I always thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. My childhood was literally sugar-coated growing up at DeLuca’s Family Bakery—a place where magic was made and powdered sugar-coated life in a pristine sweetness that made everything more manageable. Constructed of charming hand-carved antique bricks with wide plate glass windows capped with pastel awnings, our bakery was storybook perfection, straight out of Hansel and Gretel without the cannibalistic witch. Inside, little round white bistro tables and white caned chairs were arranged in curved rows to give each table the best view of the kitchen, and the illuminated fully-stocked pastry case was always empty by noon.
DeLuca’s was known for its cannolis—a title my dad, Marco, won during a throwdown with a world-famous pastry chef in the nineties. The sun-streaked photo of my pops with his arm slung around the neck of a scrawny redheaded celebrity chef still hangs on the wall in the dining room, and we proudly stake the claim that we make the best cannolis in Illinois.
The bakery is a part of me. In my childhood it was a living, breathing being. I grew up there, always in the kitchen with my grandparents, Nonna and Bumpo. The smells of fresh baking bread and vanilla are seared into my soul. I grew up in the world of whisks and rolling pins and discovered that food can absolutely be called love.
DeLuca’s marble countertops and wooden floors were the backdrop of all my grainy childhood home movies, lovingly recorded by my parents. I took my first rickety coltish steps there, falling to the floor in a pile of chubby baby thighs and coal-black hair. My dark-haired mustachioed Pops would scoop me up and immediately reward me with kisses and a cookie. Our bond was constructed in sugar and is as sweet as it gets. I am a daddy’s girl through and through—a literal chip off the old block. Pops was dark, chunky, and funny as hell. His laugh boomed, filling spaces deep and loud, a sound that reverberated through any place he inhabited. Always the life of the party, he loved to sing and dance around the bakery, humming and whistling while he worked.
When the mood struck him, he’d sweep my mom, Lorraine, into his strong arms and spin her around the kitchen, crooning sweet Italian love songs into her ear while she protested. Her delicate fists balled and beat on his massive hairy chest while she wriggled and squirmed. It was a carefully choreographed cry that always fell on his deaf ears. As I got older, I understood that she was playing, putting up a fight when he did it, but not a real fight. One of those fights where she called him a rascal and chastised him by saying, “Marco, you’re getting carried away.” He’d just laugh and spin her faster until she was breathless.
Their ritual required her to protest in vain while he laughed into her colored hair. An outcry she didn’t really mean, because deep down, Mom always wanted to be carried away, but she wouldn’t give herself permission to do it on her own. Dad was a professional level carry away-er with a playfulness that melted Mom’s defenses.
My earliest memories are of sitting on a stool next to my dad all dressed in white, watching him carefully measure out the ingredients and then dump them into the mixer. He would hand me a galvanized tin scoop, and I would happily shovel out flour by the cupful onto a scale, with liberal amounts of it fluttering to the ground like snow.
Usually, Mom would interject into the fun and say, “Gionna is too little. You are wasting so much.” She could sometimes be a buzzkill like that, not because she had a bad bone in her body, but because it was physically painful for her to waste anything. It was a trait that instantly bonded her and Bumpo together, united by their concerted effort to reduce waste and preserve bakery profits.
She applied the same focused earnestness to her own physical appearance. Meticulously maintained with religious salon visits, her blonde hair was always smooth and braided to keep wayward strands out of the kitchen. She was thin and seemingly weak to look at, but when it came to raw grit and determination, pound for pound, the woman was a force to be reckoned with. My mom was smart and focused. Like a little chihuahua, her bark was always far worse than her bite. I didn’t get much from Mom in the looks department; I vastly favored my dark-haired, dark-complected dad, but we shared the same icy blue eyes and we both lacked a filter.
Mom was the kind of person who ironed her t-shirts and tucked them into white mom jeans, her self-imposed daily uniform at the bakery. Fashionless denim with the waist so high, it must have grazed her nipples. If she ever heard me utter that description aloud, she would probably shoot me a look and tell me to stop being vulgar, which would only serve to spur me on to say even more offensive vulgarities. With a mom like mine, being cheeky was the ultimate act of rebellion and the source of much personal glee. I was good at it. Spouting off outrageous phrases to shock and awe my mother was one of my favorite pastimes. I’d say nearly anything to get her goat, and she’d roll her eyes and laugh at me.
“Oh, Gionna. You’re being so ridiculous.”
To which I would respond, “Yes, Mommy. Yes, I am. The most ridiculous.” And I would tuck my chin to my chest, pandering to her and batting my thick eyelashes at her beguilingly until she melted, which she always did.
In my late twenties, Mom tried to fix me. She decided it was her responsibility to transform me into someone who could get a man. Almost like you could set a trap and ensnare one like a wayward rabbit or some poor, unsuspecting bear. Just put a pot of honey out and wait. It didn’t work that way, and it was exhausting because being the honey requires things of a woman like shaving and waxing and plucking, and I just didn’t give a shit about any of that.
When I turned thirty, I froze some of my eggs. Originally, I had planned on getting married and having kids in my twenties. I was going to have two children, a boy and a girl that were spaced precisely three years apart. I can be kind of a control freak, but that dream faded away the day I hit the big three-o. I panicked with the biological clock ticking so loudly in my ears it was hard to hear anything else. After lengthy research and secret doctor appointments, I decided to invest in a back-up plan. Just to buy me a little time, in case the right guy finally walked into my life. I never let Mom in on the secret, because she was like a dog with a bone when she wanted something.
As the years drifted by, I started to doubt my desire to be a mother in the first place. You sure as hell don’t bring a baby into the world with even a whisper of uncertainty. I didn’t feel that primal ache anymore, so my little eggs stayed cold and frozen in the tundra of test tubes without her knowledge. She probably wished she’d had a few more kids, maybe had the six that Pops wanted instead of pinning her future on only one. That way she would have been virtually assured of armfuls of grands at our regular Sunday dinners.
I’m the third generation of DeLucas to work in the bakery, and at forty-two, it was looking like I would be the last with no realistic options on the man horizon and no real pressure or desire to change that fact after my last heartbreak. It was hard growing up surrounded by two generations of successful lifelong marriages when my own love life had crashed and burned. Admitting failure, I had given up at finding what they found. I didn’t believe that kind of love existed in my generation, where most men were looking to maintain the loose tie to scratch a horny itch while they waited for something better to come along. In my mind, real love was a unicorn, a mirage, a farce, and instead of focusing on that useless mission, I decided to stay in my own lane.
Mom was cleaning up after the morning rush, bent over the table and scrubbing hard before sanitizing as cleanliness was one of her most beloved virtues. She caught my eye, and I winked at her, and then watched her pick up Mr. Manzetti’s bowler hat from the ground, dust it off, and then place it back on the table for him. Mom always took care of people in her quiet way. He was one of my favorite regulars who had been coming to DeLuca’s five days a week ever since I could remember.
“Thank you, my dear. You are too kind. May I trouble you for another original cannoli?” He always asked so sweetly it was hard to tell him no, but he was a diabetic and a touch forgetful.
“Mr. Manzetti!” I admonished from my post at the pastry case. “You know the rules. Check your blood sugar first, and then we will see if you can have another cannoli.”
“Yes, warden,” he said with a twinkle in his eye before he turned away to discreetly test his sugars, and then triumphantly waved the monitor in the air at me. “See, Gionna! One-seventeen!”
“You know that’s only three away from a no,” I warned. My feet were tired, shoved into the black crocs on my feet. I pinched at the tension in my back with my fingers. After I turned forty, the random list of aches and pains multiplied, and I avoided the doctor like the plague after he wanted to have a discussion about my weight.
“Technically, that still makes it a yes.” He smiled, his face crinkling up like crepe paper. With a shock of white hair and always dressed impeccably in a suit jacket, cardigan, and corduroy pants, he carried the newspaper and spent hours working on the crossword puzzle just to keep his brain sharp. “Three letters, last one is a Z. Clue is they come in last.”
Crossword puzzles always stumped me and then made me feel stupid with their pithy wordplay. The morning rush was over, so I had a second to mull it over when my best friend Aubrey breezed by with a warm-up for his coffee.
“Easy—it’s X, Y, Z,” she sang out as she flitted through the rest of the tables, tipping a little of our Italian dark roast into each remaining patron’s cup.
Aubrey was beautiful, and that was part of the reason Mom hired her to work at the bakery. In the early days of the Starbucks coffee empire insanity, Mom was smart enough to recognize a lucrative opportunity. One she could leverage to charge handsomely for the black gold we carefully percolated into tiny coffee cups. Espressos, Macchiatos, cappuccinos, Americanos—all the coffee drinks that ended in O required us to hire a barista, and that’s where Aubrey came in. She was a single mom with two littles now, Owen and Stella, and she made a killing in tips at the bakery. Still beautiful and thin even after two pregnancies, she was the kind of girl with an insane metabolism and the kind of girl I used to hate in high school that could eat her weight in ice cream without a glimmer of cellulite.
You couldn’t hate Aubrey. It was physically impossible. When she hit you with one of her adorable smiles, and you focused on the smattering of freckles that dabbled across her nose, you melted. It didn’t matter who you were. You were powerless against her charms. She was the classic dictionary definition of cute. I have no idea why buttons are the standard measure of adorableness, but Aubrey truly was cute as a button.
I, on the other hand, was a little fluffy. I was thicc, closer to three Cs than two, big-boned, voluptuous, a curvy girl, all those adjectives people use to dance around and avoid using the word fat. It was like my entire body was inflated. Every one of my features was bigger than everyone else’s. After trying every diet pill and diet plan known to man, and it changing nothing, I accepted the reality that I would simply take up more space.
You have never been truly miserable until you have tried to stick to a low-carb diet when you work full time in a bakery. My week going keto was the longest week of my life. At night, I would dream about cupcakes and buttercream and wake up drooling with my stomach growling. I say a week, but it was more like forty-eight hours. Forty-eight of the longest hours I have ever endured that ended with an epic sugar binge I would be embarrassed to fully detail. Sometimes, you have to decide if the misery is worth it, and I decided it wasn’t. I decided that buttercream tasted better than skinny felt.
Maybe I was a touch cynical, but I was content and deeply settled into my comfortable life. It was fate that made me a pastry chef, being born into the DeLuca family. It was also fate that brought Foster Valentine through the doors of my bakery. I wasn’t looking for love when it found me. Mom always said that is exactly how it would happen. She was right.