the approaching holiday had given her a pang.  She could just imagine Alessandra’s brown eyes widening in awe at the shop window displays, her mouth open in an O.  Adriana would have been in seventh heaven in the junior department, where all of the latest styles were displayed on exotically posed mannequins.  They would have whispered together for hours in bed about all of the things they had seen.  Giacomo would have pored over the soccer gear for hours.  Even Mamma and Papa would have been awed over the tall buildings and giant illuminated billboards of New York City.  She wanted to see their faces, feel their hands, hear their voices.  

She gave way to her feelings sobbed into the pillow.  But as her nose stopped up from crying, she pulled the pillow over her head to muffle the sounds.  Soon the sheet under her face was wet.  When she heard the door open and Honey tiptoed over to her, she tried to pretend she was asleep, but a breath that turned into a shuddering series of gasps gave the lie to that.  She felt the mattress give as Honey sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked her back.

“What’s wrong, Guen?” she asked in her gentle voice.  “Are you missing your family today?”

She drew another shuddering breath.  “Y-y-yes.  I miss the little brats.”  She tried to smile, but her lips trembled.

“I’ve been separated from my parents many times, and wished we could be together,” her hostess said.  “But you’ve been with your family more than I have, so it must be worse for you.  I wish there was something the Bob-Whites could do.”  She sighed and sat for a few minutes, her soft strokes continuing. 

Guen drew another shuddering breath and pushed the pillow away from her head.  “I never thought I’d miss them.  I was so excited to be able to come to America, and you—all of the Bob-Whites—have  been so kind.  I love it here and don’t want to go home for good yet…but I do wish I could see my family.  Letters and telephone calls aren’t the same.”

“We’ll think of something, I promise,” Honey assured her.  “I don’t know what, but we’ll think of something.” 

Guen sat up and pushed her shoes off, then pulled her knees up to her chest.  “I shouldn’t be so selfish,” she apologized.  “I’m so fortunate, really.”  She hugged her legs and tried to smile.

“Miss Trask always says we all have feelings and there’s no ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ about how we feel.  We just recognize the feelings and decide what to do about them.  Do you feel like coming down to supper?” Honey asked.  “Trixie, her brothers, and Dan are coming over.”   

“With this face?”  Guen grimaced.  She knew her eyes were red and puffy, her face blotchy from crying.  “Maybe I’d better stay up here.”

“They won’t be here for an hour.  I’ll bring you a cold washcloth.”  Honey jumped up and went out of the room, returning with a wet, folded washcloth she handed to her guest. 

Guen took the ice-cold compress and put it up to her face.  Her hot, swollen eyelids felt better immediately.  “Thank you,” she said gratefully.  “I’ll see.  If I start feeling like I won’t burst into tears if anyone speaks to me, I’ll come.  But please apologize to them if I don’t make it.”

“All right.  I don’t blame you—if I get on a crying jag it doesn’t take much to set me off again.  But we’d love for you to join us if you feel like it.”  Honey smiled and gave her a quick hug before leaving the room.  As she closed the door softly behind her, Guen lay back down.  Tears were already pricking at her eyes, and she could hardly tell if it was due to her feelings about missing her family, or her gratitude for Honey’s kindness.  She turned the compress to a fresh spot and placed it over her eyes.

Honey went downstairs slowly, trying to decide what kind of action she could take to help her guest.  Guen had already said returning home for a visit wasn’t an option.  But we could pay for her to fly home and come back, she thought.  I know Daddy would do it if I asked him.  He would even fly her whole family here for Christmas.  Making up her mind, she walked into the Manor House library, where her parents’ itinerary and contact information for each day was posted.  Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler were in London, and she pulled out the time-zone map in her father’s desk to see what time it was there.  Not too late to call, she thought, but late enough they are probably in their room.

Placing the international call took several minutes, and she crossed all of her fingers and squeezed her eyes shut, praying that her father would answer the phone.  When he finally came on the line, her words tumbled over each other as she described Guendolina’s problem.  “…and so, Daddy, I wondered if we could invite the di Bartolomeos to visit the Manor House for Christmas,” she finished up breathlessly.

“Whoa,” her father said with a chuckle.  “N.G., sweetheart.  I’ve already spoken to Signor di Bartolomeo, and he said they could not accept such a gift.”

“But, Daddy...I’d rather have Guen’s family visit than the new car you promised me for my birthday.”  Honey twisted a lock of hair as she pleaded her case.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t cover the cost, Honey.”  Her father’s voice was firm.  “Signor di Bartolomeo told me he is perfectly able to support his family and provide for their needs, but he could not reciprocate such a gift and he won’t accept hospitality he can’t repay.  In addition, he and Guen’s mother have other family they don’t want to leave during the holidays.  He also wouldn’t take me up on an offer to fly her home for Christmas and back after New Year’s Day.  He thought that would make it harder for her mother to say good-bye again.  I’m as sorry as you are that Guen is homesick, but getting her together with her family for the holiday won’t happen unless she decides to cut short her exchange visit and return home permanently.  Do you think she wants to do that?”

“N-n-no.”  She sighed.  What more could she do?  After speaking to her mother for a few minutes, she checked her watch.  It was nearly time to get ready for dinner.

“I’d better let you go, Mother,” she said.

“I’m glad you called, darling,” her mother replied.  “And I have faith that you and the Bob-Whites will come up with an idea to help Guen make it through the holidays away from her family.”

“I hope we will.”  Honey wasn’t quite so sure.

“Just remember, Dad and I will help in any way we can.  Good-bye!”

Guendolina didn’t come down for supper, and Honey felt sure she had decided to avoid company out of fear of being overcome again by her emotions.  She had peeped into the Italian girl’s room and it was dark; her guest’s breathing was regular and soft.

While she and Jim served turkey a la king to the Beldens and Dan, Honey told her friends about Guen’s attack of homesickness.  “...And so, I asked Daddy if we could fly her family over for Christmas.  What good does it do to have money if you can’t use it to make people happy?  But he said he’d already made that offer to Signor di Bartolomeo and was turned down.”

Jim spoke up.  “I’m sure plenty of kids who participate in exchanges don’t have the resources to go home for a visit, whether or not they want to.  Let’s think of a Plan B, since we know Plan A is a no-go.”

“We can’t send Guen to Italy or bring her family here,” Dan said.  “Can we set up an international call on Christmas Day so she can talk to them for a half-hour or so?  I’d be happy to make a donation to help pay for that.”

“That’s a great idea, Dan,” Brian said.  “I still wish we could do something more concrete.”  The others nodded.

“We can’t send Guen to Italy…” Trixie repeated, her face thoughtful.  “Maybe we can bring a little bit of Italy here.”

“That’s a good idea, Trix,”  Mart said. 

Trixie spun around in her chair to face her almost-twin.  “What did you say?”

“Well, it is a good idea,” Brian agreed mildly.  “Maybe we could plan an Italian Christmas Eve celebration on the night of our Bob-White party.  We’ve got plenty of time to plan it.”  

“Brian, that’s a perfect idea!”  Trixie bounced in excitement.  “We could surprise her at our Bob-White party, since we’ve already planned it for January fifth.  Or do you think we should do it sooner?”

“Well, it might be a little tricky to work in a special celebration when we’ve already got the school Christmas dance and the fundraiser for breast cancer research,” Dan said thoughtfully.  “And I think all of us have special family plans for Christmas Eve.”

“We need to get Di in on this discussion,” Honey interjected.  “I know she wants to do something special for Guen.  Excuse me for a second.”  She walked out into the hallway to call her friend. 

“Didn’t Guen say something about shepherds coming down from the mountains on Christmas Eve, playing their bagpipes and flutes?” Dan asked the group remaining in the dining room.

“Yes, it’s a re-enactment of the shepherds who saw visions of angels on the first Christmas, the first men to hear the news of a savior’s birth,” Mart told him.  He put down his fork and continued.  “They do it at some of the Christmas markets and religious shrines that have crowds of visitors.  Why—do you know a shepherd who plays the bagpipe?”

Dan shrugged.  “Not me, but I bet Spider Webster knows a bagpiper.  They sometimes play at funerals for police officers.”

“Right,” Jim spoke up.  “It would be pretty cool if we could get a bagpiper to come and play for a little bit.  Do you think Spider would ask around?”

“Let’s us guys ask him tomorrow,” Brian suggested.

“Okay, what else?  What about a special Italian meal?” Trixie asked.  “Something really special, not just lasagna.”

“How about calamari?” Mart proposed.  “Neapolitans are very fond of seafood.”  Dan hooted with laughter, while Brian and Jim smiled.

Trixie made a face.  “Squid?  Um, that may be too special for me.” 

“When it’s prepared properly, it’s delicious,” Jim told her.  “Mother and Dad have taken Honey and me to an Italian restaurant in the city and I tried some there.  But I’m not sure we’d be able to make it ourselves.”

“Hey, I like the idea of us preparing the dinner,” Mart said.  “But is it supposed to be a surprise for Guen?  I’m not sure how that would work, since she already knows about the party.”

Honey rejoined them.  “All right, everyone.”  She raised her hand to get their attention.  “Di wants to have the party at her house, and she had the same idea I could hear you all talking about, making a special Italian dinner for Guen, only she’s already done some research for a simple menu we could cook.  She’s asked her mom for permission to take over the kitchen after school and Mrs. Lynch will be around to help if needed.  What do you all think—I know we had our party at the clubhouse last year but if we’re cooking I think it would be better to have it where we have a kitchen.”

All of them started talking at once, until Jim gave the Bob-White whistle to quiet the pandemonium.  “We’ve got some great ideas already.  While you were out of the room, Honey, Dan suggested we could maybe get a bagpiper to come and play for a short time.  How about if you girls hammer out the menu with Di next week?  Guen might actually enjoy helping to cook and she might have some dinner ideas herself.  Us guys will take care of the set-up and cleanup, because even though the Lynches’ kitchen is huge, I don’t think it will accommodate seven or eight people working in it at once.  Agreed?”

Everyone nodded.  “I still would like to have a special surprise for Guen.”  Trixie wiped her lips with her napkin and frowned.  “We’ll be exchanging gifts.  What if we could have someone dressed as La Befana pay a visit and give out the gifts?”  She pushed her chair out and jumped up, pacing up and down the length of the table.

“Wouldn’t La Befana have to speak Italian?” Dan asked.  “I don’t know if we know anyone who could do that.”

“Mother’s fluent in Italian,” Jim offered.  “I think she’d do it if we asked.  What do you think, Honey?”

Honey jumped up and grabbed Trixie in a bear hug.  “What a fantastic idea, Trix!  You’re right, Jim, I think Mother would have a ball portraying such a unique character, and she said she’d be happy to do anything she could to help Guen.  I’ll call her tonight—well, maybe I’d better wait until tomorrow since it’s getting pretty late in London by now.” 

“I’ll try to find a recipe for that coal candy,” Trixie said as soon as Honey released her.  “Mart might need some of it.”  They all laughed, even Mart.

“I’ll call Di back and let her know what we’ve talked about,” Honey said.  As the Beldens and Dan said their good-byes, she felt happier than she had since noticing Guen’s tears on the train.

December 1971

Once Guen had mailed her family’s gifts during the first week of December, she threw herself into the American Christmas preparations.  December was a whirlwind of school, the Christmas dance, a toy drive for needy children, and making gifts for the Bob-white party.  Although she had skied in the mountains a few times, she had never lived with snow, and winter in Sleepyside was a totally new experience.  On weekends there was ice-skating on the Wheelers’ lake and sledding on the hills.  Guen pushed herself to stay busy, and most of the time she was successful in keeping her homesickness at bay.  The day she and Honey came home from school to find a towering, decorated Christmas tree in the Wheeler living room, she stopped and stared in amazement.  The ten-foot tree glittered with tiny white lights, shiny glass balls and delicate snowflake ornaments in ice-blue and silver.

Ammazza!  Che bello!”  After a moment, she took a deep breath.  “It is beautiful!  But when was it done—there was nothing there when we went to school today.”

“Yes, it’s lovely,” Honey agreed.  “But Mother has a decorator come in and set up a tree and decorate in the foyer and living room every year.  It’s for the party she and Daddy put on for the executives at Wheeler International.  The tree is different every year and is dismantled after the party to be auctioned off for charity the following year.  We’re putting up a smaller, real tree as a family next weekend, and I’m looking forward to that.  This tree is just for show, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Guen was silent at the idea of any family having two Christmas trees in their home.  The di Bartolomeos’ apartment was comfortable, but too small for such things.  One smallish tree was all it could accommodate.  She had noticed that Americans decorated more lavishly than her family and neighbors did, but had not thought about decorating one’s home for a business party.  Ah well, one more way America was different.

The Wheelers’ weekend tree decorating activity was fun, she had to admit.  Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler were home for a few weeks—Guen had barely met them during the preceding eight weeks and was initially a little nervous of being around Honey’s glamorous mother and high-powered father, but Mrs. Wheeler spoke Italian to her and Mr. Wheeler was kindness personified.  Soon she felt at ease and joined Honey and Jim in selecting the perfect spot for each ornament while Christmas music played softly in the background.  She missed her own favorite carols, like Gesu Bambino, but when Bing Crosby sang ‘White Christmas’, she and Honey sang along, Jim joining in belatedly. 

“These are some of the ornaments Diana made last year,” Honey said as she held up an ornament that looked like a tiny piece of stained glass.  “She gave each of the Bob-whites seven ornaments.  They’re my favorites, but I like the crocheted snowflakes I made, too.”

Mrs. Wheeler clapped and exclaimed over the beauty of the tree when they had finished, and Mr. Wheeler insisted on taking a picture of the three teenagers in front of it before they feasted on an informal supper of soup and sandwiches.

Guen and Honey joined the Lynches, Dan, and his uncle for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and Guen admired the large Nativity scene set up on the front lawn of the church.  “This is like what we have at home,” she explained.  “But at home, our presepe shows many of the ordinary village people as well as shepherds and sheep.  A laundress, a fruit seller, a woman carrying a jug of water, a blacksmith in his shop.  These scenes are often set up inside the great cathedrals or museums.  Naples, where I live, is known for its presepi.”

“The one we have inside is much more detailed,” Diana told her.  “But it still sounds very plain compared to the ones you have.”  

“I love seeing how we are alike as well as different,” Guen replied.  “That is what makes the world interesting.”

Christmas Day was lovely.  The ground was already covered with snow, and overnight a light snowfall had softened the outlines of everything from rooflines to tree branches.  In the sunlight, it glittered and sparkled until the grounds of the Manor House looked like a fairyland.  Guen, Honey, and Jim ate breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler.  Miss Trask had left the day before to spend a few days with her sister and brother at Pirate’s Point in the Catskills, and Regan had gone early to the cabin where his nephew Dan lived with the Wheelers’ gamekeeper, Mr. Maypenny.

“It’s just our family today,” Mrs. Wheeler said with a musical laugh.  “We’ll open presents as soon as we finish breakfast.”

Guen exclaimed over the lacy scarf Honey had crocheted of baby-soft red wool, and the framed photographs of wildlife Jim had captured with his camera on a colorful autumn day in the preserve.  From the Wheelers she had a warm coat and boots suitable for outdoor activities; up to now she’d been using garments borrowed from her hostess and they were adequate but not really suited to her sturdier build.  She was afraid her own gifts didn’t measure up, but the Wheelers seemed pleased with the small framed print of Naples looking up from the bay and the case of high-quality wine her father had sent from his shop for his daughters’ host family.  Honey and Jim also seemed pleased with the handmade bookmarks, decorated with their initials in calligraphy, that she had made.

At noon, Guen made the international telephone call to her family that the Bob-whites had arranged.  Hearing the voices of her family brought her nearly to tears, although she was also happy and excited to speak to them again.  Adriana, Giacomo, and Alessandra all talked at once, trying to fill her in on all the news of family and friends.  When that topic was exhausted, they wanted to know what it was like to live in the snow. 

“Aren’t you close to the North Pole?” Alessandra asked.  “Have you seen Bappo Natale?  Or Rudolph?”  Guen chuckled—she had thought her little sister was past believing in Bappo Natale.  But she put on her serious face and explained that while Sleepyside was thousands of kilometers south of the North Pole, she was enjoying the snow.

Later in the day, the Beldens, Dan, and Diana visited and the teenagers spent the evening ice-skating.  It was a wonderful ending to the day, but Guen felt a little let-down.  Although she knew the Bob-Whites had planned to have their Christmas party at Epifania, the holiday season was basically over for the Americans.  At home, her family would spend the next week and a half visiting family and friends and continuing the festivities.

The Wheelers surprised her, though.  During the following week, they took the train to Boston to visit Mrs. Wheeler’s mother for a few days.  Honey’s aunt and her cousin Ben were also visiting, although this wasn’t the happy surprise it would have been for Guendolina’s family.  Mr. Wheeler escaped the tense atmosphere with Honey and Guen, visiting several colleges in the city.  Honey was particularly taken with Simmons College, but Guen decided the nearby Northeastern University had programs more suited to her engineering interests.  She marked it on her list of possible colleges.  The two days they spent exploring the city with Honey’s dad provided a fascinating glimpse of a very different part of America than Sleepyside.

January 1972

“Now, Trixie and Di, let’s go over everything we’ve planned,” Honey said to her friends at lunch on the first day back to school.  It had been difficult to talk about the parts of the party that were a surprise for Guendolina when they were all at home.  But Guen had a tutoring session at noon with her trigonometry teacher, and it gave the girls a chance to recap.

“Spider’s buddy will play the bagpipe.  He’s going to come to the Lynches’ house while we’re eating and play for fifteen minutes,” Trixie said.  “Mart researched the Italian shepherd’s costume and he agreed to get something together.  So that’s one thing settled.”

Diana took up the recital.  “We’re going to place our gifts into an Urn of Fate.  It’s a large ornamental bowl that holds a wrapped present for each family member and also some wrapped empty boxes.  There’s one real gift for each person. If you get a present with your name on it, you keep it; otherwise, you try again with another.  I hope that will be fun.”

“Mother is excited about playing La Befana,” Honey told them.  “She won’t let me see her costume, but she assures me it’s ready to go.  We decided to have her give out some chocolate cheese and salted caramels for some real American candy, and some candy coal.  Guen wrote down the recipe and we made it the other day.  I can’t wait to see my mother as a cinder-covered old witch!”

“What does the candy coal look like?” Trixie asked.

“It looks a lot like charcoal from your barbecue after it’s burned,” Honey replied.  “It tastes mostly like sugar—not a lot of flavor.”

“Guen and Mummy have the menu settled.  Here’s what we’re having—are you writing this down?”  Diana was almost as bouncy as Trixie usually was.  “Antipasto, a soup called Minestra Maritata that has chicken-sausage meatballs, some kind of greens and pasta, and Italian bread.  Mummy spent a long time with Guen figuring out a recipe for the soup that should work because, you know, Guen’s mamma cooks by taste and not by a recipe.  She’s—Guen’s mamma—has made it so may times she doesn’t need to follow a recipe, but we don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like and of course we don’t have some ingredients they have in Naples.  Besides, we have to make something that doesn’t take all day.”   

“I hope it’ll be hearty enough to fill up those boys—Mart has a hollow leg.”  Trixie pushed a curl away from her face.

“I think by the time we have antipasto, soup, and bread, there will be enough food.  The antipasto has meat and cheese, as well as olives, cherry tomatoes, and almonds.  It’s pretty heavy.”  Honey tapped her pen against the table.  “While the soup is cooking, we’ll play a dice game with the boys.  I hope everyone’s taken time to find some fun prizes!  Then, Mrs. Lynch will call Mother when we finish eating and she’ll arrive about twenty minutes later.  That’ll give the boys time to clean up.”

“Here comes Guen,” Diana warned. She was sitting across the table from the other two girls and could see the exchange student approaching.  “Don’t say any more about that.”   She waved to catch Guen’s attention.  “Over here!”

Finally, the day had arrived.  As soon as the bus dropped Honey and Guen off at the Manor House after school, they rushed up to Honey’s room to change clothes and get ready for the party.  Guen admired her reflection in Honey’s mirror—her new burgundy-colored jumper was trendy; its color was flattering to her olive skin and brown eyes and the textured black tights made her look taller, she decided.  Honey looked festive in a dark green velour tunic and matching wide-leg slacks, with sparkly Christmas-tree earrings.

After a final glance in the mirror, each girl grabbed a large shopping bag containing her gifts—the group had drawn names as well as making a small handcrafted gift for each person and a prize for the dice game.  Guen hoped her Chia pet wouldn’t be greeted with a groan.  She knew Honey had selected a thermos bottle, and almost wished she’d picked something as practical.

Ding-dong! The Manor House's doorbell chimed. 

“Hurry, Guen!” Honey cried.  “They’re here.”  Both girls pulled their coats and gloves back on.

“I’m ready!”  They hurried downstairs, meeting Mrs. Wheeler in the front foyer, speaking with Trixie, Brian, and Mart. 

“Jim is bringing the Bob-white station wagon around,” Mrs. Wheeler explained.  “Dan’s with him.”

“Trixie, you look simply darling!” Honey exclaimed.  

“Yes, you are bellissima!” Guen agreed.  Trixie was dressed in blue, her favorite color, and her cheeks were flushed and her bright blue eyes snapped with excitement.  Her strawberry blond curls were like an aureole of gold around her head.

“Thanks, Hon.  I still feel like kind of a goon wearing a dress, but at least it’s comfortable,” Trixie replied, blushing.  Her knit dress had long sleeves, a scoop neck and a slightly flared hemline.  Guen noticed a silver ID bracelet on one wrist.  The boys were dressed nicely too, with dress shirts, wide ties, and low-slung bell-bottomed trousers with wide belts.  All wore dress shoes, the girls with dainty flat Mary Janes. 

“All of you look very festive,” Mrs. Wheeler assured them.  “Very nice.  Here’s Jim, so I guess you’re ready to go.”  Jim had pulled up in front of the wide covered veranda running across the front of the house.  It was only a little after four o’clock, but already twilight.

After holding the back door open for the girls, Brian slid into the front seat with Jim, Mart climbed into the very back, where Dan was already sitting.  Mrs. Wheeler waved and said, “Have a wonderful time.”   As the station wagon pulled around the circular drive, Guen could see her, illuminated in the light from the sconce fixtures mounted on either side of the wide front door.  She waved until they were out of sight.

At the Lynch estate, Diana greeted the group at the front door and took their coats.  “Let me just put these away and we’ll get started,” she said.  Mart helped her take the coats out to the enclosed terrace and deposit them in the guest coat closet as the others trailed behind. 

“Put your gifts into the Urn of Fate,” Diana directed, pointing to a large decorative ceramic planting pot.  There were several brightly wrapped packages already inside.

“I didn’t know Americans have an Urn of Fate,” Guen said with a laugh.

“We’re adopting some customs of our Neapolitan guest tonight,” Dan replied with a wink.  He dropped his package inside the urn.

“Guys, you can watch some television if you want to.  There’s some popcorn sitting out if you’re hungry, and sodas in the fridge in here.”  Diana waved to indicate the location of the snacks.  “Mummy has been studying the recipe and she says it won’t take long to put together.  Then we’ll come in and play the dice game while we wait for the soup to be ready.” 

All of the Bob-whites had been at the Lynches’ often enough to feel at home, and the boys settled into comfortable spots while Diana and the girls headed for the kitchen.

“Now, Guen, I have to apologize if this doesn’t seem very authentic to you,” Mrs. Lynch said with a slightly worried look.  “I took the recipe we worked out and went into the city yesterday to visit a grocery in Little Italy for some of the ingredients.  But they told me we can’t get some of the produce here—the broccoli di foglia, and torzella are very local to Naples and some of the most popular meats are only available in very specialized and expensive delis here.  The produce manager suggested some substitutions and I did find a box of peppercorn pasta.”

“Oh, Mrs. Lynch, you shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble!”  Guen was distressed that it was so difficult to find the right ingredients in America—and more distressed that Diana’s mother had gone to such lengths to try.

“I wanted to do it, dear.  And I think our soup will still be good, even if it’s different.”  Diana’s mother smiled and Guen noticed how kind her bright blue eyes looked.  “Let’s get started.  Trixie and Honey, will you start mixing the ground chicken and Italian sausage for the meatballs?  Diana, maybe you could mix the cheese and breadcrumbs and beat the egg into the dry ingredients. Then, mix that with the ground meats and start making meatballs the size of a quarter.   And Guen, will you line the baking sheets with parchment paper and rinse the greens?”

Soon they were all busy working and chattering away, and before Guen could even believe it they had rolled several dozen meatballs and placed them on the parchment paper-lined baking sheets.  As Diana slid the baking sheet into the oven, Honey roughly chopped cabbage, broccoli rabe, and escarole and Trixie brought some canned chicken broth to a boil.  Guen prepared a simple antipasto tray with olives, cheese cubes, cherry tomatoes and thin slices of pepperoni.  Diana set the table while Trixie sliced the loaf of Italian bread Mrs. Lynch had bought.  Diana’s mother excused herself to go check on her younger children, but invited the girls to call her on the home intercom for any questions or problems.  “And don’t worry, your dad or I’ll be back to check on you all from time to time,” she said with a smile.

“Where are the twins today?” Honey asked.  She was following Diana with a napkin for each place.

“They’re eating up in the nursery with the nannies,” Diana said.  “The boys wanted Bobby to come over but Mummy said no, since it’s a school night.”

As soon as the meatballs were cooked, Guen carefully slid them into the pot of simmering broth.  They would cook for a half hour before the greens and pasta were added. 

“We can set the timer and go out with the boys now,” Diana said.  She took a wind-up timer with her into the veranda after ensuring the burner was set to hold the soup at a simmer.

The dice game was fun, although Diana and Guen went back to the kitchen several times to check the food’s progress.  Guen won a pocket flashlight and Dan ended up with the chia pet.  He seemed surprisingly excited about it.  Mart was the lucky recipient of a bag of kitty litter.  Everyone laughed until Jim explained it was a good thing to keep in the car in case he ended up spinning a tire in a snowbank sometime.

As soon as they sat down to dinner, the doorbell rang.  Harrison, the Lynches’ butler, appeared at the dining room with a man behind him who carried a bagpipe.  Guen couldn’t believe it—he looked so much like the zampognari at home, with his sheepskin vest, long white stockings, and knee-length pants.  He immediately began to play one of her favorite carols, Astro del Ciel. She'd heard it in English as Silent Night, but since no one was singing, she could imagine the Italian lyrics. The teens applauded as he played the final notes.

The bagpiper bowed, but then said, “Io gioco, si mangia,” which Guen translated for them as “I play, you eat.”  Obediently, the teens picked up their spoons and started to eat the hearty soup and bread, while the bagpiper played White Christmas and Away in a Manger.  When the last notes died away, he bowed again, and said, “Grazie—Thank you, my friends.  These are all of the carols I can play, so I will say farewell and Merry Christmas to all of you.”    The Bob-whites and Guen clapped again.

“Thank you, and thank you for bringing a piece of my home to me here in America,” Guen told him. 

Jim pulled out his wallet and extracted a few bills.  The other boys followed his lead.  “I know you’re doing this from the kindness of your heart,” Jim said.  “But please donate this money to the policemen’s family support fund if you won’t keep it yourself.” 

“You kids have the Christmas spirit,” the bagpiper replied.  “Thank you again.”  He accepted the money and left as he had come in.

The teens nibbled at the antipasto tray and discussed the music.  “That was the best ever,” Diana asserted.  “I never thought of caroling with a bagpipe but it was cool.”

“It’s wonderful to hear it outdoors in the fresh air,” Guen told them.  For several moments she had indeed been transported back home.

“Jim, I’m so glad you thought of the support fund.”  Trixie emphasized her words with a nod that set her curls bouncing.  “I thought he wasn’t going to take it for a minute.”

“Well, men, it’s time to get cleaned up,” Dan announced.  “Let’s get to it.”  He stood and started collecting bowls and plates, and the other boys followed suit.  The girls took the remains of the antipasto tray out to the veranda.  Guen could hear Trixie’s brother Brian speaking as she followed Honey to the veranda.

“I’ll wash if you’ll dry,” the eldest Belden said.

“It’s a deal,” his brother Mart answered.  “The Lynches have a huge dishwasher, so we shouldn’t have to do any manual labor once the food is put away.” 

The girls had shaken all the wrapped gifts in the Urn of Fate, as well as one that was too large to fit inside it.  “I just can’t decide what could be in that giant box with my name on it.”  Trixie frowned.  “It doesn’t say who’s giving it, either, so I can’t even guess.”

“Trix, that’s probably a good thing,” Honey reminded her with a giggle.

Just as the boys made their way into the veranda after cleaning up, Guen heard the doorbell ring.  “Diana, is it normal to have company this time of night on a Wednesday?”

“Not really.  I’d better go see who it could be,” her hostess said.  But before she reached the door, Mrs. Lynch appeared with a shabbily dressed old lady carrying a broom and a bag of wrapped boxes. 

“We have another visitor,” Diana’s mother said with a smile.

Buon Natale,” the stranger greeted them

La Befana!”  Guen sank back onto the sofa in shock.

“Yes, I had a stop to make before visiting the di Bartolomeo family in Napoli,” the old lady said in Italian.  “I once was too busy to follow my heart to see the most special child of all,” she continued in English.  “But all children are precious, because each one contains the spirit of that Child.  So I try to cherish every child during this season.  You Bob-Whites—” she indicated the circle of teens—“have done many things to cherish children in this community.”  She opened her bag and continued.  “So I have brought a few sweets and just a little coal, to remind you that we all fall short at times.”  She passed a box to each of the teens, smiling as they tore the bright paper and opened the boxes.

“Chocolate cheese!” exclaimed Mart.  “Yummy-yum!”

“Salted caramels!” cried his sister.  “My favorite!”

“Don’t forget your coal,” Dan reminded them with a smirk.  He held up what looked like a lump of charcoal

Guen was starting to suspect the identity of the Befana.  Her disguise was perfect—even her teeth looked crooked and slightly yellowed, and there was a a big wart on her chin.  But as hard as it was to believe, she decided Befana must be Mrs. Wheeler.  Of all the people she had met in Sleepyside, none except Honey’s mother spoke Italian.  True, the bagpiper had said a few words, but he wasn’t necessarily local.  Her eyes filled as she was overcome by gratitude to her friends and their families.    

“Ah, it is time for me to go,” la Befana said after Guen and the Bob-Whites thanked her.  “But first, I will sweep your hearth,” she told Diana.  “I will sweep away the problems of the year.”  She bent over her twig broom and did sweep the already-clean hearth all the way to the door.  “Buon Natale!  Arrivederia, Signorina Guendolina!  Arrivederia, signore e signori!”  She exited onto the outside terrace with a wave.

Buon Natale!” they chorused.  But la Befana was gone.

“Thank you, Grazie, thank you!” Guen was again overcome.  “You have done all of this for me, a stranger...well, almost a stranger.”

“Not a stranger, Guen,” Honey said, throwing her arms around Guen in a hug.  “You’re a friend, and an almost-sister to me.  We felt bad because you couldn’t be in Italy with your family...”

“So we decided to try to bring a little bit of Italy here for you…a little bit of home,” Trixie finished. 

“We happen to believe that getting involved with other people is what life is all about,” Brian said with a warm smile.

“I’ll vouch for that,” Dan agreed.

“I will, too,” said Jim.

“The Bob-Whites are all for one, and one for all,” Diana brought up the tail end.  “And all of us wanted you to have a Buon Natale.”

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Author’s Notes

13,369 words 

This story was written for the lovely WendyM.  Wendy, I hope you enjoy it and that you and your family have a Buon Natale!

Grazie mille (a thousand thanks) to my speedy and thoughtful editors, Trish and Ryl.  I could not have done this without your help.  Thank you, Mal, for your hard work in coordinating the Jix Secret Santa stories again.  Sometimes I’m sure it feels like herding cats, but you do a fantastic job!

Thank you to everyone in the Jix community!  Your support is always appreciated and you are a special group of people who are dear to my heart.  

Way back in 2010, Wendy mentioned that her family’s origin was Italian, but that earlier generations had wanted to assimilate into American culture and had lost their traditional Italian customs.  For this reason, I decided to do a bit of research and write a story incorporating some of those customs.  All of the information about Italian customs and all of the Italian words and phrases I used came from Google searches.  There were a couple of instances where I wanted Guen to use a more slang-y expression, but my super editors questioned whether she would be fluent enough in English to use American slang and although I could find a few examples of Italian slang, it was questionable if they had the same connotation I intended.  So hopefully those issues are A-OK now!

The title image of La Befana is a doll created by doll artist Sarah Russell, and is used with permission.  Her website can be viewed here:  SarahRussellDolls.com. My Norton antivirus wouldn't allow me to view the page, but I checked with Sarah and she verified the site is safe. She stated her webhosting site has checked and this is an issue with Norton and not the site.

The end button is a picture of carbone della Befana candy.  Background is from istockphoto.

Sandro Mazzola  was an Italian soccer player of the late 1960s-early ’70s, ranked in the top 20 Italian players of all time.

Merry Christmas, Wendy!

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2010 by MaryN/Dianafan. Images from istockphoto.com and manipulated by Mary N in Photoshop. Graphics copyright by Mary N 2012.

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