I had argued without success against coming to Ischia, preferring to join friends and a cousin for a month of baseball camp. But money for baseball camp was scarce, especially when a round-trip coach ticket on Alitalia cost a mere sixty-eight dollars, and my father's fear of the drugs that had invaded our neighborhood far outweighed any qualms I had about getting on a plane to Rome, a train to Naples, and a boat to Ischia.
At least I knew there would be no language barrier to overcome. My mother never bothered to learn English, and the only language I spoke until I started grade school was Italian, specifically the Southern Italian dialect spoken on Ischia. And I had been raised on a steady diet of pasta with clam sauce on Fridays, pasta with red sauce on Sundays, and pasta with lentils or beans or squid or oil and garlic the rest of the week, so I didn't imagine food would be an issue.
I picked up my bags and made my way through the port, passing massive buses filled with German tourists and cabs waiting to take passengers to their hotels. I spotted several horse-drawn carriages parked on side streets and walked past a handful of coffee bars and gelato stands. In every corner of the port, men stood in small circles, smoking and waving their hands, engaged in animated discussions; old women walked slowly under a hot morning sun, arms linked together in a casual embrace, many wearing loose-fitting summer dresses; younger women, most of them pushing small children in snug strollers, made their way through the crowd, bathing suits clearly visible under their thin wraparounds. It was all so different from the world I had left behind. The sounds, smells, sights were all foreign, but somehow I knew from those very first moments it was a world where I truly belonged.
I reached into the front pocket of my jeans and pulled out a folded piece of paper. My mother had written out the simple set of directions I would need to reach my grandmother's home.
I walked up Via Roma and made a sharp left just before the start of the steep hill that led to Saint Peter's Church. A quarter of the way into the narrow walkway, I turned right and took two steps down into a small square that had a stone wall on one side and three homes on the other. It was here, at the last house in the square, that I first saw my Italian grandmother, Maria Mattera Carcaterra.
She was wearing a widow's black blouse, long skirt, and black sandals. Her thick hair, rolled in the back into a circular bun, was as white as a cloud. She waited until I was at the base of the stairway and casually waved me up. She then turned and headed back into her home, walking with a slight limp favoring her right leg. I made it up the stairs and rested my bags in the foyer. The walls were made of stone and painted white, the large room dominated by a dining table and two small couches. There were two large framed photos on opposite walls, each encased in a thick old wooden frame. One I knew must be of my grandfather, Gabriel, clearly taken when he was a young man. Nonna Maria came out of the kitchen and looked at me. Her eyes were dark and penetrating but with a hint of mischief in them. She stepped closer to me and I reached out my right hand, ready to shake hers and kiss her on both cheeks, as I had been told was the customary way to greet friends and family. She ignored my outstretched hand and wrapped her arms around me, holding me close to her for several moments, neither one of us saying a word. She then kissed me on top of my head, held me for a few seconds longer, and relaxed her arms. "The bathroom is down the hall," she said in Italian, nodding toward the rear of the apartment as she made her way back to the kitchen. "Wash up, change clothes if you like. Take any of the back rooms. Lunch will be ready in about ten minutes. You should be hungry after such a long trip."
I picked up my bags and looked into the kitchen as I made my way toward the hallway off the living room. "My mom told me you're a great cook," I said.
She turned toward me, a large wooden spoon in her right hand, pots and pans taking up every inch of the stove top. Behind her were an assortment of plates filled with roasted peppers, marinated eggplant, grilled artichokes, and a tomato and red onion salad. Nonna looked at me and shrugged. "I don't do anything," she said. "The stove does all the work."
By the time I came back into the main room of the house, the dining table was filled with platters of food. I sat on a hardback wood chair and waited for Nonna to come join me. She walked in holding a pot of espresso in one hand and a small cup in the other and sat across from me, the framed photo of my grandfather, her husband, gazing down at her. She nodded to the bottle of wine in the center of the table. "Eat and drink as much as you want," she said. "There's plenty more of everything in the kitchen. Your mother lets you have wine with your meals?"
I nodded. "Since I was four years old," I said. "She mixes it with water."
"Water is for flowers," Nonna said, reaching for the bottle of red wine and pouring me half a glass.