It was the beginning of May, and it was already hot. The thermometer on the outside wall read 96 degrees, and it was only 10 am. I sat in my air conditioned kitchen and looked out the window into the backyard. I sipped my coffee and gazed at the thick green grass….I was really pleased with the color of the sod. We had only laid it down about 2 weeks ago and it was really taking off. After a year of staring at brown dirt and weeds, the sod was a huge improvement to the backyard. I loved to stare at it, walk on it and breathe in the musty earthy scent of it…yes I loved my little plot of green grass in the desert, but still, there was something missing.
My husband and I had talked and planned on planting shrubs or rose bushes along the back of the yard, inside the retaining wall, which we built to serve dual purpose as a raised planter. But, with three children, one income and bills to pay, we had to carefully budget each step of our backyard project. We had planned on purchasing the perfect roses this weekend, but due to unexpected dental work, the roses and shrubs would have to be put on hold indefinitely.
Yes, I loved my sod, and I would make do with what I had. Teeth were more important than roses, but still, I felt as if something was missing. As the sun passed over head, and faded into the West, leaving another fantastic Arizona sunset in its wake, I emerged from the cool house and stepped outside on the patio….what is missing? I asked myself. Why do I feel the need to be out here? I felt an odd sense of urgency to touch the Earth- I walked towards the retaining wall, enjoying every minute that the grass tickled my toes. “This retaining wall is so ugly” I heard myself say. I stared in disdain at the glaring white blocks….It was almost as if the ugly planter was crying out to me for help; I was mesmerized. I began sifting through the thoughts in my head…something about beautiful plants and laughing children stuck in my mind.
I looked at the hard packed dirt and grimaced “What could grow in here?” I muttered. I placed my hand on the dirt, and ran my fingers lightly over the hard cement-like surface. It was definitely Arizona dirt…hard as stone….left to itself when wet it would slowly dry in the arid heat and form a thick, tough bond. Soil like this was known to break the tines of roto-tillers and tractors;……my puny arms and garden trowel didn’t stand a chance. Well, maybe….just maybe…there were possibilities….like dad used to say “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
I shuffled my feet in the grass- somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the long hidden instinct to sow and reap blossomed into divine inspiration, “You reap what you sow” drifted across my mind…..as well as old sayings from my mother and grandmother “You’re known for the seeds you scatter” and “Time waits for no one”…. I grabbed the hose and soaked the soil, loosening it with my spade and breaking it up into chunks. No better time than the present to start my garden! My arms and back began to ache, but I was determined to be positive about this; I was on a mission…I was going to turn this worthless dirt into something workable even if it meant working all night. My husband, of course, thought I was nuts. “What are you doing?” he came out and asked. “Nothing is going to grow in there except weeds, just forget it and wait until we can get the roses and shrubs.” “Well,” I said “I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I just feel that I have to do this, even if it’s for the weeds. My dad used to say that a weed is only a plant that’s growing somewhere someone doesn’t want it….so if weeds grow in here, then weeds it will be!” Shaking his head at my stubborn optimism, my logical, clear-thinking husband retreated to his domain; the garage.
An hour later, about halfway through the length of the bed, I was utterly exhausted. My whole body hurt, and I had to call it quits. In a way, I felt good, as if I had really accomplished something, I thought maybe I should prepare soil for weeds more often…..even if it was futile it sure helped clear my mind!
The next morning, I was up bright and early with the kids. I longed to go work on my dirt and weed garden before it got too hot, but I had errands to run and kids to tend. On the way to the grocery store I saw a yard sale, and so, ever the economist; I pulled over and took a look at the items on display. I unloaded the kids and watched as they ran helter skelter for the toys arranged on the lawn. I walked around and looked at the mish mash collection of broken items, old shoes and furniture. Nothing really caught my eye so I started to herd the kids together….and that’s when I saw it. A pile of huge bags leaning against the side of the garage. The bags and labels were faded from many days in the Arizona sun, but it was unmistakably clear that the bags were filled with garden soil. I approached the yard sale man and inquired about the bags. “Oh, those old things? I’ll give em all to ya for five bucks” Needless to say, I whipped out a five, and with some help, I loaded all five bags into the truck, buckled up the kids and we were off! I smiled a smile bigger than the cat who swallowed a canary as I thought of my fortunate, economical windfall…….5 wonderful, 25lb bags of good garden soil for $5.00…I was in frugal gardener heaven!! What a deal!
I finished my errands and could hardly wait to get home. I ripped open the bags and dumped them into the planter; I mixed the good soil in with the hard stuff, breaking up as many lumps as I could. I turned on the hose and let her soak. I had no idea what I was going to plant, or why I was even trying; summer in Arizona is like being cooked in a convection oven, slow, hot & dry. It looked like maybe weeds were the best option…..Anything I planted was likely to die anyway, but still, I kept on working. I dove into the rich black soil from the bags and broke it up with my hands. I mixed and chopped and leveled. I had dirt sch-meared across my forehead and cheek, I had dust and dirt in my hair and clothes….But as I worked, I felt a sense of wonderment, like I was born to work the soil. I felt like a happy little earth worm, moving dirt around here and there until it was just right. My thirteen year old son brought me a glass of ice water and broke into hysterical laughter when he saw my dirty condition. “Mom! You…you….you look like…. you’ve been rolling …..in a pig pen!” He held his stomach and doubled over as he laughed at me. My younger children watched me in wide eyed wonder, expressions clearly readable on their faces, they needled me with questions. “What are you doing mommy? Why you have dirt on your face? What you doing in the dirt mommy? What you doing in there, mommy?” And “ Mommy, I wanna dig too!” So, they took off their shoes, and jumped in. Together, my three children and I trampled around in the planter mixing and digging and mixing some more. All of us were caught up in the moment, and I will never forget the sights and sounds of my children chirping and laughing as they toiled in the soil. Dirty little buggers anyway! After a time, the Arizona sun had it’s way and we could not bear the 102 degree heat no longer. At 10 am we brushed ourselves off and retreated indoors to AC and cool baths.
That evening, once the heat of the day had subsided, I headed back outdoors and sat in my worn out old rocker. I had a tablet of paper and I listed my ideas for the planter…one by one I crossed them off of the list. “Too expensive” “Not in the budget by any stretch of the imagination” “ Too hot”, “Plants will die” “ No shade”, “Too messy”, “Takes too much water”….What could I possibly be thinking? How could I accommodate this deep sense of urgency to plant something beautiful and stay within a non existent budget? What could survive the Arizona sun without shade and only minimum amounts of water? Being in the midst of a four year drought did not open up any choices either. My thoughts kept drifting to my mother and father for some reason….My mother had always had a wonderful flower garden and my father had always planted vegetables, but that was in the cool climes of Colorado…not the middle of the Sonoran desert.
I looked up at the brilliant blue sky “ Lord”, I said “ I know that this inspiration comes from you and the desire to create beauty, to sow and to reap also comes from you…but, what can I possibly do with this? I feel you urging me to do something…..Can this desire to surround myself and my family with beautiful things compare at all to what you felt when you created the Earth, and decided it needed something more? Like plants and animals, insects and humans?? Help me, Lord, to find a way to create something beautiful…help me to surround my family with your love, peace and beauty…..Amen.”
I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Later that evening, I received a surprising phone call….An Aunt I hadn’t seen in 8 years called me up and said “ Bridgette, this is your Aunt Vera- I’m here in Phoenix and I would really love to see you. I came with a tour group from Kansas on a mystery trip package. I had no idea we were coming to Phoenix until we were on the airplane. Can you meet me for dinner tomorrow night?”
I was ecstatic! This was a rare opportunity to see my Aunt. Kansas and Arizona are not exactly neighbors and it’s not everyday that a chance like this comes along. My heart was beating with anticipation until finally, the moment came and we saw each other! We stood in the lobby- two generations hugging and crying, bridging the distance between time and miles, Vera in her 70’s and me, in my 30’s. An age difference of 40 years and it did not even matter.
Over dinner, we shared news of our families, and memories of years gone by. We talked about my father, her brother, and his passing in 1996. We talked about Kansas, Arizona and travel. We talked about life, children, gardening and God. By the end of the night we were teary eyed, but blessed. We sat quietly for a few moments, enjoying the rare moment of the others’ company, knowing all too well it could be the last time…..I held Vera’s hand and told her how much I missed her and loved her. I apologized for not getting to see her as much as I would like to…we sat together for a long time. It was getting late, and I had to get home. Aunt Vera would be flying out at 6 am the next morning, and I didn’t want to keep her from getting enough rest. As I gathered my things together and prepared to leave, she said “Bridgette, wait…..I, I brought something for you. It’s not much, but maybe it will bring you some joy” She rummaged around in her hand bag and handed me a small, worn, brown envelope. I took it in my hands and as I did, something loose inside rattled around. This piqued my curiosity.
“What is it?” I asked. “Do you remember your dad ever talking about the sunflowers in Kansas? When we were kids during the Depression the sunflowers would get so tall in the fields that we could play and get lost for hours….Mother would send us out to find the biggest stalks and the biggest flower heads. We’d cut them down and bring them back to the farmhouse. Sometimes we dried them and roasted them, other times, Mother would put the seeds in packets and try to sell them at the road stand for a little extra money. Well, a few days ago I had the strangest feeling that I needed to go out and check on the old homestead. The current owners don’t keep the place up, and it makes me so sad. Anyway, I parked my car and looked out over the old fields where your dad and I used to play. I couldn’t help myself…..I remembered how much fun we used to have, I loved playing in those fields and something inside me told me to go into that field. And I just stood there, in the middle of all those sunflowers, remembering…..then I got the strangest urge to take one of the sunflower heads….so I did. I found the tallest one I could and picked it! Can you imagine an old woman like me out in that field? I just don’t know what came over me. I took it home and dried it and then put the seeds in this envelope and stuck it in my bag. Then, a friend of mine gave me some giant sunflower seeds from her garden and I mixed them all together and put them in this envelope, I don’t know why, but I forgot all about it until you & I started talking about your dad and the homestead and how we both liked gardening. Bridgette, I know this might sound silly, like the ravings of a senile old woman, but I think the Lord wants me to give these to you.”
Tears formed in my eyes as I reached out and hugged her. “Aunt Vera,” I said “that is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard” I hugged her again told her about the backyard and how I had been feeling about planting something beautiful. I told her about the sense of urgency that I felt, like, God was telling me what to do and how similar it was to my thoughts of beautiful plants and children’s laughter. We both agreed it was divine inspiration, with maybe a little help from my mom and dad, bless their souls.
The next morning, while Aunt Vera was on a plane headed to Kansas, I was in the back yard with my children planting sunflower seeds. “Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to see Aunt Vera, and thank you for answering my prayers.”
A month later, early in the morning, I sit in my old rickety rocker. I am praying silently, spending time with the Almighty and giving Him praise and thanks. I remain motionless as I watch a tiny Hummingbird hover in front of a huge, healthy sunflower heavy with dew. The hummingbird drinks and then flits from flower to flower, soon he is joined by two friends, and I watch and wait, soaking in the simple beauty of God’s creations. I sip my coffee and relax, I am surrounded by giant sunflowers, lush green grass and the azure Arizona sky. I think back on how exciting and fulfilling this garden has been. Small sunflowers and large sunflowers fill the backyard with beauty and wonder. I remember the children’s eyes when the first flower opened it’s delicate petals to the world…..the stalk itself only 3 feet tall, but the seed head measured 13 inches across. It was a masterpiece. Soon after, thirteen other sunflowers bloomed and more are on the way. The tallest stalk is no less than 9 ft high!!…It feels like a jungle in here! I have never before experienced such beauty and peace in a backyard. Sure, there are more lavish, expensive gardens out there, but for me, my $5 garden is my little Garden of Eden; Inspired by God and tended with love.
Every time I look out at the brilliant yellow sunflowers sitting atop their tall green stalks, I am reminded of God’s love. The bright yellow is like a beacon, a sudden burst of inspiration against the backdrop of blue sky, in the midst of a drought stricken desert. The dark green leaves and tough, thick stalks remind me of strong family roots that run deep. A sense of urgency and inspiration by God, followed by an unexpected visit and an answered prayer….was all that was needed to get me to stop and think about what was really important in life. Family and simplicity. All I did was prepare the soil, add a little water, mixed in some love and now I have a living piece of history in my garden….who knows who could have looked upon these sunflowers’ ancestors in generations passed? My father, aunts & uncles, my grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents…. I, too will gather and dry the seeds for the harvest. I will pass everything I know onto my children. Perhaps in time they, too, will teach their children to seek beauty and solace in the simple things, and through that they will be able to trace their pioneer roots and focus on what’s really important in life.
Bridgette M. Crosby is a hands on “make a mess and have fun” mother, writer, crafter and gardener.
© Copyright 2002 Bridgette M. Crosby. All rights reserved.
Photo. Jill Wellington