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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Day Dad Planted the Daffodils

The last car drives down the ramp onto the ferry boat, with a loud "cla-clunk" of metal. Then I hear the sound of the deckhands dragging chains, the rumble and roar of engines engaging and the hiss of churning water. The ferry's low whistle blasts through the mild spring air and signals the departure from Tacoma's Point Defiance dock, on the run to Vashon Island. I'm not aboard, but my heart is. I lean against the railing at the water's edge with the seagulls, a cup of coffee, and a bouquet of yellow daffodils.

After fifty years some things change and some don't. The old style ferry boat from my early childhood disappeared long ago, but if you'd made the trip back then it would have landed at the same place on the Island, called Tahlequah. You would drive up the same road through the woods until it brought you out alongside the beach at Burton. There it makes a sharp left to where a few businesses still carry on and boats still float on Quartermaster Harbor. You'd stay on "the main road" and eventually reach our old neighborhood of Center. And if you made this trip on a spring day you'd have no trouble finding our place, because of the daffodils.

I say "our place" because that's all the identification it needed. The mail address was a Rural Route and a box, no house numbers. Folks referred to homes as "the So-and-sos' place" and if "the So-and-sos" were newsworthy, for better or worse, their name would stick to that place forever, even if they moved away. Roads too, had nothing but real names like "the Beall Loop" or "Cemetery Road." My family lived on "the main road" that runs north and south the length of the island. Our front lawn made a perfectly level rectangle right up to the ditch, great for croquet games in the summer, kick-the-can in fall, or building snowmen in the winter. But driving up the road on a spring day you would have spotted our place right off. Folks slowed down to see the whole end of the yard along the ditch ablaze with daffodils.

I can picture my parents, fifty or sixty years ago, discussing what to do with the flower bed. Probably on some Saturday in the fall, while Mom cooked, did laundry, and kept and eye on the kids, my Dad went up to McCormick's hardware store in the little town of Vashon and bought the bulbs. Then he would have put on old work clothes and rubber boots, dug up the soil and planted them, hundreds of them. Those hundreds would multiply into thousands until they made a solid swath of yellow from the driveway to the fence. I don't remember that day, which might have been before I was born, but I can tell you this much: I remember the daffodils.

I picture Dad's hands in work gloves, holding the dry brown bulbs, their onion-like skins rustling as he set them into the damp earth one-by-one. He would have made sure the stem end was up, not down, taking his time, doing it right. I'm sure he whistled while he worked, picturing the flowers in full bloom later on. Little did he know that just as each bulb held within it the promise of a flower, the joyful sight of that flowerbed remained within the hearts of his children to bloom later as one more happy memory. Now I always think of the exuberance of an Easter egg hunt, the fun of playing outside on those first warm days, and the eternal promise of spring . . . when I see daffodils.

I watch the ferry, now more distant. Like memories, it has lost it's sharp edges and loud rumbles and seems to glide on the water, into the past. But I'm in Tacoma and it's 2009.
Our old place on Vashon belongs to someone else. Mom is gone and Dad is 95 and lives in a retirement home. He looks out his rooms' windows at a nice view to the west, from way up high, but he can't see any flower beds. The day he planted all those bulbs was a long time ago and it's been a long time since he felt the grittiness of a trowel slicing into dirt, or smelled the rich earth up close. I picture him at the end of his planting on that fall day so many years ago. I see the daylight starting to fade. I see him standing up to brush the dirt from his knees and taking a look at all he accomplished before he put away his tools and came in for supper. And I wonder if he thought about how every day of our lives we're planting something. Hopefully it's something that will blossom into beauty and joy. Next time I visit, soon, I think I will tell him how much I enjoyed his daffodils.

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