Hot Pepper Jelly

Hot Pepper JellyI came across a small jar of homemade jelly in the pantry a couple of weeks ago, the kind sealed with a silver Ball canning lid and ring, the kind grandmothers have used for “putting up” jelly, chutney, tomatoes and the like for decades. Like most, this one had a little sticker affixed to it with a decorative design around the edge and handwriting in the middle to remind me what the jar contained and when it was made: “Hot Pepper Jelly 8.11.”

I’ve been the lucky recipient of lots of lovely canned delicacies from friends and family over the years. Just recently I got spicy pickles from the neighbor across the street who grows her own cucumbers and peach salsa from a friend who belongs to a fruit farm. I’ve become obsessed with the exceedingly tasty apricot preserves a former coworker started selling and enjoyed my mom’s lemon jewel marmalade at Christmas. I find these preserved treasures with some regularity in the pantry, so I’m not sure how I overlooked this jar until now.

The handwriting is so familiar that it hurts to look at. It’s the simple lettering of my friend Kim, who died in February.

Looking at it now, I remember she had been canning all kinds of things that summer. We belonged to the same farm, which had produced a great bounty and we all had way too much produce to know what to do with. The same day she put this jar into my hand, she also gave me onion and blueberry jams, which were consumed some time back.

I’m not sure why the hot pepper jelly is still around four years later. I love pepper jelly, so maybe I was saving it – I’ve always had hoarding tendencies with things I like. Lots of people don’t know what to do with it, but Texas natives like myself know that if you need an excellent (and extremely easy) appetizer, you simply pour pepper jelly over a hunk of cream cheese and serve it with crackers. (We swore by Wheat Thins in my family.)

Kim might have given it to me for Christmas at my husband’s and my annual holiday party in 2011. She never went to any party empty-handed, and she went to a lot of parties. Usually she brought wine or cookies (or both), but that year, it must have been her homemade canned goods.

The pepper jelly made the move from our old house to this one two years ago. When I packed it up, I bet I planned to open it at the next holiday party and serve it with cream cheese and crackers so that she could appreciate it. But for some reason, she didn’t make it to the party the year we moved, and last year we didn’t have one.

2011 was the year after Kim and I stopped working together. We had been co-managers in the marketing department of a credit union for four years doing complimentary but very different jobs. She did the outward-facing work of “business development,” something we jokingly referred to as the politician-type job of shaking hands and kissing babies. I did the creative work – ads, newsletters, website, email – behind the scenes. To me, it was a work marriage made in heaven.

I am shy in big groups; Kim was the opposite. Petite and blonde with a cute turned-up nose that defined the word “pert,” she absolutely bubbled in the presence of others. Kim liked people in a way I don’t, always finding something interesting to talk about and laughing as easily as she breathed. When we went to an event together, I would huddle closely to her for safety and she would push me into the crowd insisting, “Go shake hands with three people you don’t know!”

When my brother died, Kim was bereft for me. She’d experienced plenty of loss of her own, including a dear boyfriend named Tommy early on, who died in a motorcycle crash. She told me how every time she saw a goldfinch, she thought it was Tommy. She offered me her unused vacation time when I got stuck out of town with my family longer than expected for my brother’s memorial. Her sympathy was what I needed and what I didn’t get from many others. Upon my return home, I was surprised by a kitchen full of dozens of multicolored paper hearts cut out of construction paper. Kim had broken in and pasted them up everywhere – on cabinet doors, countertops, the stairway railing – like the most glorious, loving, kindergarten project you’d ever seen. I kept them up for weeks.

When our boss got crazy, she and I both quit within two weeks of each other out of solidarity.

Last spring, she was working a new job with a mutual friend – a friend I made because of her – and he had a major stroke. It was terrifying for her, as she was the one he called after collapsing at home. She was the one who then called the ambulance, his wife, their boss, his friends. She called me and asked me to fill in for him on some design work. We were so afraid we would lose him, but amazingly, he recovered beautifully after some time.

Kim started having health concerns of her own a few months later. I knew her stomach was bothering her and she was having some tests done. The last time we met for a drink, she didn’t order a glass of wine, but had seltzer instead. I heard from a mutual friend that she landed at a specialty hospital in Worcester for a few weeks. I emailed her and asked what was going on. “Kidney failure,” she typed back. She was having dialysis.

That seemed rather dire, but when she emailed and texted me, she sounded so upbeat, so normal, so Kim. I asked if I should drive out and she said no. I asked if she needed anything and she said no. I thought we would just get together when she got home, and we meant to, we really did. But somehow it just didn’t happen.

Then the friend who had the stroke, the one we had been so scared of losing less than a year before, sent me a message late on a Sunday night in early February. He said, out of the blue, that he didn’t think she was going to make it.

It was so sudden and so devastating. In that moment, I realized that it never even crossed my mind that Kim could die. I had never met anyone so alive. She was 51. She had three vibrant kids and more adoring friends than anyone I’d ever met. She wasn’t even that sick, was she?? It didn’t make any sense.

I turned into a frenzied mess, running up and down the stairs, texting and calling her friends, crying all over my husband, going through a whole box of Kleenex, punching the pillows on my bed, panicking, sweating despite the cold, and needing to do something, anything, and it was all much too late. There was nothing I could do. I was told by her best friend, “it’s family time at the hospital.” I finally fell asleep that night. She never woke up.

I missed Kim a little extra on her birthday in June – we used to celebrate together since we were less than two weeks apart. A goldfinch flitted over me that day, strangely close, and I wondered.

All I have is this little jar of hot pepper jelly as a souvenir. I love that it is petite and spicy, just like she was. I wish I had more, just like I wish I had more time with her, but I’m grateful for it all the same. At this year’s holiday party, I’m going to get a big chunk of cream cheese and pour it all on top and serve it up with crackers – Wheat Thins – with a glass of red wine in hand, and I will toast her, my beautiful friend, the one and only, Kim.

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