My paternal grandmother, Winnie, was a spicy woman.
Not spicy as in bad tempered, or any other negative connotation. She was spicy in the best way possible: vivacious and strong, bringing out the flavor in those around her.
We lost Winnie last October. She died in a hospital, which seems like such an injustice, given the way she lived her life. I never thought—not that I actually thought about it much before it happened—that she would die in a hospital. It just doesn’t suit her. She was too lively for that, had too much spunk and personality and sense of adventure. Dying in a hospital seemed unfair and unrepresentative.
At least she was surrounded by people she loved and who loved her. My dad and his brothers, my mom and aunt, my sister. As much as I would’ve liked to have been there to say goodbye, part of me is glad I wasn’t. I’m almost relieved that I can fully remember her the way she lived, not the way she died.
And she lived. She lived 93—almost 94—long years. She lived through unbelievable trials, the kind I can’t imagine and wouldn’t wish on an enemy: losing a child, husband, and sister, all well before their time. But she managed to find ways to thrive, whether it was playing cards with her group of girlfriends, traveling to Rio and London, opening her own antique shop, and loving her three boys with a love so fierce it couldn’t be contained.
You know, I wasn’t really prepared for Winnie’s death. Not that I was any more prepared for Mema’s, but for some reason I never thought about Winnie not being around. She was too resilient for that. Any time she was stricken with a health problem, she managed to pull it together and tough it out. I think that’s an apt description of her life, actually: Winnie Hendley, toughing it out since 1920.
Sometimes I like to think about how, if they’d been born in a different generation, my grandmothers would have lived. Would they have stayed in their small south Georgia hometowns? Or would they have left to see the world, something they both eventually did in their later years? Would they have been like me, and moved thousands of miles away from everything they know and love, just because they could, because it was possible? Would they have quenched their thirst for learning with piles of degrees?
My grandmothers were different in many ways, but in so many others they were alike: forces of nature—smart, capable, resourceful, adventurous, determined, curious, resilient, strong, and confident. But also gracious, loving, kind, thoughtful, graceful, hospitable, generous, and unswerving in their deeply held faith.
I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about Winnie’s death. Maybe because now that spring is almost here, I find myself visiting her back yard in my thoughts. The yard she loved so much. Camellia blossoms and day lilies. Countless hours on her knees in the dirt, planting and weeding under the hot Georgia sun.
All I can hope is that I live in such a way that both my grandmothers are proud of me. That I’m doing things they would have done, if they’d been given the chance. And to carry on all of the wonderful qualities they contributed to the world, to their communities, to their families, and to me. Those things cannot be lost.
Anyway, this is the pepper sauce Winnie always kept in a bottle (or cruet, if it was a holiday). She grew the peppers herself, of course. Splash this over cooked greens, or just about any vegetable, and you won’t be sorry. It’ll add a little spice to anything bland—just like Winnie.
Original recipe from Winnie.
apple cider vinegar
Take caps off of each pod of hot pepper—wash. Put peppers in bottle (use a glass bottle).
Boil a cup, more or less, of apple cider vinegar. When vinegar comes to a boil, pour over peppers and cap the bottle.
The longer it stands the better it gets.