My mother picked up a green bell pepper and placed it on the cutting board. We were at the close of the growing season—the table was heaped with peppers, fresh from the earth. In moments, she had gutted and sectioned it. We were making pickled peppers, something Mom did every year. I was fourteen—this was my first time helping. “You do the yellow chilies,” she said. “Cut them in half, then take out the seeds. We’ll put a half pepper into each jar—they’ll add a little heat.” I nodded and set to work. The peppers felt smooth against my skin. They were lovely to look at. A little heat would be good. Looking back now, more than fifty years later, I have to say, yes, a little heat is good—until it’s not.
I don’t have to tell you it’s been a blistering summer. I hope you’re reading from a cool place. Truth is, I couldn’t tell you what all we did that day. I’m not someone who cans. I have vague memories of blanching the peppers somehow, at some point, maybe skinning them, and then packing them into quart Mason jars and covering them with hot brine. I remember there being perpetual rows of canned peppers on the shelves in the basement, and that we ate them all winter. I know enough about the rules of food storage to conclude we must have sealed the peppers that day by boiling the closed jars in a water bath.
I wish I could pick up the phone and ask Mom to describe everything we’d done. But I can’t. It’s too late—she’s passed on. I’m trying to write down everything I remember about her, for myself and our family, and anyone else who might enjoy thinking about the mundane blessings that come with life in a family.
The evening we made pickled peppers came back to me this week because it was Mom’s birthday. If she were still living, she’d be ninety-two. My hope and intuition is that, wherever she is now, she’s young and vibrant again: ninety-two, going on twenty-four. That’s how old she is in the picture above, taken at my grandparents’ house on my second Easter Sunday. You’ll notice my bunny, and that my iron-miner father has a book in his hands. He usually did, in his down time. My mother is pregnant and pale—my father, still rocking last summer’s tan. He loved a little heat.
I first thought I’d craft this story into an essay many years ago, and I asked Mom if she remembered the time we made pickled peppers. “Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes in that wordless way of saying, “Don’t remind me.”
* * *
I’m at a point of looking back, and back, in my reflections on life. I’d guess most of us get there, eventually. I wonder if I’ve ever done anything really worthwhile. I mean, something that makes a positive contribution to the care of the earth and every creature that crawls, walks, swims or flies over it. The web of life is complicated—the human mind and heart, equally so. I wonder more and more if I’ve ever done anything beyond satisfying my own needs or gratifying my own ego. Even writing this, putting my thoughts on the cutting board, is a stroking of ego. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
Maybe you know the Bible (you needn’t be a fan, or that familiar) and appreciate that there’s accumulated human wisdom in it. What I’m feeling at this stage of my life shares roots with the biblical idea that we have gifts, unique gifts we should be using for good. I think often about what the Apostle Paul says in the book of Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (RSV, 13:8). It’s good financial advice, to put limits on your debts. But there’s also good practice for human relationships in Paul’s words. We owe one another love, unceasingly, which I interpret as care and compassion.
Again, I see this call to be caring and compassionate as extending to every form of life, even the life of the earth itself. It’s more than a cliché that she’s our mother, generous with her gifts. As for that masculine pronoun “he” in the Romans text, I think it goes without saying that we should understand it to be an umbrella term representing every gender. Just because an ancient writer didn’t think about life and language in the inclusive way that most of us now prefer doesn’t mean we should throw the text out, as if it had no historical or philosophical value.
You may be wondering—what did I think, as I was preparing for adulthood, that I might do to make a positive difference? I’ve known since I was very small that my job was to use language. I’ve never wondered about it. I simply knew that writing would be my path. Even before I could read, I knew that my charge was to create meaning and music through words. As I grew older, I understood that with a call comes a purpose, and I understood mine to be to soothe people’s pains or move them to compassionate action. There’s a problem, though: a writer doesn’t know if the things she writes and puts into the world make a difference, large or small, for others. The act of writing, if intended for more eyes than your own, is an act of faith.
Let’s go back to pickled peppers.
* * *
The house we lived in was not fancy. The kitchen had a sink and a small pantry tucked away under the stairs to the second floor. There were no cabinets, no counters. I sat at the kitchen table with a knife in my hand—and no understanding that cooking involves peril. Slowly, carefully, I halved and removed seeds from quite a few yellow chilies. I hadn’t been handling them for too long before my skin began to smart. I was feeling a little heat. I said nothing and kept on until I’d finished. I washed my hands and, being a primarily good kid—my mom would verify this—I tried to ignore that my fingers were burning.
It wasn’t possible.
By the time we had the peppers in the jars and the lids on, the pain was intense. I was a good kid but given to flights of the dramatic. I’m still that way. Even now, telling this story, I rely on memory, of course—words spoken, the tone of the situation, my feelings. For the rest, I do the best I can, calling on dramatic imagination.
I held my hands up. “Mom,” I said. “My hands—they’re on fire.”
Mom looked up from whatever she was doing. “Oh!” she said. “The peppers.” On her face was a look of startled horror. “Oh, oh. I should have thought. Your skin’s too tender.”
She rushed me to the sink, where we washed my hands again, and again. But it was too late—the damage was done. Mom filled the sink with cold water and told me to keep my hands under. So now, my fingers were cold and burning. And then I was crying.
By the time I went to bed, I was outright wailing—flames were leaping from my hands. Mom sat beside my bed all night, holding them in a bowl of cold water as I tossed and moaned. All these years later, I’ll lie in bed sometimes, thinking of that night. I don’t remember the pain at all—just Mom, soothing me, holding my hands and whispering. “I know. It hurts. I know, sweet girl.”
* * *
Let’s not pretend there’s perfection in motherhood. Lord knows, Mother Earth has tantrums and quirks, and my mom had hers. Her name was Rauha. It’s a Finnish name and is pronounced thusly: ROW-haw, the first syllable rhyming with what I was saying the night the chili peppers burned my hands: Ow! Her name means “peace.” There’s an irony here—Mom was a handful, growing up. She’d been born a preemie and grew up a spoiled little girl. Her family gave her hot-headed nicknames. The first: Pauha, meaning “roar,” and the second, Pippuri Rauha, referring to a peppercorn. Mom began her life as an indulged little girl but matured into a woman who would sit awake all night, soothing her daughter’s pain. Am I being too generous, to say I expect most women would?
You’ll remember I referred earlier to feeling responsible for care of the earth. Imagine its immense rhythms and needs. Just like with any mother when her rhythms are off kilter, the earth’s disruptions affect the lives of her children. My human mother kept track of countless threads: a husband, five children, aging parents. Though she of course knew chili peppers could hurt me, on that evening we made pickled peppers, that detail just didn’t break through into the static of her overly busy mind. In the case of the planet—mother to all creatures—it’s impossible to imagine the many threads that depend on her, to count the ways her rhythms are lately off.
I mentioned how hot the summer has been. You know as well as I do that there’s been more than a little heat. Parts of the planet have burned, are still burning, sending out clouds of acrid, toxic smoke. This is the second summer our little town in Minnesota, and the clean-smelling woods and lakes around us, have tossed and groaned under rolling smoke. It suggests an ominous future, makes me hold my breath that it’s not too late to change what needs changing to avoid more damage.
I wrote about that first smoky summer earlier: “A Summer of Turkeys.” Mom was still with us then, isolated because of the pandemic in a senior living apartment, and my husband and I were caring for her. I was exhausted physically and emotionally wrung out. But Mother Earth provided a gift, a family of turkeys. It felt to me that, through the turkeys, she was there to hold my hand—just as my human mother had, on the night of the peppers. What keeps me sleepless these days is that I know the earth is there, always, and will take our hands into hers—but we won’t let her, we slap her hands away and let her burn.
My chosen path in life was language. I keep gathering words and rearranging them, saying in every way I can: “Look, please look at what we’re doing to this planet, to each other.” I say it, “Look, please look,” again and again, like an incantation, because if the words don’t catch on and spread more quickly than wildfire—what then?