Coffee and Cookies


Every single morning, Maria makes me coffee. I wake up with the sun, the beams of it streaming through and illuminating her dark, angular little house, the whole thing done up in dark greens and gold and tile—the colors of the landscape, the stringy weeds poking through the railroad tracks just up the street. I let myself sleep in.

On the first night, she offers me her spotless bedroom with its heavy bed—old as a century—and I can tell by the way she holds her hand out, the shortness of the words, that she doesn’t want me to accept so I don’t. I sleep in the living room on a kind of wide couch on a bolster pillow, on afghans that look and feel and smell exactly like the ones my grandmother crocheted for the couches in her own railroad apartment in Lawrence, Massachusetts. When my eyes open, every single time, I am confused and disoriented, remembering sleepovers of decades past in my grandparents’ living room, the couch cushions on my face.

Maria’s hoarse, early-morning voice is so like my grandfather’s when she says, “Ou, Laura,” scratching the side of her head. She hasn’t put in her teeth yet, smoothed her hair, but I know the sound of what she’s saying, what’s expected of me. Get your ass out of bed, in so many words. And she makes me coffee.

She makes it on the stove in her silver coffee pot that’s identical to my grandmother’s silver coffee pot. Americans would call it an espresso pot or a moka pot, but to Italians, there is no other kind of coffee pot, no other word or qualifier for what comes out of it. She watches it and waits, sometimes talking, sometimes just watching.

“The doctor,” she says holding up a small box, “He gave me this stuff for my face that burned and turned me all red. See? It’s junk. All of it. Doctors are all crooks.”

She will not start making it until I’m seated, until I’m facing the edge of the table, hovering over the blue cotton table cloth. She lays out a cup and a saucer, a spoon, a cloth napkin, a dish of cookies, a sugar bowl. One morning I was sleepy slow-moving and sad, thinking too much about my family, and I said, “Zia, go ahead and start it. I’m coming.” She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t start it.

Usually, she pours the milk first, exactly enough and from the little porcelain creamer—never directly out of the bottle. She made me coffee six times on six sunny mornings and I never once saw the bottle. Other times she pours it at the same time as the coffee in two long streams without spilling a drop, a little showoffy. Only once, on the morning I leave, does she pour the coffee first and I can tell she’s in an awful mood, stomping and clanging things around the kitchen, the coffee pot hitting the burner with a clank.

It is useless to tell her that I don’t really drink coffee, that it makes me jittery and disturbs my sleep. There is nothing else for me to have, no other kind of breakfast on this island. On this continent. And then I take a sip and fall in love. It is the best coffee I’ve ever had, whole-meal worthy, smooth and soothing and warm.

In six days, I eat 35 cookies. I don’t even care. I’m in Sicily and I’m starved. Starved . After months in chilly Paris without family and with few friends, months of salads, of French moderation, I want cookies. I want mountains of cookies. And maybe that’s why I eat 35 and maybe it’s because they are the taste of morning at my Nanna’s house all the way across an ocean.

Because you have to understand. When my family emigrated, they took everything with them. They took their language and their jittery nerves and their taste for gold couches and their cookies. They are the same cookies in Sicily that I ate every day at my grandmother’s house in America.

Once, I found a box of them in a shop in New York and ate the whole thing, every single cookie, in a night. I called my mother and she laughed into the phone. “I used to give you those when you were teething.”

This is my Sicily, every minute of it. It is like remembering something so old and specific, something that comes from a time before speech, before real thought. And all I can really remember is the taste.

I leave two in the bowl and Maria frowns. “Just eat them.”

Zia, I can’t. I’m full. I ate so many.”

“What’s your problem? Eat them. Mangia. You’re too skinny anyway.”

I finish them. Because in that instant, before it fades and goes off somewhere, returns to the back of my brain, to some other part of the universe, I can chew and swallow and remember.

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