I let go of my mom’s hand as I ran towards the white tables piled high with brilliant flowers of every type imaginable. I skittered past the roses, the peonies, the irises. I scuffled farther past orchids and mums until I rounded the corner and saw a splash of brilliant warm yellows. Looking among the sunny petals, specifically drawing closer to a cluster of bright yellow and brown, my mission was to find out whether or not my Giant Sunflower would be adorned with a silk ribbon indicating its rank among other sunflowers. As I scanned the rows of flowers I began to panic. Where did they put my flower? It was missing from its spot, and a white piece of table showed in between several vases.
That morning I had delighted at getting to use the ‘secret’ entrance to the New York State Fair. We had to explain to a man in a booth that we were exhibitors, and that made us important enough to drive through the normally car-free paths of the fair to the horticulture building to unload our bounty. I was wearing my navy blue shirt with sunflowers on it which I almost wanted to show to the man in the booth as proof that we belong with the sunflowers.
I spent the trip to the fair with a crate on my lap bursting with the color of summer. I stared at the petals and noticed that, though not all straight and orderly like some flowers, sunflowers had a beautiful randomness to the direction in which the petals fell. The petals seemed to almost push each other out of the way, competing for the kiss of the sun. The center of the flowers though was so geometrically ordered it fascinated me as it swirled perfectly towards the center. Others, too, I’m told, have been as intrigued by this natural perfection, so much so as to figure out the precise formulas and math determining their layout. For me, I’d rather just star and be drawn in by the golden angles.
The sunflower’s heads were about the size of a typical dinner plate, though they had started much smaller. Months ago, I sat in the breezeway of my house with my mom and we filled up tiny containers with potting soil. My mom put her pinky finger into the soil, making a hole for the seeds that I was holding in my 9 year old hands. Each container got one hole, and my job was to put the seeds in and close the holes. I checked on my seeds every day, and watered them when necessary. The containers had plastic bubbled lids that allowed sunlight to penetrate in, and gentle watering brought the first bit of green to poke through the dark soil days later. A few more days of observation and the poke of green began to resemble a pair of leaves. When mom decided that they were too big for their containers, we grabbed shovels and headed to the side of the driveway.
My mom has never been one for rules or keeping up appearances. To her the neighborhood lacked color. (Except for our neighbors who were “colorful” in a different, and kind of crazy way). So, instead of planting polite peonies or expected azaleas, my mom decided that lining the driveway with towering sunflowers would be just wonderful. I remember we started to dig just off the pavement of our driveway, because our property line wasn’t marked by much and the neighbors could sometimes get a bit squirrelly about who was mowing and raking where. But this didn’t seem to matter today as we both bent over side by side and put our hands in the dirt. I wore a pair of my mom’s gardening gloves that were far too large for my fingers, but made me feel like I was really doing it. My brother played with the hose in the front yard within earshot as we delicately transplanted the seedlings into the newly-turned soil. The summer had just begun and it was great to be outside on a warm day. My mom explained to me gently that not all of the sunflowers we planted would survive, and that we might have to pick some to make room for the others to grow. I nodded solemnly.
I am not sure that either of us had really read the small package of seeds purchased at Agway a few weeks ago. Though the label ‘Giant’ should have given us a hint, we didn’t know just how far that little seedling had to go. Soon the seedlings shot up to my knee’s height. Then they were as tall as my little brother, then taller. My mom and I watered them with the hose and fed them a little miracle grow, which I helped mix in our watering pot. I wondered why it was fake blue and whether it would turn the flowers blue in the end. Around my birthday, they were as tall as I was, and their hairy broad leaves began to delightfully cloud our view of the neighbors. After time, they were as tall as mom and began to create buds for flowers. But they didn’t stop growing then, either. When the flowers opened, I couldn’t reach them even on my Dad’s shoulders. When I look back at pictures of our house that summer, it seems to be bordered by a tall green fence topped with monuments to the sun gods. How strange it must have been to see such a weird enormous plant growing in such a generically planted neighborhood.
On the day of the competition, my brother and I took on the task of choosing the best four to be sacrificed and displayed at the fair for all to see. I remember selecting mine carefully based on the leaf appearance, petal size and overall beauty. My brother, barely six at the time, picked the ones he thought were “perfect.”
So as I scanned frantically for one of my perfect flowers that was now missing, I realized that my brother had one a third place ribbon for one of the ones he chose. “Look! Greg won a pink ribbon!” I said. By the time my parents and brother made it to where I had ran to, I determined that my sunflower was definitely missing. “Maybe something happened to it,” my dad said and shrugged.
My mom could see that I was not going to accept that as an answer after all of our work, and decided to ask one of the fair staff about it. I couldn’t hear them talking but my mom came back with a smile on her face. She lead me to a corner display of several different flowers, the vases laid out on a black velvet cloth. There, on the second tier, was my sunflower – it had won first place among all the sunflowers, and princess of show (2nd place) among all the other flowers. My flower that started out from a seed in my little hand in the hole that my mom’s little finger made for me got me a dazzling ribbon and fame.
People walking through the flower exhibit smiled at my joyful expression and explanation. People asked me how I did it, and all of my answers started with “we,” making sure that I told the whole story from the seeds to the towering plants. Several serious gardeners asked me my techniques with a little bit of condescension (having just been beaten by a 10 year old) and to them I replied that my secret was growing them with love.