Tulips

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Felicia Sanzari Chernesky


Photo Credit: mwms1916/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Elle had started saving them the summer Dad died, just before the start of school.

This morning, to celebrate another return to household peace and quiet, she was counting up the cash she’d set aside from emptying her pockets of change at each day’s end. Rolling those coins and turning them in for paper money twice yearly, standing before bank tellers who lately seemed to grow younger with every exchange, was a tradition she’d kept a delicious secret since she was a teenager.

Tucking the bills into one of an ancient pair of rainbow toe socks stuffed in the back of her unruly underwear drawer was half the fun. They never amounted to a figure so big it provoked guilt—but big enough to treat herself to something special that could also go unnoticed. This year Elle was planning to buy bulbs.

Not the common kind packaged in a big colorful bag sold at the local Home Depot, but “rare and unusual” Dutch bulbs purveyed by one of the oldest and most prestigious flower bulb importers in the country, who also happened to run his small storefront two towns away.

These were pedigree-bearing blooms with names like “Black Parrot” and “Kingsblood” and “Tulipa Kolpakowskiana,” whose fantastical size, shape, and hue were nothing short of spectacular. And nothing like the sturdy pink carnation service station bouquets Jay sometimes picked up for $9.99 on his way home from work.

“I hate pink and I hate carnations!” she’d confessed to Mom over the phone after another stressful day managing the wellbeing of Linny and the twins, all under the age of four at the time. “I’d rather he do a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher.”

“Well, I for one would never complain if a man brought home flowers,” Mom had chided, “especially after a hard day’s work as the family breadwinner.”

Grinding her teeth, Elle vowed she’d never confide in Mom again.

Things shifted a little after she and Dad came to live with them, after Dad got too sick to work and they could no longer manage the house or cover their bills. Surely Mom could see for herself that juggling a house, spouse, kids, church, community, and volunteer commitments today wasn’t as easy as it might look. Not to mention navigating the current perpetual strident invasive flood of information without drowning in it! Even packing a school lunch now meant taking a stand on saving the planet—or furthering its destruction. Despite helping Elle with the cooking, Mom took Jay’s side in every household activity that she and Dad were now direct witness to or integrally involved in, from child-rearing to car care. After all, “what man takes in his wife’s parents with such gracious calm?”

In reality, it’s the little things that build you up or break you. Elle had just initiated a step-by-step return to pre-kids career, the plan being to add some welcome funds to the Bank of America account and make a little more head space for herself. The move-in turned life upside-down. Now Elle was responsible for five children, her newest charges proving disruptive and unmanageable. Adding chauffeured library and specialist visits to Scout meetings and acro-ballet lesson runs, appeasing demands for favorite brands and special care items, listening to daily La-Z-Boy diatribes on the fallen state of the union, telling nightly bedtime stories, Elle tried to block out the sound of Fox News blaring from a back room all day long. She’d even become an intruder in her own kitchen! Life came from every direction—and all too much at once. But Elle kept those thoughts, like so many others, tucked away.

Instead she’d grown addicted to acquiring authority status on carefully selected household plans and projects, in this instance planting a bed of tulips that would bloom brilliant and strong each new April.

She’d read every word about selecting and storing the heirloom bulbs on the importer’s website. She had researched bulb size and horticultural zone hardiness, which meant when to plant the bulbs. Even more important to blooming success, however, was preparing the plant site. Never plant bulbs in previously diseased soil! Never use top dressings (compost) and soil additives that are not PH neutral! And above all never cut stems for bouquets! If they are happy where planted and left undisturbed many tulips will bloom year after year. The secret was to create a separate bed, to be replanted yearly, for cutting tulips in bloom.

Off with their heads!

As Dad always proclaimed, knowledge is power. And it was empowering to know what to do, but Elle also knew not to bother talking to Jay about separate beds, planting depth, fertilizer, or fall mulching. If she wanted to see these bulbs she was planning to buy actually sown, this meant a few holes dug where there was room in the front yard, after the mowing and weed-whacking were painstakingly completed, dropping them in—at least make sure they’re planted pointed end up!—topping them with lawn dirt, a healthy dose of H2O from the garden hose, and Que sera, sera.

Elle had learned to accept that that was the way things worked most peaceably at 49 Maple Lane. Most days she felt that for the sake of peace and general prosperity that she had given herself away, piece by piece by piece. But how could she complain? She had made these choices of her own free will. And as Mom often pointed out, few spouses went about their day as cheerfully as levelheaded Jay. The neighborhood loved him. Part of her delight, therefore, was derived from something other than the secrecy of saving coins. It came from educating herself in the things she wanted to know. So what if it was “useless” knowledge. In the long run, she often asked herself, how much of what we have, or know, is essential anyway?

Think about it, she’d argue, in a day and age when we know what the latest duck-lipped debutante eats for dessert—hell, we can even watch her ingesting it—we are gorging ourselves on the information available to us in every platform imaginable. I might as well take the opportunity to learn something that matters, so what does it matter to you if I steal a little time to learn some classical Greek or how, properly, to prepare paella or wallpaper a tiny half-bath?

What does it matter? Elle found herself asking a hundred times a day.

“It doesn’t” seemed to be the answer—as long as it doesn’t

  • cost too much
  • take up too much time
  • conflict with other plans
  • cause the eyebrow raise—

meaning: “Keep it under the radar, Elle.” Which was getting harder and harder to do.

Hence the increasing joy delivered every time Elle was able to keep her secrets truly secret.

Too bad her secrets were so ordinary. Jay wouldn’t blink an eye about the tulips, apart from questioning why she’d go to the trouble and expense—what’d it take, a quarter tank of gas for the trip?—to handpick some finicky bulbs when the Depot has them on sale for $17.99 a bag?

Mom would have agreed with Jay, which only made Elle miss Dad, frequent ally to her “impractical” way of thinking, even more.

Ah, what does it matter? Elle mused. He’s gone now.

But ways and habits linger. Elle thought about how what she kept hidden in the other toe sock started when Dad died, after Elle helped Mom clean out his things from the first-floor rooms she and Jay had converted into a bedroom and living room for them when they moved in. Keeping that secret had been so easy she’d gotten good at it—especially when Mom started getting “frustrated.” Eventually it was the only action Elle took that made her feel powerful. And it had become the only thing that made her feel safe.

Elle recognized the irony of it. Despite her “frumpiness” (Mom’s term), Elle had never been the type of girl to stash sweets. Her only journal was stored on a shelf inside her head. But this was a secret indulgence she knew to be so dangerous it could destroy everything and everyone who cared about her.

Or maybe not.

“For heaven’s sake, you’re not the center of the universe, Elle,” Mom still reminded her, when she could remember.

She could already picture the autumn “discussion” about the bulbs she hadn’t even bought in the worst withering heat of late summer.

“If we keep putting it off it will be too late, Jay. Don’t forget I have to run to Independent Living Manor at 3:00 to check on Mom.”

“All right, Elle. It’s just that I promised Tucker I’d help him work on his shed this weekend. Joanie’s been after him to finish it so he can move all his summer tools and make room for her car and the snow plow in the garage.”

“I understand all that, but you’ve been promising to help me plant those bulbs for over a month. Soon it’ll be Halloween and—”

“I know, but there’s always so much to do and never enough time.”

“You know what, Jay, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Elle, don’t be that way. Do you think we can get it done in an hour? That way I can make everybody happy.”

Just once, Elle sighed, angry months in advance, I wish he wanted to make me happy most. And then she felt rotten. Jay was a great guy. He helped everyone. I made my choices. I have everything I need, she reprimanded herself. What’s wrong with me that I can’t be more grateful?

And content, Elle heard Mom adding.

She was just about to back out of the driveway when her cell rang. It was the school nurse’s office.

“I’m glad I caught you, Mrs. Salter. Linny has a slight fever. Can you come pick her up?”

Elle sighed and cranked up the car’s AC. The best laid plans of mice and mothers of school children…

Once a droopy Linny was buckled up in the back seat, Elle handed her the stainless steel water bottle she’d originally filled for herself.

“I’m tired,” Linny whimpered, “and my tummy hurts.”

Elle put a hand to Linny’s forehead. Definitely warm, but not burning. “I’m sorry you’re feeling icky.”

Linny was prone to fevers—and weeping, as Mom often pointed out. “You really do have to be extra careful with a sensitive child, Elle. Don’t indulge her displays of emotion. She needs to toughen up. Of course, you’ll do what you think best, but that’s the approach Dad and I took with you.”

Elle climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. She was about to back up but stopped to study Linny in the rearview mirror as she took a long sip of water, then lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She seemed to fall asleep instantly, her lashes fluttering like dark feathers above her rosy cheeks.

Elle’s heart swelled with love for her daughter. And then, at the school exit she decided to turn left instead of right, which would have led them back home. It’s a fifteen-minute drive, Elle reasoned. If she wakes up, I’ll turn the car around.

When she pulled into the bulb importer’s small gravel lot Linny was snoring. Elle parked in the space facing the building’s double French doors, which had been thrown open wide to showcase the array of bins containing flower bulbs in a tempting range of shapes and sizes.

Elle turned off the car and waited. In the rearview mirror she could see that Linny continued to sleep. Elle had never left a child in the car, although many of her friends confessed to running into a shop or back into the house—for just a moment!—with a napping infant or toddler strapped in a car seat. Yes it was a hot day, she could already feel her armpits dampen and sweat bead at her hairline, but Elle intended to be only a few minutes. She had parked so that she could see the car from inside the shop. Plus, the register was on a counter just inside the doors.

She cracked the windows and got out, locking the car with one more backward glance at Linny.

Elle had planned to savor this clandestine excursion, stopping to examine the varieties of bulbs, asking questions of the helpful and informed clerk, choosing her selection with shape and color and hardiness in mind. Instead, like on so many shopping trips, her nagging conscience rushed her through the aisles. Picking out hurried handfuls of bulbs with only the most cursory glance at name—price and varietal details neatly chalked on signs attached to each bin—Elle raced to the register, mumbling yes, thanks, when the clerk asked if she’d found everything she needed.

“Do you have any questions?” he added, handing her change and her bag of bulbs.

Can you tell me how to stop feeling squeezed out of my own life? Elle thought, chirping “No—thanks again!” instead.

Back at the car Linny was awake and sobbing softly. “Where did you go, Mommy? Why aren’t we home?”

“I’m so, so sorry, honey. I just had to pick something up. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you shut your eyes?”

On the road, once she was certain Linny had fallen back asleep, Elle cried until her nose ran.

Selfish, Mom huffed, and didn’t even offer her a tissue.

Linny awoke just as Elle was pulling into the driveway and threw up violently. “Mommy!

“Stay put!” Elle cried, stopping the car. She jumped out and ran to grab the roll of paper towels she kept in the trunk. Throwing open the passenger door she tried to clean and calm Linny, who was covered in pink vomit and wailing.

I hate throwing up!

“I know, Linny, I know. Let’s get you tidied up, and then you can have a bath and climb into bed. How’s that sound?”

“Can I have ginger ale? With two straws?”

“Absolutely.”

Elle dashed back in a sweat to the open trunk, frantically rooting for her stash of yellow ShopRite bags. She needed two—one for the sodden paper towels she’d dropped on the driveway, the other for Linny’s spew-soaked clothes, which Elle would throw in the wash after she’d gotten her daughter settled.

Sweat dripped off Elle’s nose. Despite the heat, she’d just have to worry about cleaning the car thoroughly later. Why are my hands shaking? she kept wondering. Jay was not the type of husband to stress about keeping a car’s interior perfect. He was understanding when it came to the kids. So why can’t I swallow my panic? Elle could not stop thinking about what she had hidden in the other toe sock. Nevertheless, she couldn’t hide the true answer from herself: She didn’t want Jay to find out. She didn’t want Linny to tell her father that her mother had gone to buy flower bulbs instead of taking their sick child straight home. Linny would not have thrown up in the car if you weren’t so self-absorbed—

Stop!” she cried aloud in a voice so harsh it halted the elderly neighbor padding past the house in her tracks.

Oh my goodness! Do you need some help?”

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin. “Oh, Mrs. Blieck. I’m sorry for startling you. My daughter just got sick in the car. I’m trying to clean up the mess.”

At the risk of being rude, Elle ran back to Linny, still slumped and buckled in her seat.

Mrs. Blieck followed after Elle, her cane making gentle but deliberate clicks on the driveway. She stood and watched as Elle struggled to clean the fussing Linny before peeling off her soiled, now stinking shirt and wrapping a weathered beach towel she’d found in the trunk around her shoulders. “You also have twin boys, yes? Ah, I remember those days.” Mrs. Blieck’s accented voice sounded wistful.

You never had a sibling, Elle. I would think you’d be grateful to have three children, Mom added.

Elle could only manage to nod.

Mrs. Blieck studied Elle. “You know, I just had nineteen inches of my colon removed.”

Elle stopped to stare at her, unsure of how to respond.

“I was on my back for several weeks. I was so tired! I admit I felt like giving up. My son had to come from the city to take care of me. But then Dr. Cohen said, ‘Ruth, you need to get up and start taking a little walk. Every day. You have more living to do.’”

Tears made their way down Elle’s burning cheeks.

Mrs. Blieck continued speaking. “And so I realized that he was right. If Hitler didn’t succeed, why let a little sickness stop me?” She turned to address Linny. “Not feeling well?”

Linny smiled shyly. “I just threw up all over.”

“I can see that,” Mrs. Blieck commented. She looked back at Elle. “You know, no one talks much about the Dutch apart from Anne Frank, but that bastard tried to get rid of us, too. We had to hide my husband under the floorboards.”

Elle wiped her eyes.

“And we only had electricity for a few hours every day. We never knew when it was going to go out, or for how long. But the worst of it was that my milk dried up. I had nothing left to feed my babies. Imagine what it was like, listening to them cry from hunger in the dark! There was nothing for anyone to eat. I was so skinny after the war I had to have all my teeth pulled. Every last rotten one.”

Linny was now staring open-mouthed at Mrs. Blieck, who paused to smile at her. “But you know what?” she whispered conspiratorially.

“No,” Linny leaned forward to whisper back. “What?

“We got him,” Mrs. Blieck cackled. “He’s gone, and we survived! And here I am today, Oma Ruth—an old lady with false teeth, minus nineteen inches of my colon. I guess I didn’t need it.”

Elle watched Mrs. Blieck continue on her walk, a tiny steel-plated survivor impeccably dressed in white cardigan, linen slacks, pearls, and sensible shoes. She seemed undeterred by her recent surgery or the dog day August heat. Elle waited, but Mom had nothing to add.

Elle thought repeatedly of Mrs. Blieck after their encounter. She had managed to restore order that day—moving the twins from bus stop through chores and homework, tending to Linny, who vomited three more times, even walking and feeding Millie, taking a cool shower herself, and calling Joanie before Jay returned from work in time for a home-cooked dinner—although it took multiple cleanings to get the stain out of the car’s upholstery.

Jay never complained about the lingering smell.

And now, almost two months later, they were finally planting the pricey Dutch bulbs she had decided to buy rather than bring a queasy Linny straight home from school. It was just Elle and Jay. He had dropped Luke and Noah at soccer practice and it was too early by several hours to pick Linny up from Aliyah’s birthday sleepover, then run to sit with dozing, distant Mom.

Elle considered this her last act of a specific kind of daring—doing it right under Jay’s nose. From now on no more toe sock secrecy. She had already enlisted the kids to help decorate a coin jar. The growing collection would go toward a family outing—based on a private vote—although no one else in house was any good at keeping things to themselves.

She and Jay had decided over morning coffee that he would dig the holes and she would place the bulbs—root-side down so the budding stems would break through the surface of the dirt and bloom in the right direction. Then they would fill the holes together.

“Ready to roll?” he’d asked, kissing her forehead. “I told Tucker I’ll help him finish his shed tomorrow.”

Now, before placing a bulb in a hole, while Jay wasn’t looking Elle would reach into her pocket, pull out a few of the pills she’d been sock-stuffing since Dad died, and drop them into the dirt. She’d forgotten whose household prescriptions were whose, and for what condition, illness, or injury, but she had continuously figured, particularly in her wildest and most desperate moments, what does it matter? As long as once planted and watered the pilfered pills, though varied in shape, size, and color, did their collective job. But Elle understood now that she never needed to stash and plan to swallow them all at once. The only thing left in her pocket was the card listing the date and time of her next visit with the counselor Joanie recommended the day Mrs. Blieck had shown her a way to hang on, move forward. What mattered was that Elle wanted to see the tulips bloom next spring.

And the spring after that.

pencil

Felicia Sanzari Chernesky is a longtime editor, published poet, and author of six picture books, five of them rhyming, including From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! (Albert Whitman, 2015) and The Boy Who Said Nonsense (Albert Whitman, 2016). Email: fchernesky[at]gmail.com