19. The Accident

IN NOVEMBER 1923, the oldest child, Ida, was the budding beauty of Lehigh Row. She was only nine years old, but she already displayed the pensive yearning eyes, the tumbling russet curls, and the carved cresting lips of a Botticelli goddess. She carried her rouge with her wherever she went.

On the morning of November 16, she gathered with the almost eight-year-old Mafalda and the six-year-old Leonata in the big room downstairs before leaving for school. Mafalda and Leonata were ready to go, but Ida was idling. She seemed to be distracted by something. She hadn’t put her shoes on yet.

She walked languidly around the staircase toward the bedroom, where Maria was juggling the five-year-old Raffaello and the three-year-old Bice. By that hour of the morning, Serafino and the boarders had already gone to work.

“Mama,” Ida called, “I don’t want to go to school today. I want to stay here with you. Because I won’t be here tomorrow.”

“Don’t talk crazy like that!” Maria waved her off.

Ida just stood in the doorway, her eyes fixed on her mother.

“Hurry up,” Maria told her. “Put your shoes on. Don’t be late.” Maria was already planning ahead for dinner and dessert. “Raffaello, bring me the sugar from the cabinet.”

Ida and Raffaello walked together into the big room. Ida sat down on the wooden floor to put on her shoes, positioning herself beside the nine-month-old Algisa, who lay in a blanket on the floor.

Raffaello shuffled toward the rickety cabinet at the back of the room. He was five years and five days old. He noticed something glinting from the top of the cabinet, which nearly touched the ceiling. He completely forgot about the sugar.

Lured by the shiny object, he pulled a chair over to the cabinet. He stepped on to the seat of the chair and climbed on to the flat surface atop the cabinet drawers about four feet off the ground. The upper shelves were now at his eye level. The glimmering object still beckoned from above. He reached for it, causing the cabinet to wobble. He almost fell.

“You get down from there!” his big sister Ida demanded as she laced her shoes.

He reached for the object again, pressing his body up against the shelves. This time, he grabbed it. It was a gun that had been hidden there by Red Pete.

“Put that down right now!” Ida insisted.

Raffaello thought the gun was a toy. He just wanted to pull the tab. He fumbled with the heavy object, struggling to hold it in his clumsy hands.

A gunshot rang through the house.

Mafalda and Leonata screamed. Algisa cried.

Maria rushed into the room. She saw Ida crumpled on the floor in a growing pool of blood, Mafalda and Leonata hysterical on either side of her, Raffaello standing stunned atop the cabinet drawers, and the gun lying on the floor beneath him.

“Ida!” Maria ran to her daughter and cradled her, rocking her limp body. “Ida!”

Maria then ran to the neighbors for help.

A teenage girl from Farindola rushed over with a broom to sweep up the blood.

The news spread swiftly around Lehigh Row.

Serafino came straight home from work.

None of the Di Gregorios went to school that day.

Ida was buried with her rouge.