Her arms were folded on the table, one gnarled hand on top of the other, the coffee cup resting between them. "Aren't you going to eat?" I asked.
She gazed down at her cup of coffee. "This is all I need for now," she said.
I filled my plate and ate in silence for several minutes while Nonna refilled her coffee cup. "Is this where I'll be staying?" I finally asked, as I cut through a large stuffed red pepper. "Here with you?"
"My door is always open," Nonna said. "You can stay here for the summer or spend some time in the apartment building on Via Casciaro. Many of your aunts, uncles, and cousins are spending the summer there. It would be good for you to get to know them. For you to meet your family. But that's up to you."
"Do you go there a lot?" I asked.
"I've never been there," Nonna said. "I don't think I ever will go. I had it built for my children and for their children. I belong here, in my own home."
"It must be nice," I said. "To have your own home, I mean. We don't have anything like this in New York. The apartment we just moved into is about as big as this room."
Nonna sipped her coffee and nodded. "You have your own home. Here, in Ischia."
"I don't know what you mean."
"The building on Via Casciaro has twelve apartments," Nonna said. "They were divided equally between my six children; each got two apartments. They drew straws as to who would get which. Your mother got one of the garden apartments and one on the top floor. You're the youngest of her sons, so you get the one-bedroom. The one in the garden. It's yours. Not today, but one day."
"I bet it's better than what we're living in back home," I said. "That was a nice thing for you to do. Not for me, I mean. For your family."
"You are my family," Nonna said.
She stood slowly and began to clear the table. I got up to help her, and she looked at me and shook her head. "I'll take care of this," she said. "Go in the back and get some rest. Later, when you wake up from your nap, you'll go and meet the rest of your family. They're all waiting to see you, especially the cousins your age."
"How many cousins my age do I have?" I asked.
"On this island," Nonna said, as she headed back into the kitchen, "more than you can count."
* * *
Over the next two weeks, I met my aunts, uncles, and cousins and made a number of friends. As with my initial feelings about the island, there was an immediate sense of comfort and ease as I got to know the members of my mother's family. From the very first moment we met, we bonded as if I had been coming there every summer my whole life. I grew close to my cousin Paolo, and he introduced me to two of his friends—Pepe and Gaspare. We were all around the same age and the four of us soon became inseparable. We went to the beach in the mornings, swimming the hours away in the cool if crowded waters. Our nights were spent exploring the port, occasionally stopping for a simple pizza dinner, followed by a late-night walk and a gelato.
My uncles owned a tour company, and we would ride for free on the big buses with the family name written across the sides. I toured the eighteen-square-mile island several times, always struck by its beauty. The tourists were mostly German or British, many of whom had been coming to Ischia for years. My Uncle Mario spoke fluent German, and there were a number of tour guides fluent in multiple languages. During those two-hour rides around the island, I took in as much of its history as I could absorb—from its volcanic inception to its famed mineral waters and thermal baths to its occupation by the Nazis during World War II.
It was, by far, the happiest period of my life. It was so easy, at least for a brief time, to forget the horrors of what I had left behind in New York. My aunts—my mom's sisters, Nancy, Anna, and Frances—treated me as if I were one of their sons. Their husbands were equally warm and eager to make sure I felt welcome. My young cousins and their friends were fun to be around and made the time spent in their company memorable.
Each day, whether early in the morning or around sunset, I made it a point to visit with Nonna. She always had the coffeepot percolating regardless of time of day, and I loved sitting with her—either in her living room or after the short walk up the hill to Saint Peter's Church. She liked to sit on the stone bench in front of the church, in the cool of the night, watching as the tourists walked Corso Vittoria Colonna, dressed in their finest summer clothes.