You could say that I went to Capri to look for my mother.
All my life, Capri had been a fabled place, a fabulous homeland not easily forgotten. My widowed great-grandmother, Josephine Capritti, had left the island unwillingly with her youngest child, my grandmother, enticed across the ocean by grown sons who’d departed some years earlier in search of fame and fortune, or at least something more than the meager future the sun and sea could offer them. She made her home in Brooklyn, and when her daughter had grown and married, lived with her and tended the grandchildren.
From the tone of her voice in the retelling, my mother must have felt one of her most favored. In the mysterious logic of the heart, the Isle of Capri came to mean to me all that’s best and beautiful of love and family. I suppose I felt I could find something of my mother in the very air and something of myself as well.
My mother, Josephine Berretta Buel
May 26, 1924 -- December 21, 2006
A shock of recognition jolted me when I approached the woman behind the desk at our hotel. With her crop of graying curls, reserved smile and simple dress, she reminded me in every way of the Italian grandmother who’d given me her faux ruby rind and her prayer book when I was teenager. I found myself telling the hotel manager, and in short order everyone else, that my grandmother had lived on Capri.
“Yes, of course,” said the man who wanted to sell me Limoncello. He could see right away I had Italian blood in my veins. He plied me with a sample. I bought a bottle on the spot.
Over the next five days, I would try the patience of every merchant surrounding our hotel with the story of my grandmother. The cobbler and his son at work under an awning, the waiter scooping out gelato, the woman peddling expensive scarves. No one was spared.
I was amazed at not only the ease with which I imparted this information to complete strangers, but the utter glee as well. I ‘d never before felt such a need to belong as I did walking those streets, to be differentiated from the crowd of tourists clogging the way, or sitting in a darkening restaurant relishing the last sunlight falling on the sheer rock and glimmering sea.
Something in the combination of elements called to a memory not my own – the heat of the day relieved by the breeze off the water at night, the twisting roadways revealing slices of a panorama so lush and grand words fail to define. Something in that combustion felt like home.
Our last evening in Capri, I found myself with some hours alone. It saddened me to think of leaving. I retraced my steps one last time along the narrow streets, most of the shops closed, the superb restaurant we’d patronized twice just beginning to collect diners at the tidy, linen covered tables set out on its bougainvillea entwined porch.
My daughter Marion
The white façade of a small church finally beckoned me inside; a few curious tourists scrutinized the spare but beautiful interior. I took a seat on a back pew and with little regard to the surroundings, knelt to say a prayer. In mere moments, several other women took their places beside and around me. Then a few couples appeared. A number of families. Some elderly men and women. In no time, the church was quite full.
A man dressed in street clothes approached the altar rail, genuflected, then took a seat near the front. Without introduction, he began to recite what I felt certain must be the Apostle’s Creed in Italian. The parishioners joined him, and the Rosary was underway.
I stayed through the five decades of prayer, letting the music of the language fill me, the glorious, sorrowful, and joyous mysteries of the Holy Mother coming clearly to mind. I cried tears both grateful and glum. And I said a prayer for all the women in my family who had walked on the island before me, and for my mother, who hadn’t, but was there with me even so.
This atricle first appeared in North Country Cooking, March 2010