Kirsten Keppel is a 2017 Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum semifinalist for her film Ringraziamenti: The Saint Joseph’s Day Table Tradition. She is a proud member and videographer for the Abruzzo and Molise Heritage Society of Washington, DC. She is also a regular contributor to Ambassador magazine of the National Italian American Foundation.
A fourth-generation descendant of Molisani great-grandparents, Kirsten lives in Washington, DC.
In Abruzzo, my great-great aunt’s youngest child
cooks me ciambellone, in her eighth decade.
She makes sure I taste lemon cake every morning.
Laced with lemon hints, the sweet bread scents
Abruzzo’s mountain air with Mediterranean glints.
Every night, she says to call her the moment I awake
so my espresso will be hot and my ciambellone fresh.
We sit on her balcony, coffee companions.
Our eyes link as we sip in recognition.
She tells me of the ancestors, the ones I never knew,
In stories moving like ships, back and forth across the sea.
It’s as if she knows how time is precious. And makes sure
I learn, through lemons, the power of receiving and of listening.
The lemon warms my insides with journeys come full circle.
“Quaranta giorni, mamma diceva,” she says, vowels spilling
on the table in refrain. “Forty days, mamma used to say.”
She speaks to me this way of her mother’s Atlantic crossings.
Her mother left Italy a baby and returned a bride.
“She missed America,” her daughter says.
“Her family. The conveniences.”
In America, my great-great uncle’s great-grandchild
cooks me lemon poppy seed bread. She serves it
with espresso and Italian sweet cream coffee creamer.
I teach her English grammar so she understands Italian.
She makes sure in her second decade to study Italian syntax.
Does she know how deftly her hands already speak it?
My words connect the coffees and the creamers,
the lemons and the living, the roots made into rings.
One child calls it ciambellone; the other lemon poppy seed bread.
I hold both breads like they’re manna.
Tradition gets adapted in the adopted country,
yet has roots in the same aroma. The roots
run deep with lemon and long fingers
folding dough in family rings now come full circle.
Lo Zafferano d’Abruzzo: Ghazal
Such spicy contradictions hang by a thread,
in this back-pocket secret with stories ahead.
Abruzzo’s hidden gem, Navelli’s red gold,
drapes dishes arranged in such gigantic spread.
Its purple the skies in L’Aquila’s winter,
its orange spilled in summer and splashed in sunset.
Soaked in gold by the sun, then steeped in the snow,
from such humble beginnings comes world-famous tread.
Elegant shoulders, mountains open their arms
to snap purple stalks into place with zero regret.
An open-air mystery, familiar and foreign,
its name is well-known, yet so often unsaid.
Just like saffron, my threads to Italy are wildflowers,
strong on soils and spirits to which I am led.
In Sulmona, Abruzzo’s candyland,
where Avola almonds get rolled out
and covered with sugar, by hand,
I see the Italian my mom might have been
roll out with them. But for three weeks
of passage, two grandparents, and one
life decision, Mom might have munched
confetti here, not in New York.
Her gusto emerges in the shadow
of Monte Morrone, the mountain range
that wears her family name. Mom’s
softness emerges, sweet like this sugar
coating Sicilian almonds in Abruzzo.
Her joy erupts, a scattering to latitudes.
Her arms open to embrace abundance.
What fear they held so many years,
what regret – for not speaking Italian.
No sugar coating could ever be sweet
enough to cover the need to reconnect,
a longing to belong – not indirect.
At the fabbrica, Mom’s secret stash
of Italian adjectives comes untied like
the ribbons she once tugged open
wound round tulle sacs of these confetti.
Switching languages and roles, she moves
from tourist to taskmaster – mine.
“See, they make them all by hand.
They use Sicilian almonds.
Dispoti? (Laid out?)
Fatto a mano? (Handmade?)
Isn’t that something?”
Sì, mamma. It’s something!
Like your word stash of confetti: spherical, oval,
heart-shaped, handmade. Is this what
you’re hoping to hand down to me?
From where did you get all these words?
Did the elders, beaded time travelers,
make you and me bite into the center
of a sugarcoated almond, for a journey
they hoped we might one day know?
The Aterno river winds along these mountains
through the Valle Peligna. A ribbon stretched
along fertile earth, where grain and wine
still grow, its water’s permanence streams on,
softening mountain shoulders. Yours and mine, too.
Poetry in this post: © Kirsten Keppel
Published with the permission of Kirsten Keppel