The seeds flecked onto potting soil like crumbs off a dinner table. Sandy brown and so hard to see that imagining anything useful coming from them five weeks from now seemed ludicrous.
But that is the essence of hope, isn’t it? Imagining that beauty will appear out of nowhere. Trusting that these seeds would flower soon enough on the patio, even though your eyes see nothing but dirt. At this time of year, many of us find blind faith in the dark and dank center of a terra-cotta pot.
The Arizona-dry sunny days and desert-cool breezy evenings of this last week gave this ritual of my family’s a prime moment. But in the shadow of our sour and sad coronavirus year, the experience of this rite of spring seemed especially intense. The hope as well.
Dinner dishes were in the sink. The sun was out but falling soon. Four pouches of zinnia flower seeds awaited in the shed — all that was left of opened Burpee packets from a year ago, when COVID-19 quarantine was the grim backdrop of penned-in, patio escapades. I headed out and grabbed them, along with pink and green rubber gardening gloves, a scooper, and the trove of clay and plastic pots that had survived a long winter of piled-high backyard snow, ice, and their human owners’ pandemic exhaustion.
My younger son crouched near a batting tee a few feet away. He smacked hardballs into a hand-me-down net under his dad’s watchful eye. The barely older one planted his feet near my nook of spring potting. This annual chore had begun only a few years earlier with zinnia seedlings from an Amish farm but had evolved to involve just seeds. These are the flowers that a grandmother these boys never knew had once planted when I was little. The memory of it is vivid, although from so long ago that trying to count the years is like putting infinity into a bucket.
The aluminum bat whacked at the rubber tee. Occasionally, it even hit a ball. The older boy and I haggled, meanwhile, over who would lay claim to the white Purity seeds, the tropical Fruit Smoothie Mix ones, the colorful Forecast variety, and the rose-red Exquisites.
Clank! Clank! Clank!
“I want the Forecasts, Mommy!” demanded the he-should-be-a-lawyer older boy. I handed them over rather than endure protracted, draining negotiations.
His turf claim, however, also was a provocation to the little brother with the bat. He ditched the tee and rushed over to stake his own claim — a Pavlovian impulse with which any younger sibling may be all too familiar.
“The Fruit Smoothies are mine!” he said.
These flowers, when they sprouted and blossomed during our melancholy summer last year, rose as tall as the boys themselves. A rainbow burst that brightened the gloomy, socially distant slog of our discontent. Loved ones had died of COVID-19 or other mysterious respiratory ailments. We had gone to none of their funerals, as all lived far away and funerals were an eradicated pandemic danger. A sadness lingered over long spring days and longer summer evenings. Visitors were kept at arm’s length for months, for fear of spreading the deadly virus.
The zinnias, however, were unbowed. Unbothered by the pestilence. They bloomed continuously into autumn.
Like so much else in life, they proved that if you tend to them, they will tend to you.
In the encroaching sunset of this recent May evening, it was hard not to reflect on the scars of the year gone by. They are indelible, even as they fade with the dropping of infection rates and the passage of time. The act of planting seeds this year felt barren even as it felt hopeful.
In the absence of much rain in recent weeks, it was tricky scooping small clumps of potting soil from its bag. The soil threw up clouds of powder. We tamed it with sprinkles from a watering can.
Just as spring had brought plentiful vaccines and atypically brilliant sunny days, here was an ominous sign of potential danger. That drought, without a turn in weather in the weeks ahead, may be around the corner soon enough.
We filled the pots until they were nearly at brim level. It was now time for the seeds. In the palm of one small hand, I dumped the contents of a Burpee packet. In the other, the children’s pincer-fingers readied to dash those kernels of life into the soil.
The seeds flitted into their pots. Little fingers spaced them out and gently firmed up the soil bed. Then came a thin top blanket of dirt, and a dousing from a watering can to glue everything into place for a long, cool night.
With that, it was back to the batting tee. Back to the kitchen sink for dishes. And back to hoping that beauty, however modest, may again be so unbothered by our worldly worries that it pays us a visit when we most need it.