Marigolds

1993-08-keely-sterling-road-cropped

I love the sass my niece is bringing in this picture, but my favorite thing is the flowers, despite the fact that I cannot stand marigolds.

The flower bed along our driveway extended out toward the road and then curved around and went along the frontage for a bit. Every year, my mother planted the entire expanse of flower beds in orange and yellow marigolds. I do not know why. I’m pretty sure even she didn’t like them. Maybe it was a habit. Maybe she thought she couldn’t grow anything else – I come by my dubious gardening skills honestly.

Whatever the reason, every spring I went out there with her, carrying endless flats of marigolds and a load of resentment. I hated planting the stupid marigolds, and so did she. It was not fun, even when she didn’t step on the business end of a rake, levering the heavy wooden handle right up into her face to give herself a fat lip. She loved explaining that one at church the next day.

This snapshot is dated on the back, in my mother’s cramped hand. It was August of 1993, the month I left for my freshman year of college. It was the last time everything felt the same, right before my world shifted off its axis.

My father was sick, and I had known this for a long time, but I didn’t know how sick. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe I was too wrapped up in myself and my new adventure to pay enough attention. I’d been off at school only a couple of months before I got a phone call telling me to come home right away.

I called my cousin Gina, in her sophomore year at a school half an hour away, and she dropped everything to come and get me. She drove me home, two and a half hours away, listening alternately to my tears and my silence, and holding my hand. I was too inside myself at the time to notice, but I think now that it must have seemed as if her world were shifting, too. Ferrying around someone cast into the early stages of grief and denial is a job for a grownup, and she wasn’t much farther out of the nest than I was.

He didn’t die that weekend, and I went back to school Sunday night, confused and afraid, and pretending I was fine. I drove back by myself, in a stripped-down gray Toyota pickup that Dad had intended to drive to job sites someday. It hadn’t been pressed into service, and it was still nearly pristine, the vinyl seats untouched by concrete dust and fill dirt. There was money in my pocket for a freshman parking permit. I’d begged for weeks that summer to be allowed to take a car to school and been turned down flat every time. I’d won, but victory tasted acrid. The marigolds were gone by then, the November air too cold for even their hardy nature. It had been their last summer.

Dad held on until February. The next summer, Mom was buying a house that didn’t have a contracting business attached, and when I packed, there was a pile for school and a pile marked New House. The first time the little gray truck and I went home sophomore year, my belongings were stashed in a basement bedroom, and I had to ask where the stairs were when I was done eating supper.

I went back to the old house with my mother once that fall, but I left after a few minutes. The mirror that had hung on the wall behind the couches over the years was hanging over marks in the carpet, and the kitchen looked forlorn without the family table covered in the green and blue terry tablecloth. I was too inexperienced with grief to know how to talk to my ghosts, and so I abandoned them.

I cannot stand marigolds. I do not like the smell; I never have. And so when I see them now, I run my hand along the blooms, and hold my fingers to my nose. They smell awful, and familiar, and like home.

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