Sunflowers in the Garden

It happened like a ceremony, we called it a "planting." Sometime between late April and mid-May as the sun coaxed our lawn from brown to green and shoes became less necessary, we'd get the family together for an evening alongside the fence. Daddy would bring rakes still caked in last year’s mud and old shovels with frowning tips. Momma carried various buckets- one for a medley of seeds, one for “nourishment,” and one for the few “plants already growing there” we’d be removing.

Plants we’d remove were referred to as “useful, but unimportant.” Never once did I hear my parents call them weeds. Only later in the year would we guess why they grew just fine without water, while the “useful, important” plants withered. Those hardy plants were useful, my parents said, because they grew- and were possibly unimportant for the same reason.

Our planting proceeded in uniform fashion. We’d turn the soil over not just once, but until hands turned red and began to blister. The ground became so airy that to step on it was to lose sight of your foot- and Daddy’s patience, as well. Occasionally, one or more of my siblings would daringly dart across the fertile bed when he’d turn away. Stepping in it made you feel weightless- as though you could fall backwards and make as angel like we’d done so many times in the winter snow.

A shouted, “Kids!” would always bring us back to planting.

A few quick maneuvers with the rake and our rows were initially hoed. Daddy had a way of moving this way and that, then stepping aside to show us an even, consistent row that traverses the length of our fence. A neat groove lined the top of each row. Once finished, he’d hand the rake to Momma, who would then open each seed packet by making a small tear in one end. She positioned each shaken-out-seed “just so” in the shallow trough, then covered it lightly with loam. We’d anxiously watch until called upon to assist with easy seeds like onions and beets.

Any leftover space was offered to the children, who could plant what they wished. Two or three years earlier, we’d impatiently planted a hodgepodge of the seed left in the bottom of the bucket-seeds Momma called “magical.” We were anxious to see what would grow. Only in August could we tell the Hubbard squash from the pumpkins. With diligent watering, we succeeded is raising a pumpkin that had to be moved in our wagon, and a squash that could be split only with an ax. From them on, we’d scrape any magical leftover together once all the little packets were gone, then broadcast these seeds in our corner spot and await nature’s outcome.

We’d fill a bucket many times to water the seeds. We’d trickle liquid here and there, then walk up and down between the rows to compact dirt that would become even more compressed as the season wore on.

The day’s crowning event was the planting of our family jewels. We’d taken from the previous year’s harvest a handful of 50 or so sunflower seeds. We fingered them individually from a small plastic bag, and embedded them evenly in the space that remained along the fence. A seed was placed on the tip of a finger, then pushed deep in the ground was all it took.

And that is where the real garden grew.

It wasn’t until I was almost twenty that I put the entire puzzle together. One year, as my voice was just beginning to crack, our sunflower sowing had an uncommon reaping. Regardless of the number of sunflower seeds that we planted that year, only five-one plant for each family member- grew into a full-sized sunflower. Many would grow much shorter, non-flowering versions of this plant called sunflower, but only four, then mysteriously, five grew to maturity. It was never clear why this happened. It was an unexplained phenomenon that paralleled and perhaps shaped our lives-at least for the season.

What became Daddy’s flower was, of course, the tallest. Momma’s was the next in size. The rest followed the pattern of our family-two taller, competing plants closing in on Momma’s in height, and one daintier plant that was both leafy and narrow. Each grew by what seemed inches a day, sort of catching up to where it should be relative to the size of our family. Daddy’s sprinted ahead of the rest, showing record-setting promise- then slowed as it peeked over the fence into the Smith’s yard. Jimmy’s and mine crowded each other halfway up the fence. Sarah’s stood a little to the side, almost in the shade. It seemed more interested in growing leaves then getting ready to become a flower.

But Momma’s blossomed first. It was a Tuesday mid-morning affair. We had expected a blossoming, but the brilliant yellow burst that greeted us as we raced outside after breakfast was awesome. The flower was only a few inches in diameter, and like a newborn colt seemed wet and wiggly getting to its feet. The yellow petals bent inward until, sparked by the sun, they exploded in flame. Within hours we had a full-fledged sunflower. But that was Momma, a perfect woman of virtue who was first on the scene, bringing immense happiness to whomever she met with a plateful of just-baked cookie, an ear to bend, a tear to shed. We thought she’d always been this way.

The rest of our plants just kept growing, only to flower much later. When Jimmy stepped on a nail in our woodpile, a few leaves on his plant turned brown. Daddy laughed at our theory that these events were some how connected, and passed it off to lack of water. We insisted the brown leaves weren't there earlier that day.

“Brown leaves take time,” he said. But after his tetanus shot, Jimmy and I could see more green in the leaves.

We began using our theory to test other family events. The fact that we had only the right number of sunflower plants for each person in our family seemed strange. Suggesting that the plants somehow mirrored our lives make the neighbor kids sit up and listen. That the leaves on Jimmy’s plant died, then came back to life only after Jimmy’s shot was too much!

“Why hasn’t Daddy’s blossomed yet,” one of us asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Yeah, and why it’s kind of leaning on the fence?”

 “It looks sad.”

We’d speculate on such matters as whether daddy was happy, and why he might not be. We knew only that he was gone a lot that summer. Later in the day we’d ask him if he was sad, and he’d tussle our hair and say that is was nice we were concerned.

“He didn’t say, ‘No, I’m happy,” Jimmy would contend.

“But he seems happy.”

“Seems sad to me.”

Each day Daddy’s plant seemed to lean more against the fence. A full head was developing that bent over like a shepherd’s crook. When it bloomed, it’s short petals seemed like the ray’s I’d drawn countless times around circles that meant “sun” in all my early art. The areas inside the petals held hundreds of seeds. But each day it leaned farther against the fence.

Then someone knocked Sarah’s plant over. No one would admit to the act. Sarah cried because we teased her that she’d no longer be a part of the family. We were all so worked up that Momma called Daddy at work to reassure us that he could replant Sarah’s flower when he got home.

“Put it in a bucket of water,” he said. Sarah liked the idea. “My plant’s swimming. Just like I want to swim everyday.”

Jimmy and I secretly expected something to happen to Sarah. We began watching her closely.

“Don’t let her out of your sight, Jimmy.”

“She looks sick to me,” Jimmy hinted.

“Yeah, kind of pale.”

Replanted, Sarah’s plant seemed to thrive. When it grew taller than Jimmy’s and mine, Sarah became quite competitive.

“Mine’s taller than yours,” Sarah sang.

“Daddy fertilized it,” was all we could say.

We were all convinced Daddy’s sunflower head was the biggest and broadest we’d ever seen. Momma’s had such fine features we talked about entering it in the county fair. Where the sunflowers grew, Daddy’s brooded over the rest- still leaning against the fence, but sheltering us from the sun late in the day.

“Why does it lean against the fence?” We asked daddy this question nearly every night.

“Look closely at the base of the stalk,” he pointed out. “Something about the way this plant grew has weakened the base.” He pulled the sunflower away from the fence and showed us how the place where the plant entered the ground could be moved back and forth, just like a door hinge. Then he compared it to Momma’s plant which had a much thicker stalk.

“If I moved it too much, it’d probably break off. So it’s just better to leave it against the fence. It’ll still grow tall and have a lot of sunflower seeds at the end of the year. It’s a good plant as long as you leave it alone.”

I look back on that year with hesitation. Though our sunflowers were gone, they seemed to have set a pattern for our family. Daddy’s business collapsed, and he was gone for weeks on end finding a new job, and then a new home. He’d come home and tussle our hair. At night, he’d lean against the kitchen entryway, talking to Momma about how hard it was being away from her and the family. “It’s lonely,” he said.

Momma held steady and seemed to thrive under the strain of just getting by. The only time I remember sadness was when she couldn’t find a ten-dollar-bill she’d saved for Christmas presents. I still don’t understand how such a small amount of money can bring tears. She turned every form of scrimping into a game. When the oil tank that fueled the furnace ran dry, we rolled newspapers into logs and bound them with wire for the fireplace. We were lumberjacks. Later, we wore sweaters and pretended we were Eskimos until the oil truck finally came. “We live in an igloo,” Momma had said.

Sarah got pneumonia and was hospitalized for a few weeks until she could again breathe on her won. The doctors said that Sarah’s lungs were swimming. Daddy was furious about the oil tank, and came home for a whole week. We’d go see Sarah, who seemed taller and healthier in that hospital bed. We teased that she’d have to stay in the hospital forever.

“I don’t care. It’s warm here,” she’d said. For Jimmy and me, nothing seemed out of place.

Momma kept life moving in such an extraordinary nary way that all we had to worry about was playing. When we moved to Bountiful, all we could think about was our new house with new rooms to play in. Jimmy and I ran through every room when we arrived there that night. “Which one is ours?” we’d asked.

By next spring, in our new yard in a new city, we watched the sun coax our smaller brown lawn back to green. One evening Daddy brought out a rake and Momma found the tiny bag with last year’s sunflower harvest. We eagerly rushed outdoors into the weather, kicking our shoes this way and that as we ran.

“Not room for much of a garden,” Daddy said.

“Always room for sunflower,” Momma replied.

When I was young, we always had sunflowers in our garden.

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