“What about a flower garden?” my father asked us, eager to begin yet another project. We already had the wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-we-had-fresh-tomatoes-everyday vegetable garden, the we-have-four-kids-and-they-need-somewhere-to-play swing set, and the daddy-built-it-because-he-wanted-a-reason-to-buy-a-grill back deck.
I liked flowers, but even at nine years old, I was skeptical. Although my siblings and I enjoyed completing wouldn’t-this-make-our-new-home-even-homier projects with our father, they required a kind of long-term commitment that our elementary-school-sized spirits had yet to develop. But he was our daddy—the man who was always right and never wrong—and he thought flowers were a good idea, so we agreed.
On the day that the man in the big brown truck delivered all of those big brown boxes, I was sitting cross-legged on the front steps of my house (I was in third grade that year and we called it Indian-style). I watched as my father emptied box after box, and my heart broke when I realized that there were no flowers. There were seeds and bulbs and little white packages and clear plastic bags, but no flowers.
“Daddy, how are we going to have a flower garden if the store didn’t send us any flowers?”
“They’ll come,” my father said, thumbing through the box. “Just wait. You’ll see.”
And so began the weed-and-water duty. Every Saturday morning, Kelsey, four at the time, used the hose to fill our collection of watering cans (the kind of watering cans that had faded Cascade dishwasher detergent logos on the side). When the water was a little more than halfway to the top, Katie loaded them into the bed of our rusted red Radio Flyer. She was the strongest of us all, but even the strongest eight-year-old arms aren’t built for lifting five-gallon buckets when they are filled all the way to the top.
Once the wagon was full of buckets, Kyle, in all of his first-grade glory, dragged it to the site of our soon-to-be botanical oasis, where my father would help me lift and pour the buckets over the dry, red mulch. On Sunday afternoons, we picked the weeds—the kind of weeds that live forever and never die no matter how many times they are picked.
When summer came and the flowers bloomed, they were even more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. They were red and yellow and pink and smelled sweet like our mother’s good lotions. There were tiger lilies and roses and flowers that looked like bleeding hearts. There were plants that looked like cacti and some that looked like giant grass bushes. They felt prickly on my fingers and I learned quickly not to touch.
We spent those summer nights—the kind where sunset lasts past suppertime and fireflies light up the dusk—playing flashlight tag in the backyard and basketball in the driveway. We picked fresh tomatoes from our garden, pretended we were pirates in our swing-set fort, ate hot dogs on our back deck, and brought our mother beautiful bouquets of front yard flowers.
As much as we wished they would, those summers couldn’t last forever, and our house grew quiet as we matured into young adults, the vivacity of our youth captured only in photos. Our interest in family projects lingered listlessly in the vegetable garden overridden with weeds, the swing set barely touched, and the back deck cracked and worn from the sun. But despite the preoccupations that complemented our adolescence, vibrant flowers—red and yellow and pink, spiky to the touch and scented sweet with childhood memories—continued to grace our summer nights.
And then one day, just like the flowers that disappeared with the autumn frost each year, it was my time to leave for a while, too. On the evening of my first return home, the faint glow of fireflies punctuated the landscape of a fading summer sun. As my car rolled into the driveway, there lingered my father’s silhouette, a yellow hose in his hand, a faded five-gallon bucket at his feet.