The sweetest pastry that I have ever eaten was a gift from a woman whose name I never knew and whose kindness I can never repay.
It was presented in the unlikeliest of settings — tossed into the back of the limousine I was riding in. On the way to my mother's burial.
It all happened so fast. After the funeral, and just as the car began moving away from the curb outside the church, a door swung open and a white box was thrust onto my brother Michael's lap. Then the door slammed shut and the driver continued on his way.
"What was that?" my brother Joe said, as I watched a woman moving slowly away from the limo.
Her hands were cupped over her face; she was sobbing.
It was several very long minutes before anybody addressed this strange intrusion. The funeral, you see, was held around the corner from where my mother had spent much of her life, and so, driving along these fertile Brooklyn streets, behind a vehicle carrying her casket, was a notable event for us all. We drove past the apartment house where mom had lived as a girl, then a wife and finally as a mother. We passed the candy store that first was my grandfather's and then my parents' — until dad died and mom could no longer run it alone.
It was a planned post-funereal procession that we could not allow a stranger's unwanted interruption to impose upon. After we had cleared the last memorable site along the narrow pathway of my mother's life, Michael began to laugh.
"Cannoli," he cried. "A whole box of them. Look."
He raised the white box to show those of us seated behind him.
"Probably one of the ladies from the Rosary Society," Joe offered; a wise deduction, as our mother, a pillar of her church for 60-plus years, would be badly missed by its constituents.
"I'll be damned," was the best I could offer.
Unlike the grand funeral mom's church had presented her with, the graveside service was quite brief. Though sunny and clear, the February day was bone-chillingly cold. As the priest read passages from a book he held in glove-covered hands, I noticed some of my cousins huddling close to their elderly parents, my mothers' brothers and sisters, trying to warm them.
Everybody just looked so awfully grief-stricken and sad. My mother had been blessed by many who loved her very much.
I thought that as soon as the service ended, people would move quickly to their cars seeking warmth, but the opposite happened. We all stood there. Silent for the most part, except for the soft sounds of weeping and the occasional chattering of teeth. Nobody, it became clear, wanted to leave Mom out in the cold all by herself.
Suddenly Michael went and fetched the box of pastries. He lifted the top, made a rough calculation as to how many there might be (two and a half dozen, he later told me), then moved about the crowd, smiling and weeping at once. Everybody took a pastry.
Even mom got a cannoli, her favorite, as somebody laid the last in the box atop the casket.
If you knew my mother, you would appreciate how fitting an end this was. Throughout her life, the woman was happiest when she could feed people. In the final days, her inability to cook even simple meals for the people she loved brought her far more pain than any ailment she endured.
And so, I will forever be grateful to the mysterious churchwoman whose thoughtful gift so fittingly punctuated that day. In an instant, a box filled with 30 miniature cannoli turned painful sobbing into joyous laughter, and the mood on a cold winter's morning from horrible darkness to blistering light.
Just as Mom would have wanted.