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Ode to Okra

Candlelight graces a table on our houseboat in Kerala. Tears well and fall down my cheeks at the taste of okra. The cook comes in, “Ma’am are you alright? Was the food too spicy for you?” I smile and nod subtly sideways, the Indian way that says, no, yes, maybe.

“Her father died two years ago,” my friend tells him. The cook’s bright smile closes as he says, “I’m sorry.” He didn’t question why tears should be falling from something that happened a long time ago. In India, crying is normal.

Meanwhile, I sat there feeling the tears roll down my face fresh as rain, moisture on dry thirsty skin. I was not at the table in my mind, but found myself clear as the early morning in a memory of being in the family garden with my father.

Peppers were all hot and ready for pickling, the tomatoes were heavy on the vine, pole beans were falling from the trellis and the okra was sticking straight up, tips to the sky.

I remember okra growing in my grandfather’s garden in the deep-southern terracotta-colored dirt of Clay county, Alabama. That orange earth, particularly infused with minerals, never lacked for nutrients. Neither did we. The taste of corn, black-eyed peas and, of course, okra gave a lasting flavor in the mouth of something you wanted more of. Long stems grew tall with subtle yellow flowers in springtime before warm, sensual summer nights encouraged the nub of okra to swell almost overnight.

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