Nonna Maria and the Case of the Missing Bride
Nonna Maria poured herself a hot cup of espresso, her third of the morning, and gazed out the small kitchen window of her two-story white stone home. She then picked up a folded hand towel and brought the espresso pot into the dining room and rested it on a round silver tray. She pulled back a thick wooden chair and sat down. She rested her hands on the table and glanced at the young woman sitting across from her. There was an empty cup resting next to the woman’s right arm.
“I’m sorry to have come this early,” the woman said. She couldn’t have been much older than nineteen, her low voice still cradling the path between teenager and adult. “I should have called first.”
“I don’t have a phone,” Nonna Maria said. “And it’s never too early or too late to come see me. The coffee’s still hot and a warm cup will do you good.”
The woman glanced at the coffeepot and shook her head. “I wouldn’t mind a glass of water,” she said. “If it’s not too much of a bother.”
“Water’s only good for plants,” Nonna Maria said. “Have some coffee instead; it will help you relax and make it easier for you to tell me why you came to see me.”
Nonna Maria lifted the espresso pot and waited as the woman slid her empty cup closer to her. She filled the cup and then passed the sugar bowl across the table. “It’s better with sugar,” she said. “Two teaspoons are what most people prefer. I like three, myself. My nephew has asked me many times to cut back. But, then, he’s a doctor, and part of his job is to tell me to cut back on what I like to eat and drink.”
The woman smiled for the first time since she entered Nonna Maria’s house. It was the last house in a row of four similar houses in a small piazza facing a white rock wall, with pockets of black stains on the base, the result of too many years enduring too many rainstorms. The house was less than half a block from the local beach, a beach Nonna Maria had never once visited.
The woman took a sip of the coffee, rested her cup on the table, and then settled back in her chair. She looked like many of the local girls of the island. Her hair was dark and thick, running along the sides of her face; occasionally a few loose strands would rest next to one of her cheeks and she would flick them back with a quick flip of her head. Her eyes were dark as coal and her skin was brown from many summers spent under a hot sun.
“I’m so afraid, Nonna Maria,” she said in a quivering voice. “I’ve put myself in a horrible position and don’t know how to get out of it, not without causing my parents, my family, great expense and even greater embarrassment.”
“Does it have anything to do with your upcoming wedding?” Nonna Maria asked. She sat with her gnarled hands flat on the wood table, her dark eyes taking in the young woman sitting across from her. “And the man you’ve chosen to marry?”
The woman stared at Nonna Maria for several seconds and then nodded. “It’s true what they say about you,” the woman said, meekly attempting a smile. “You do know everything that happens on this island.”
Nonna Maria shook her head and gave her a half smile. “I don’t know everything,” she said. “I only know what I hear. And on an island filled with people who love to talk, especially about matters that don’t concern them, I hear quite a bit.”
Nonna Maria stood and walked toward the front door, a slight limp causing her to favor her right leg. She was wearing the widow’s black, a heavy full-length skirt and a long-sleeved blouse; her thick white hair was done up in a bun, curled and pinned to the top of her head with an array of black pins. “Come,” she said to the young woman, “and walk with me up to Via Roma. I want to visit one of my daughters. She had minor surgery the other day and my nephew—the doctor I spoke about earlier—wants to make sure she gets enough to eat, and he assigned the task to me. And while we walk, you can tell me why you don’t want to marry this man, Andrea Bartoli.”
The woman pushed back her chair, stood, and walked toward Nonna Maria. “You even know his name,” she said, not bothering to hide her surprise.
“As I told you,” Nonna Maria said, “I hear many things without the need to ask many questions. All that’s needed is for me to listen.”
“And what is it they say about me and the man I’m supposed to marry?” the young woman asked.
“They say, Anna,” Nonna Maria said, referring to the young woman by her name for the first time, “that you’re marrying not out of love but out of fear, for yourself and for your family.”
“And do you believe what they say?”
“Idle talk is just that, talk,” Nonna Maria said. “I’ll believe it when you tell me it’s more than that.”
“And if it is?” Anna asked.
Nonna Maria opened the front door and waited for Anna to approach the entryway. “Then I will be there to help you,” she said.
Nonna Maria had been a widow for twenty-five years. She was in her early seventies, though few on the island were certain as to her exact age and all knew it best not to ask. Her late husband, Gabriel, was a much-beloved shepherd, who tended to his flock and donated clothes, milk, and meat to those most in need. They had married young and raised a family of seven through good years and difficult ones. They had lost a grown son and an infant grandson to disease and another grandson in a car accident but always managed to keep the family united during those turbulent times.
Except for the occasional wedding and far too many funerals in Naples, Nonna Maria never left her home of Ischia. She had watched with silent amazement as Ischia, eighteen miles off the coast of Naples, had, over the course of her life, grown from an impoverished island to a magnet for thousands of tourists who filled its streets. During the height of the summer season, they crammed into both five-star hotels and small motels, while the beaches and spas were filled to capacity during the day and restaurants and clubs stayed open till nearly sunrise to accommodate all the customers. In a short span of time, many of the locals of the island went from living in despair and poverty to earning enough to keep their families well fed and financially secure.
Ischia has a population of sixty-five thousand, spread across five boroughs and 18 square miles. The island has long been famous for its rich thermal waters, their strength derived from the volcanic soil on which the island is built. For centuries, wealthy Northern Italians flocked to Ischia to cure their bodily ills and enjoy a sun-drenched break from life. Michelangelo built a house on the island, and Julius Caesar traveled there to take the mud baths to help heal his body after years in combat.
It is also an island that caught the eyes of filmmakers, both American and Italian. The Italian director Vittorio De Sica vacationed there, often in the company of his friends and frequent stars of his films, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. The director Billy Wilder and the actor Jack Lemmon so loved their time on Ischia that they decided to film a movie entirely on the island, using many of the locals as extras and in small parts. The 1972 movie—Avanti!—brought the island a bit of notoriety and led to a few more tourists coming to visit.
But it was one movie in particular that made the island a mecca of tourism, one that nearly bankrupted a studio and caused an international stir as the press went into a fever pitch covering a romance between its two leading actors, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The press attention the movie, Cleopatra, brought to the island has now long been forgotten. But the constant barrage of photos taken of the couple with the beauty of the island behind them led to a squadron of hotel and restaurant developers realizing this was an island ripe for investment. By the late sixties and early seventies, the quiet island of Ischia was packed with more than five hundred thousand visitors during the summer months.
None of this mattered to Nonna Maria.
To her, the island was not a tourist destination. It was her home. She was a familiar presence in the port area and was known and trusted by all who lived there. These were her people, young and old, and they had come to lean on her for advice and help during difficult times. She became the one they turned to when marital disputes needed to be resolved, when the time came to bring a family feud to an end, when a business was in distress and wise counsel was required.
Nonna Maria made wide use of her network of friends and family, spread throughout the entire island and reaching as far as Naples and Rome, a city she had never once visited. She was smart, listened to all sides of an argument, and never rushed to judgment. Nonna Maria was the person the locals of Ischia turned to first to guide them through troubled waters. She was their North Star and she never failed them.