In the pantry, a jar sits on a shelve, lonely and unused. Its bright red colour livens the mess of spices and aromatics standing at attention in a practical array. Bird’s Eye chili peppers, dried to a dusty crisp, artifacts of a summer’s past.
We had planned a large garden, tilled long and narrow mounds on which we planted gourds, lettuces and root vegetables, our knowledge of gardening inversely proportional to our enthusiasm. Seeds of hot peppers thrown on the edge of a row of romaine lettuce testified to our inexperience. They should have been sprouted indoors while the deep brown earth laid dormant under a crust of snow and ice.
Shortly after laying our cornucopia underground, we had seen our own little buds sprouting deep inside the warm comfort of the womb. Twins. Bed rest. Our garden was left to fend for itself as we fought the forces of chaos on the home front. Within a few weeks in July weeds choked everything but the sturdiest squashes, potatoes, and zucchinis. “No wonder that’s what the pioneers ate,” I thought as I laid hatching. The spring rains gorged the edible plants as well as the weeds, the summer sun ripened them. The children picked what could be salvaged and eaten raw and the twin buds rested and grew. Summer lingered into September, then exceptionally into October and the weeds got more luscious. The twin buds matured and bloomed and I was released to the garden just in time to harvest a late crop of red hot chili peppers before fall threw its blanket of frost, smothering weeds and herbs alike. I strung the peppers on a thread with a sewing needle and hung them to dry in a south-facing window, letting the summer rain evaporate from the taunt red flesh.
Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, the sequence of a year. The peppers adorned our window for a year, long dried but too hot to complement our family’s dishes. Some were rehydrated with boiling water, cooked with oil and garlic and made into chili garlic sauce following Margaret’s authentic Malaysian recipe. We used it by the drop, careful not to breathe deeply while the jar was open.
The house and the garden wrapped their weight around our necks like a boat anchor, dragging our family into a wake of debt and fear. When we decided to sell our house to pay off all our debts the peppers were duly packed into a glass jar, wrapped in packing paper, and moved to our new landing, a relic of the dreams we left behind as we looked up and ahead. The peppers remained untouched as we welcomed our ninth child and moved again when we made our home in the highlands.
Here they live, a vibrant reminder of a summer past when we learned the wisdom of letting things grow as they must.