Ghost peppers, or thoughts on legacy and loss

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Ghost peppers are among the hottest on the planet, rated 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. Plans have been made to use them for combative purposes such as hand grenades and pepper spray. My cousin, or rather the husband of my Dad’s cousin, presented Joe and I with some in a little baggie the last time we saw him, at dinner during spring vacation in Florida.  He had grown them himself, somewhere on the property that he and his wife had lived on for decades. I have never visited so it is hard for me to imagine whether the pepper plants grew on the side of the house or perhaps by the pool, where they could soak in the full sun. From my mother’s description, kimonos hung on the walls of their house, souvenirs from their long sojourn in Japan, so I can picture these ghostly garments watching over a pepper plant in a light-filled window.

Charles had remembered that we like spicy food and had picked a few dried peppers to give to us. I like to imagine him at the counter, choosing carefully which ones to give to us, sealing the plastic baggie. The peppers riding in his wife Joan’s purse on the way to dinner.

I found the peppers last week when I was cleaning out the cupboard. Both Joan and Charles are now gone, and though I haven’t given the peppers or any thought of using them in almost two years, I paused before throwing them away.  They had not aged in the two years since we were gifted them, their color a slightly dusty but still vibrant red-orange.  Yet I have, tremendously and at the same time, not much, since we last waved goodbye to Joan and Charles, through the window of the restaurant as each of us carried a child on a hip.

Somehow I find a disproportionate comfort in the act of the giving and receiving of those peppers. It was a calculated transaction, even if just a response to an offhand comment of Joe’s or mine about our preference for spicy food. For the sake of my belly and the preferences of my children, I no longer make meals that burn our lips, that have us reaching for water after every bite. Joan and Charles are dead, but this small but definite act of kindness reminds me of the potency of our actions, the ability to cultivate and pass on certain memories and feelings even after we have passed on.

I photographed the peppers, lamenting my camera’s inability to record the details of them, lamenting my own inability to recall the hands who passed them to me (though the face is still well-remembered), lamenting the simple finality that we didn’t visit Joan and Charles more and now we cannot. Then I swept the peppers into the trashcan and continued cleaning the cupboard, wondering if the capsaicin still lingered on my fingertips despite my care in handling them.

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