Many years ago, when I was a soldier and stationed abroad, I fell in love with and married a beautiful woman who, after the fashion of her countrymen, fancied the spiciest foods. When it became apparent that despite our most vigorous and prolonged efforts, she could not have children, we adopted a mixed-race baby, a winsome toddler abandoned by her parents, whom we called Sunny. I soon came to love her as my own.
Then I was dispatched to another post in Europe. I took my family, of course. My wife brought with her a bag of chili pepper pods. Most went to season her food, but she put a few aside and in our first spring in that far northern nation, we harvested the seeds of the remaining pods and planted them in window boxes. In that way she always had enough of the potent spice to satisfy her fondness for its flavorsome qualities.
On the very day that Nixon fell upon his Watergate sword and left office in disgrace, I resigned my Army commission and, with my wife and daughter, returned to my California homeland. I took up photojournalism as a profession and found a new home, and because I, too, had come to favor my wife’s particular—some might say peculiar—peppers, we continued to grow them.
The earth turned, the seasons changed, the years came and went and my wife’s love for me shriveled like a fallen peach left to dry in the orchard sun. She found a man more to her liking and abandoned me, taking our much beloved daughter.
All that I had to show from our marriage were bittersweet memories. And a small stash of her precious, peripatetic pepper pods.
Over the years of my marriage my palate had become more sophisticated; I yearned for the spicy fare that I’d shared with my former wife. But nowhere in California’s markets and Asian food shops, a paradise for spicy food lovers, could I find the particular and distinctive peppers that I had learned to prefer.
So I persevered in my annual pepper planting procedures. Every year in mid-March I found a wooden spoon and used its rounded handle to poke dozens of holes a few inches apart in the spacious yard planter that served as my garden. I dropped a single seed in each hole, covered it lightly with soil, and when the sowing was complete, sprinkled a little water over the entire planter. That single planting yielded more than enough to last me until the next harvest.
And so the seasons waxed and waned, the earth turned, my peppers prospered, my food grew ever spicier and every year my absent daughter, who had been taken off to Hawaii and with whom I had scant contact, became more precious to me.
A few weeks before her fourteenth birthday, Sunny’s mother sent her back to me.
She tested me from the moment that she arrived wearing white pancake makeup with black lipstick and matching nail polish. She insisted that I called her Tomi and demanded that I get her a prescription for birth control pills. Out of my sight she smoked cigarettes, drank beer, ditched classes and hung out with a mangy flock of ill-mannered delinquents. She secretly dated a dim, hirsute twenty-something until his arrest for burglary, then ran up huge phone bills accepting his collect calls from jail.
Her grades fell from B’s and C’s to D’s and F’s. When absences and poor grades caught up with her, she was expelled and forced to enroll in a continuation school.
This did nothing to help mend her ways. After missing whole days of school, she got a final warning: One more unexcused absence and she would be locked in an institution with barred windows — reform school.
Then she disappeared.
I phoned her friends, cruised the neighborhood, checked with hospitals, called the police. After two sleepless night, she returned at dawn, refusing to say where she'd been, or even to discuss the matter. "I want to go to sleep," was all she said.
I lost it. For the first and only time, I struck her.
Immediately I knew that I was wrong. There is no excuse for an adult striking a child. I apologized for my behavior.
The next day she apologized for hers. Together we saw a family counselor. I discovered that she had issues of which I had been only dimly aware: Why had her birth mother abandoned her? Because of her mixed ancestry? Was she cursed from birth? Somehow no good? Struggling to deal with unbearable pain, she had acted out her suffering and alienated my former wife. First neglected and then rejected, she felt that my assumption of her custody was punishment, that she had been exiled. My little girl, now almost a young woman, worried that I didn’t truly love her and that I, too, would eventually abandon her, as had everyone else she loved.
And she felt trapped between two worlds, two races, two cultures, neither of which fully embraced her. She felt judgment in the stares of Asians who knew, at a glance, that one of her parents was Caucasian. She perceived the same prejudiced verdict in the eyes and faces of whites, including her teachers and classmates. Who was she? Where did she belong? She yearned to know her place in the world.
And she felt like an unwelcome guest in my house.
I made some changes. Together we went house-hunting 50 miles away. We looked at several places; I bought the home that Sunny—now Tomi—preferred. We painted and redecorated together. It became our house.
I found a school where children of mixed ancestries were numerous and where students of many races mingled freely.
I changed professions, became a writer, undertook long-term projects so that I would no longer have to travel so frequently. I opened my world to Tomi, sharing my generation’s music and seeking to fathom hers. I made her my confidante, and in time I became hers. I contrived to take her with me to China, and then to London, and showed her a world of beauty and sophistication that she had been only dimly aware of. I taught her to use one of the earliest home computers, and arranged my schedule so that I would always be home for my daughter.
And little by little, almost miraculously, Tomi pulled herself together. She made up her failed classes. As a junior she won election to the student council. In the summer before her senior year she earned the privilege of joining a school trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with law-makers and observe government in action.
And that fall, while she was away, while harvesting the last of that year’s pepper crop, I realized that these simple plants could teach me a vital lesson. I recalled that I put all of the seeds into the ground at the same time. And yet there was always one that germinated first, was first to poke its slender green stalk out of the dark world of the soil and into the cosmos of light and air. Always one that by late June or early July was fiery red and ready to be picked, ready to season a stew or spice a soup. And that each and all the others followed in their own good time until, by late summer, months after the first, the very last seed sprouted. Thus I had peppers from midsummer to late fall, when the ultimate pod on the terminal and most reluctant plant had finally metamorphosed from green to pale orange to deep red.
And that final pepper, that very last one, that fruit of November, was just as good, just as full of fire and spice as the very first.
Tomi graduated from high school a year late, but in the fullness of her proper season.
Copyright © 2008 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.