In the short time I had spent in her company, I had already come to know several things about Nonna. She was a private person and never asked anyone a personal question, no matter how innocent it might appear. By the same token, she never wanted to be asked anything personal.
One night, after dinner, the two of us were sitting on the stone bench, quietly watching the crowd make their way past the shops, restaurants, and bars that dotted the Corso. A middle-aged man in a crisp polo shirt, creased shorts, and sandals walked by and nodded to Nonna.
"Buona sera, Maria," he said, waving and coming closer to us. Nonna nodded and gave him a short wave.
"Is this your grandson?" he asked, pointing at me as he approached. "The one from America?"
Nonna nodded again. "Yes," she said. "This is him."
"Bravo," he said with a wide smile. "And what great meal did you prepare for your grandson tonight? I only wish I was there, knowing what a great cook you must be."
Nonna smiled. "We both had steak, string beans with oil, lemon, and garlic, and a nice tomato salad.
The man smiled and clasped his hands together. "Excellent, Maria," he said. "Keep it up and the boy will never want to go back to America."
With that he wished us a good night, waved, and continued his walk down the Corso.
When he was safely out of earshot, I looked at her. "Nonna, we had pasta with clam sauce for dinner," I said to her. "We didn't have steak."
Nonna turned to me and shrugged. "Why is it any of his business what we had for dinner?" she said. "We ate what we ate. That should only matter to you and to me."
It was not Nonna's way to lecture or admonish. She never raised her voice and was most at home in the company of her grown children and a platoon of grandchildren in all age groups. She allowed the younger ones to rummage through the flowered apron she wore around her waist when she was in her kitchen, gleefully helping themselves to the wide array of candies she kept stashed in the two front pockets. She laughed and caressed their faces as each grandchild came away with fists full of hard candy. And if one of her daughters complained that the children should be limited to one or two sweets, Nonna would shrug her shoulders. "I didn't give them anything," she would say. "They took what they wanted." The sentence was always followed by a wink and a nod at the closest grandchild.
Nonna's family was from Ischia Ponte, a neighborhood that abuts the port. Its main attraction is the famous Castello Aragonese, used centuries ago as a defense against invaders. Today it is a tourist destination, complete with a small hotel and Il Monastero, a restaurant that offers a top-tier menu and magnificent views of the bay.
Ischia Ponte is a poorer area than the port or any of the other five boroughs that make up the island of Ischia. It is home to the many fishermen of the area, and these days the backstreets leading to the castle are crammed with small houses, bunched tightly together. On hot summer nights, old men and women sit on garden chairs in front of their homes; young children squat in the sand a few feet away, small pail and scoop at the ready; teens play soccer games closer to the beach, using large plastic garbage cans as makeshift goals. All in an attempt to catch a breeze and pass another scorching night. Ischia Ponte is crowded in the summer months and desolate in the winter.
During tourist season, street musicians gather in front of a small square or on the mile-long stone walkway to the castle entrance and serenade evening strollers, straw baskets or hats resting in front of them, which they hope to see filled with euros before the night comes to an end.
The highlight of the season arrives on July 26, the feast of Saint Anne. On this night, the bay is packed with tourist and fishing boats, all lit with torches, and wood and straw laid outside the castle is set ablaze. Larger boats come flowing down from the port, a convoy of multicolored floats, one of which will be designated best in show before the evening's end. And then a large and expansive series of fireworks is set off.
When she was a girl, Nonna would stand by the water's edge and watch the display with awe and fascination. By the time I met her, she had not been to the feast since my grandfather Gabriel died in 1954. "I remember all the times I went to see it," she said to me. "From when I was a child to when I was married with children of my own. I don't need to see it again. I just remember the times I went. As you get older, the memory of a place is better than being there. At least it is for me."
Nonna met Gabriel while she was still a teenager and, by all accounts, it was love at first glance. Gabriel was a shepherd from the port area, with enough family land to support a small flock. They were married in the early years of the twentieth century and shortly after moved into the home where Nonna would live until the day she died. They adored one another, seldom argued, and together raised a family and opened a successful fruit-and-vegetable business. Gabriel had a golden heart, lending what money and clothing he could spare to those in greater need. That became harder to do in the years leading up to World War II. When war finally did arrive, it made daily living that much more difficult. Survival became the family's only goal.