The mind has a funny way of remembering events when you’re young. It recalls the small, unimportant details but not the main event. Of course, I suppose kids aren’t often interested in the big picture. I find that the big picture is usually more depressing anyway.
Looking back with the clarity of age, there are so many things I didn’t see. If it would have made a difference, I’m not quite sure. All I know is that I don’t remember my father dying, although I now know he was. No, I don’t remember him dying. But I do remember those flowers my second grade teacher gave us on the last day before summer break.
Mud splashes up the side of my pant leg as I carefully make my way across the road, holding my box out in front of me.
For the last day of school, Miss gave us all flowers. She says that they’re just like us, with a little love they’ll bloom into beautiful colours. I don’t know about that, but I can’t wait to show Dad. The schoolhouse isn’t far from home. We had one built here when so many folks started working at the factory.
The monstrous building towers above our town, with two huge columns spewing dark smoke into the sky. Most of the day it casts a shadow over everything.
Carefully running up the steps at our front porch, I knock on the door with the toe of my boot. The hinges squeal as it opens.
“What did you do on the way here, roll around in the mud?” Dad ushers me inside.
“No,” I grin, holding up the pot. “Look!” My dad kneels down, a serious look on his face.
“Well, what do we have here?” He makes a monocle with his fingers, studying my plants.
“Flowers.” I giggle as he strokes an invisible mustache.
“Very nice. How about you go put those by a window, then get washed up for dinner?”
I nod, and he disappears back into the kitchen. Setting the flowers down on the sitting room table, I run upstairs to change.
“Don’t eat it right away, it’s hot.” Dad sets down two bowls of stew and sits down across from me.
He asks me about school, and I tell him about my flowers. Two blue, four red. That’s good, because red is my favourite colour. I explain that he can’t see the colours yet, not until they bloom.
Dad nods along, asking me more questions for every explanation I give him. I know he probably already knows the answers (I think he’s the smartest man in the world) but I tell him anyway.
After dinner, he splits the last piece of blueberry pie, and hands me the bigger piece.
“So kiddo, are you sure you want to stay here this summer?” He asks. When we moved here Dad started work at the factory, so he won’t be home to look after me.
“Definitely. You’d get lonely here alone, and I’m almost eight so I can take care of myself,” I reply, shoveling a bite of pie into my mouth. “Nana’s house smells like old people anyway,” I add, wrinkling my nose.
Dad laughs, crinkling the skin around his sky blue eyes.
We have the same eyes, everyone always says. He doesn’t push me on the matter, he never does. Even though he’s my dad, he says I make good decisions so he trusts me. Instead, he asks for me to follow him into the kitchen.
“In that case,” he pulls open the drawers, “this is a crash course in staying home alone.”
He shows me how to make sandwiches with the cheese cut like a heart just like he does for my school lunches, and how the door locks. We write down the number for the factory and for Nana’s house, and he shows me where we keep the bandages.
Before the sun sets, I run down to the little creek so I can fill up an old watering can I found beneath the sink.
The creek runs from the factory and through our little town, all the way to the riverbend at the very edge of town. It’s pretty murky and doesn’t smell the best, but you get used to it. Nothing really grows along the creek, but it’s surrounded by mud. I avoid it this time so that I don’t ruin another pair of trousers, and make my way back up the hill.
When I get back home, Dad is waiting on the porch.
“Hey kiddo, just heard from the Boss. I gotta go work the night shift since someone called in sick”. He bends down to kiss my cheek, tousling my hair. “Don’t stay up too late, alright?”
I nod, hugging him before I head inside, locking the door behind me.
This isn’t the first time my dad’s had to work at night, so it isn’t too much of a surprise.
To be honest, I don’t mind having the house to myself. I water my flowers, then attend to a much awaited battle between Mr. Bear and an old duck stuffie I have before heading to bed early.
By noon, he’s still not home.
I make myself a sandwich and wait for him in the living room, talking to my flowers. I read in a book once that talking to them makes them grow faster. It doesn’t make much sense to me since flowers don’t have any ears, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
The sun has already passed the second smoke column on the factory by the time I hear Dad’s keys jingle in the door.
“You’re home!” I meet him at the door with a hug. He groans, bracing himself against the door.
“Hey kiddo. My shift went a little later than expected, but it seems you have things handled here.”
“I do!” I point over to the kitchen, where my sandwich plate is drying. “I made a sandwich and I put everything away, I even washed the plate.”
“Good job”, he chuckles, sitting down on the sofa. “We have to have another little chat”.
“About what?” I ask, sitting on the chair across from him.
“Spending summer at Nana’s”.
I pout, pushing myself further into the cushion. “But I already said I don’t want to go!”
“I know, I know,” he sighs. The bags under his eyes are darker today, and lines appear on his forehead as he looks at me. “A lot of people are out sick, so the Boss needs me to take more shifts than usual which means you may not get to see me too much.”
“That’s ok, I can make sandwiches for dinner, and I bet I can learn more too from Nana’s cookbook. I can play with the kids across the street during the day, so I won’t be lonely! And their mom always invites me for lunch anyway, so she can check up on me if you want. And I can-”
“-Ok, ok” Dad cuts me off, a smile sneaking onto his face. “It’s your choice. If you change your mind at all, just let me know, ok?” I nod, relieved.
“How about you come help me cook up some dinner?” Dad says.
I agree, following him into the kitchen.
As glad as I am to stay home, some feeling I can’t quite identify lingers at the back of my mind. I shrug it off as hunger, but that name doesn’t quite fit.
Just like Dad said, I start to see him less and less. We still eat dinner together whenever we can, but he’s often pulled back to the factory by a call from the boss.
I’ve become quite a good cook, though. When I’m not playing with the kids across the street, their mom teaches me recipes passed down through their family.
Her name is Miss Thompson, but she tells me to just call her Emily.
At home, most of my time is spent with my flowers. They haven’t bloomed yet, and I’m afraid they’re getting sick. The bright green leaves are starting to turn brown at the edges. I’m not sure what’s wrong with them, I water them twice a week just like my dad told me to.
Tonight I want to surprise Dad when he gets home.
I pull down some broth from the cabinet and cut up potatoes, onions and tomatoes just like Emily showed me. I put in spices too, salt and pepper.
It takes me a while to cook the meat, but I still manage to put down both bowls of stew on the table as my dad walks into the room.
He sets down his work bag on the bench, putting a hand to his back as he bends down.
“It smells good in here, kiddo,” he says, flashing me a grin that doesn’t reach his eyes as he sits down in front of one of the bowls. “Did you make this from scratch?”
I nod, bursting with pride. “Em- I mean Miss Thompson showed me how!”
“Very impressive. You’re growing up so fast.” He smiles as he takes a bite, and flashes me a thumbs up in approval.
“After dinner, can you look at my flowers? I think they’re sick.” I ask, starting on my bowl.
“Of course. Why do you think they’re sick?”
“Well, they’re turning brown on the edges and they haven’t bloomed yet, even though they’re supposed to. I’m watering them, just like you said.”
“Maybe they’re just not getting enough sun. Try moving them to the kitchen window sill, it’s the only one where the sun isn’t blocked by that damn factory”.
I nod, a little taken aback. I’ve never heard my dad swear before.
We’re quiet for a few minutes, but then the conversation turns back to normal. I tell him about my cooking lessons with Emily, and he gives me a few smiles in reply.
When I ask him why there’s gray in his hair, he tells me that’s what happens when you get old, and it’s not a polite question. I don’t really know how a question can be polite or not, words can’t have manners. He suggests I become a lawyer one day.
After dinner I wash both bowls, and by the time I get back to the dining room my dad has already retired to his room for the night.
He forgot to look at my flowers.
Frowning, I move them over to the kitchen window sill and give them some more water.
Dad must have been tired if he went to bed without saying goodnight.
After a moment of thought, I pull out two pieces of bread and cut a piece of cheese into a heart. Putting the sandwich and an apple into a brown bag, I glance again at my flowers.
My dad is a genius, so he’s probably right. All they need is a little sun.
Watering my flowers, I stare at the paper bag sitting on the table.
I’ve been making sandwiches for him for the past two weeks now, and every morning they’re gone. Sometimes I don’t even see him at night anymore, because he gets home after I go to bed.
On Tuesday, I came downstairs and the bag was still there. It’s Thursday now. While I don’t know too much about food, I don’t think the sandwich is good anymore.
Worry gnaws at my brain, but I push it down.
Sometimes workers sleep at the factory, I know this. Then he wouldn’t have to walk there and back every day.
Turning my attention to my flowers, I frown. The sunlight might be helping them some, but they are beginning to droop at the top. They still haven’t bloomed.
I remember one night my dad told me about how my grandpa worked on a farm before he passed away, and how he’d use something called manure to make his crops bigger.
Scavenging through the kitchen, I find the food money hidden behind the kettle. We’ve had hard times, but with my dad working so much right now I know we have some to spare.
With a £1 banknote in hand, I begin the trek away from our home by the factory towards the farmhouse by the river bend.
The stable boy offers me a small jar of manure and refuses to take the money.
I had assumed manure was some sort of plant food, so imagine my surprise when the boy hands me a jar of poop! Of course he won’t take my money for that, who would want it?
When I get back home, I see boots hanging off the sofa.
Dad is fast asleep, snoring like a steamboat.
It feels like I can finally breathe again.
My lips turn upward for the first time in days as I go about searching for a small, makeshift shovel. That smile quickly disappears as I unscrew the top of the jar and try not to gag.
I mix the manure with the soil, and whisper goodnight to each of the flowers. I think if they just manage to get a little bit of strength back, they can pull through this.
I wake up to Dad’s snoring still filling the house.
That’s weird. The clock beside my bed says that it’s already quarter past eight, so he should have been at work two hours ago, and he doesn’t have another day off until Sunday.
Creeping downstairs so that I don’t wake him, I pour myself some cereal and check on my flowers.
There hasn’t been any improvement yet, but they probably need more than a day. Sometimes when I’m sick, I stay in bed for a whole week.
There’s a newspaper sitting on the table that I let my eyes skim over.
The headline is talking about an increase in need for artillery, but it doesn’t say about what.
From the sofa the snoring stops, plunging the house into silence until Dad starts coughing.
“What does artillery mean?” I ask, after he quiets.
He glances at the newspaper in my hand and sighs. “Nothing you need to be concerned about, kiddo. How are those flowers doing?”
I shrug, passing him a sandwich. “Not too good yet, but I got them some manure so that might help.”
“You got them some what?” He laughs, which quickly turns into more coughing.
“Yeah! You said Grandpa used to use it on his farm. Did you know that manure means poop?”
“I had no idea,” he says, hiding a grin. His blue eyes are duller and redder than usual, but they still sparkle with humor. “What time is it, kid?”
“Half past eight.”
“Shit.” My father stands up quickly, swaying a bit on his feet. I hold out my hand to steady him. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I thought you were sleeping in,” I reply, wincing at his accusatory tone.
He sighs, rummaging through his bag and pulling out a comb. “I’m sorry kiddo, it isn’t your fault. Hey, your birthday is next week. What do you want to do?”
“Can we go to the lake with the old canoe?” I ask, beaming. August 1st is a Sunday this year, so I know my dad will be home all day.
“Sure,” he replies, offering me a smile. “I’ll pick up one of those chocolate cakes too. The real ones, not the knock off ones at the corner store. I should get going.”
He heads out the door, then stops halfway through it, turning back to me. “Thank you for the sandwiches.” I smile, waving him off.
My flowers have taken a turn for the worse.
I think the manure helped them some since they’re a little greener, but they’re drooping so much they can hardly stand up.
My teacher must have been wrong, it’ll take more than love to get them to bloom.
I haven’t seen Dad at all this week, but I know he’s been sleeping here because the sandwich has been gone each morning. Tomorrow is my birthday, so I know I’ll get to see him then.
Out in the backyard, our old green canoe is propped up against the shed.
I pull it down, checking for any cracks just like I had seen my dad do in the previous years. Then I make four sandwiches, two each, and set them inside a picnic basket. Finally, I pull out the cake mix (real chocolate!) and set it on the counter.
Even though it’s early, I head off to bed so that tomorrow can come faster.
The house is silent when I wake up. I tiptoe downstairs to see my father asleep on the couch.
Usually I’d let him sleep in, but this is a special day. I grab his arm, shaking him slightly.
“Wake up, Dad! We have to get to the lake, I have everything ready to go.”
I shove him harder, but he still doesn’t move.
An invisible fist grabs my heart as I shake him as hard as I can. “Wake up, Dad. You gotta wake up.”
I barely remember running across the road to get Emily, or the doctor that came to my house. I barely remember my Nana arriving in her little wagon, and helping me gather my clothes.
All I remember is carrying my flowers in my lap, and asking her why dad was making me go. After all, he said I could stay home.
She had just shaken her head, stroking my hair.
I don’t remember much of the weeks after that.
I do remember filling my watering can up with that clear, fresh water from Nana’s well, on the farm so far away you couldn’t even see the factory.
I do remember how my flowers finally got better, and eventually bloomed.
It’s funny, the things we focus on when we’re young.