My life changed for the better in the summer of 1969 when I was sent to live on the island of Ischia, 18 miles off the coast of Naples. I was not quite 15 and was leaving behind a small world of trouble and knew my life was not heading down a rosy path.
And then I met Grandma Maria.
She was short, stocky and walked with a limp. She had hair the color of clouds and kept it up in a bun. She wore widow’s black and had every day since my Grandpa Gabriel had died in 1954. She always had a pot of espresso brewing on the stove and was seldom without a cup. She drank her coffee hot, three sugars sweet, small piece of dark chocolate melted inside and the occasional drop of Stock 84, an Italian brandy, tossed in. She had lived a full life by the time I met her and been touched as many were on that island by the weight of World War II. Grandma Maria had lost a son, a grandson, and a son-in-law to the war and seen a daughter (my mother) widowed at 24. She made the then long-trek to Naples each day for 5 years to gather what food she could from the black market, while my Grandpa tended to his flock of sheep and her children minded what few goods were left to sell in the grocery store they owned. She also moved bootleg wine from the mountains to the port three nights a week, mindful of the Nazis soldiers who occupied the island, quietly moving a mule and a cart filled with barrels down steep and narrow hills to waiting boats.
She was a great storyteller and in me she found a most willing audience. She lived in a two-story stone house less than a quarter-mile from a beach she never visited. The house was sparsely furnished and there were only two photos on the walls, both large and housed in thick wooden frames. One I knew was my Grandpa Gabriel—a younger version, smiling slightly, a gleam to his eye. The other was of a young man, late teens maybe, and handsome, thick dark hair and eyes the color of coal. I had been with her for two weeks before I asked who he was. “Your Uncle John,” she said, pouring herself a fresh cup of coffee.
I thought I had met all my uncles. “I was at the hospital in Naples, gave birth to my last son, Joseph,” she said. “The morning came when we were to pack and take our babies home. Your grandfather was outside talking to the nuns as they were preparing the babies. He saw one of the babies in a corner and asked if he was sick. A nun shook her head. ‘He’s abandoned,’ she said. ‘Left by his mother.’
‘What happens to him now?’ he asked.
‘He’ll go the orphanage,’ the nun said.
Your grandfather was silent for a minute and then turned to the nun. She knew him well since I had been there many times to give birth. ‘Can I take him?’ he asked.
The nun smiled and nodded. ‘I’ll need you to sign some forms.’
A few minutes later, your grandfather walks into my room, a nun behind him holding two babies. I looked at him. ‘I’ll tell you about it on the ride home,’ he said.
“So you adopted him,” I said.
She nodded. “Now no father has a favorite child, none he’ll admit to anyway,” she went on. “But John and your grandfather were inseparable. They were both handy and were always working on one project or another. They laughed a lot and worked the flock together. Then came a war none of us asked for and off John went. He was in the Navy, assigned to submarine duty. Somewhere, I don’t know where, his submarine was depth charged by a British destroyer. He was 19 when he died.”
She paused and finished her coffee. “Your grandfather was home the day the military car pulled up. He saw the soldiers get out, one holding a folded flag. He yelled for them to stop. ‘I don’t want your flag or your war,’ he said. ‘I want my son and if you can’t give him to me then get in your car and off my land.’
Grandma Maria reached over and held my hand in hers. “Ten years later, cancer took your Grandpa’s life,” she said. “But truth is, he died on that day.”
“I’m so sorry, Nonna,” was all I could manage to say.
“My John was a good boy and would have been a good man,” she said. “He always had a smile on his face, a lot like you. He grew up during a hard time for this family, the war, little to eat, less to drink, bombings nearly every night. Through all those days and nights, he never let the troubles change who he was, never used them as an excuse. And you shouldn’t either.”
I will never forget that first summer away from home, spent on that magical island. Those warm days and cool nights changed my life and I owe it all to a simple, elegant, funny, determined old woman who drank too much coffee and giggled like a school girl when the youngest of her grandchildren would rifle through the pockets of her house dress looking for the hard candies she kept hidden there.
Grandma Maria Mattera Carcaterra.
My memories of her will never fade.