It is only the beginning of August, but a seasonal change is already in the air. We had one cool, rainy day this week, and the smell of fall was inescapable. At the nursery, the summer annuals are nearly gone; those that are left are tall and thick-stemmed, more than a little bedraggled. I picked up a 6-pack of bright orange marigolds, nearly twice the height that I’m used to. The few blooms were full and bright, however, and I didn’t mind their struggling appearance.
Marigold is a bright flower, a happy one; in the celebration, it is used copiously on the altars, the scent believed to draw the departed souls to the ofrenda. In the language of flowers, it can be translated as both grief and jealousy. At first glance, one may think those two experiences are unaligned, yet in fact, they are intricately entangled. I call them experiences, because calling them ‘emotions’ is too light a sentence; whether they slowly reach out and twine sinuously around you, or they blanket and smother you, it becomes more than a feeling. It is a state of being.
I have wanted to plant marigolds for Oscar since the first Dia de los Angelitos after his birth. It’s something I want to say that I just never get around to; in truth, there is usually a combination of lack of spoons and poor timing that I allow to prevent me. I did get them into the planter outside our front door one year. It’s only writing this out that I fully realize that this is only the third summer after he was born. Sometimes, it feels like decades since we held our baby boy.
I know I planted them in 2019, I remember tucking them into the wicker before my belly, pregnant with Lucy, was too big to crouch and fill the newspaper-lined cone. I remember the bees loved them, so I was forbidden from watering them on the porch; I could get them with the hose out in the yard, but from a distance that made me worry the heaviness of the mock rain would crush the delicate petals. Hawthorne took care to water them for me.
This year, in this state of being that is at once growing with hope and grieving what is lost, I made it a priority to get them planted. I have started to see them pop up in gardens around me; every morning, I am greeting by bright clusters of their faces from across the street, where they flow between rosebushes and little firs in front of the neighbor’s house. So on Saturday, during our wandering adventures, Lucy and I stopped at a nursery in the next town over. She was getting pretty tired, so she took perch up on my shoulders. We wandered the stone paths for a while, through arches dripping with greenery and tidy rows of lush bushes and trees. We passed through everything twice before I settled and hemmed and hawed with myself. We picked up a cedar window box planter, the marigolds, and an 8” pot bursting with zinnias. One of my beloved friends refers to purchases like that, impulses that just feel good, as getting yourself some happies, and that is exactly what those zinnias were. They now sit on the back steps on the corner of the landing, further brightening my view every time I let the dog out.
I didn’t fuss with the marigolds that day; I didn’t want it to feel like something I was checking off my to-do list, which is an odd thing for me, so I let it ride. I wanted to see where it would go. I didn’t have to wait long.
The next morning dawned hazy but dry, the temperature inside and outside exactly the same. There wasn’t even a breath of breeze while the morning slowly dropped her nighttime cloak. I sat by the window in the front room, doing my journal pages. I checked the time; six thirty. He had been born at 6:33. I allowed myself to move with the impulse; I let that wave of need and grief roll over, pull me across the room to grab the gardening supplies and open the front door. I took a moment to quietly thank each of the tools I had for my task – spade, windowbox, soil – as this suddenly felt like a spiritual experience.
I laid a few inches of rich, dark soil down, feeling the grit with a hint of moisture sink into the grooves of my fingers. Even quick, simple gardening like this is more like dirt therapy; there is a visceral element to putting your hands into the earth with the intention of helping things grow.
I squeezed each of the six wells in the flower pack, able to feel how rootbound the tall marigolds were inside. I murmured to them as I tried to temper gentle care with a firm grip to pull them apart where they had overgrown their wells and reached out to each other. You need more space to grow, I told the flowers. Your friends will be right here, you won’t be alone. With the notion of getting the unpleasantness over for the flowers as quickly as I could, I used my thumbs to break into the whorls of white roots where they had pushed against the confines of the pack. I tucked them, one by one, into little hollows in their new earth. I covered them, bringing soil over from the bag in handfuls now, patting them to even ground.
And then they stood, pretty maids all in a row; half bright and cheerful, the rest more reserved. I held my hands over them, fingers spread to allow their stems through, palms flat against the earth. The grief ebbed as I grounded, leaving a sweet ache that twisted through me like a breeze. I smiled and tucked the windowbox against the house, brushed off my hands and spade, and put it all away.
It had taken me only ten minutes, but I was surprised to see the ice still in my coffee, and hear the silence of Lucy still sleeping. I felt as if I had been outside much longer. I settled back on the couch as if my muscles had been warmed and stretched like taffy, every movement so easy, almost languid. I had not known the tension I’d been holding in my body.
It’s been nearly two weeks since I wrote about the marigolds; they bloom, all six of them now, stems strong and petals thick. They still don’t really look like any in the gardens around me; that’s ok. They don’t need to. I see them, and smile reflexively; I see them and the tension slides out of my shoulders, even when I’m holding Lucy and it seems like all our worldly goods in my arms. Lucy has been gentle with them, as she is with flowers. She touches a fingertip to the petals, exclaiming something that I can only interpret as “Oooh, pretty!” She pats the dirt and looks at her hand, pats it again and gets distracted by wanting to open the mailbox.
The days are still hot, the air thick with humidity. A hurricane is supposed to make landfall here tomorrow, the first since 1991. I will bring the marigolds and zinnias in and find space for them among the jade and spider plants, out of reach of the toddler who still has a penchant for a dirt snack if I’m not paying close enough attention. My child is sensitive to storms, so I expect some heightened emotions as the barometric pressure drops. It will be good to have that bright spot of contented color in the house for those moments. And if I’m a tiny bit jealous of the peace the flowers have, tucked safely in their cedar home, that’s OK too. The storm will pass, and we will all go outside again.