Stubborn Wishes

“The whole reason that there are so many dandelions is because of the wish thing,” Mark, 12, tells me.  Diana, 6, gets off her bike, lets it thunk to the ground, and bends down to pick two blowballs from a patch of grass — one for me, one for her brother.

“Thank you,” I say, and look with admiration and repulsion at this perfect sphere, this geodesic dome built of fluff, the bane of gardeners everywhere. I blow mine, feeling like a vandal, wishing the seeds will float to the street, not to innocent yards behind me.

When I try to pull one up in my garden, gathering all its arms and legs and yanking it by the neck, its body remains in the earth and soon will grow a new head like some kind of mythological monster.

Mostly I’ve given up, now just popping off the flower heads when they’re young and yellow and leaving the rest, as if accepting a colony of stray cats as long as they don’t make babies.

Whose wish is growing between the bricks by the Lilies of the Valley? Who planted the desire in between the sidewalk and our front gate?

Are the dandelions in our gravel driveway proof that my children had dreams? And I, thinking only of neatness and order, behead them on my way to accomplishing something else. Sometimes I stuff the heads in my pocket, for lack of a place to dispose of them, then find them again, drawn up and clean, in a freshly laundered pair of jeans.

They don’t want to be yanked out of the earth. They do everything they can to stay anchored there, shooting their tap roots down like arrows, saying ‘I belong here!’ They could survive the worst drought, flood, or heat wave, when the basil I coddle in a pampered plot will die if not offered a drink of water on a hot day.

Is it because those untold wishes are more tenacious than anything you can buy or plan? My mom used to drop her wedding ring around a candle on her birthday cake before blowing out the flames to make her wish come true.

Today Diana asked if she could pick our first cherry tomato, the only one this season that has made the journey from yellow star to rosy globe while escaping the catbird’s eye.  

She cradles it in her hand and says, “Let’s do a ‘sermony’ or whatever you call it,” and I know she means the way we take the garden’s first fruit, a single blackberry or strawberry or sugar snap pea, and place it on a sliver plate until dinnertime when everyone is seated, and after presenting the specimen, slice it into as many sections as people around the table, placing the morsel on our tongues, tasting all at once the watering, the weeding, the coaxing, the staking, the shooing, the clearing, the sunlight, the rain, the worms, and the wishing.

“Feel it,” Diana holds out the little ball. It’s plump and firm, round and warm.

“It’s like a wedding ring,” she says and runs inside, climbs onto the hutch and reaches up to get a small white bowl, placing the orange globe in the center by itself, like a ring of gold that seals a pact of love.

Later this morning Luke will celebrate his 10th birthday with one friend, one present, one pizza, and one scoop of salted caramel gelato in a paper cup. No candle, perhaps because of that article in the newspaper that asked whether it was dangerous to blow germs all over a dessert. 

He will be upstairs putting together the Star Wars Black Ace imperial Lego spaceship he just unwrapped when his dad will come home from work, take the ragged mass of keys out of his pocket and his wedding ring off his finger, and drop them, Ching-a-ling!, into the silver tray on the counter, and then pop the single cherry tomato in the little white bowl into his mouth. 

There is no ceremony when we blow off the globe of downy hair from a dandelion puffball until the seedhead is completely bald, plucked and pock-marked like an unfeathered chicken. No ceremony except for the long in-breath and the closing of eyes and the fantasy spinning into color. No ceremony except for the parachute seeds dispersed into the wind, onto the rolling lawns and sidewalk cracks, over the blue spruce hedges and under buckling blacktop driveways. Secret wishes that won’t let go.

Summer Morning Sadness

The first time we went to the pool this summer, we could only stay 20 minutes. Mark had math class on the living room computer, and I thought we’d hop in the car right after and make it for most of our slot, but he had a quiz and said it was going to take him a long time, but we said, of course we’ll wait. 

Luke and Diana and I sat on the porch in our bathing suits with sunscreen on, listening to the crows caw and distant lawnmowers rove, and after a while we opened up the pool bag and looked at the hotdogs all wrapped in foil, and then we unwrapped them one by one and the mustard was so tangy, the buns so soft, and then we opened the box of carrots, and then the container of potato chips, and when Mark came out, he looked white and said there was no point, but we piled in the car and got there just in time.

But this morning Mark doesn’t have math, and we got a 2-hour reservation, and the water is sparkling like turquoise gold. The kids throw off their shorts and pull on their goggles and fast-walk to the deep end, and they’re so happy, and Sofia is coming home today, and everything is fine. So why do I feel like sitting on this vinyl lounge chair and crying?

Was it the email that came in this morning declining the invitation to celebrate Luke’s 10th birthday at an amusement park, or the shame I felt for having even asked? Is it because the thing he really wants is a bike and I can’t find a single 24-inch bike in stock to give him?

Maybe it’s because of all the money we lost on the canceled trip to Florida, or that yesterday the mayor was supposed to announce how schools would re-open but then called off the press conference, and Houston and Atlanta and L.A. and Montgomery County have already announced that school will be online this fall.

Or was it that when Virginia said she didn’t mind if her senior year was all virtual because she’s over high school, I saw a black computer screen replace her life and my redemption, my last chance to be the mom she wanted me to be, to trust her, to let her do more when high school was still high school and kids still loitered around the convenience store and rode buses and bought dresses for dances and roamed around looking for parties after football games.

“When are you going to get in?” the kids ask me, the tips of their noses dripping, their eyelashes like star points, and I tell them, “Later, I’m not hot enough yet,” but what I really mean is I’m not happy enough.

Maybe it’s because today is the day we would have flown back from Italy, bleary from too many nights out and visits to cousins and early morning cappuccinos and our suitcases would be jammed with stained sink-washed clothing and plastic bags of shells, brochures, and tiny bottles of Italian shampoo swiped from hotels.

Is it because my children have each other, but I spend my days alone, and even though I am consuming this solitude like one wide-open mouth, I feel that somewhere people are hugging and laughing and locking eyes and I’m here caught in a wind tunnel of air, so much air, fresh non-human air.

At the diving boards, kids line up to do can-openers and back dives, and I feel like a traitor, dry and motionless on my chair. I don’t know what to do with this sadness. It makes me feel soft, rich, babylike. To mourn the loss of things that others have never held.

But how does it help to not let myself cry? I become a steel drum with a welded top, my precious dangerous stuff kept in. And everyone else kept out.

After the whistle blows the long looping whine that means “get out,” lifeguards block the main entrance and masked bathers file out of the side exit by the chain link fence. I too am wet — the kids convinced me to stop wrestling with my sorrow and jump in. Near the snack bar, an enormous stack of pool chairs has been constructed, hundreds of different types and sizes that once made this a place to gather have been fitted together into one giant mass, as if ready to make a bonfire. 

The remaining few set sparsely around the pool. So I couldn’t sit near anyone and pretend that I was happy. Spaced apart so that the air would fill with silence instead of chatter. So that sadness had a way to spill out and join with the rest and finally be washed away.

Can Butterflies Feel Love?

Diana’s legs disappear in the caramel-milk creek. She won’t climb up the fallen log because a spider with orange spots has already claimed it. Water bugs skitter over the skin of the creek, and a powder-blue moth flutters all around her and the log, its wings like pages of a book in a storm, flapping open and closed as if dying to spill its words.

“Tell it to go away!” Diana says, closing her eyes and batting the air. “I think it likes you,” I say from my position crouching on the muddy bank.

Mark and Luke run with high knees through the creek toward the highway and Greg says, “Come back and put your shoes on — there might be nails down there. People throw all sorts of stuff off that bridge!”

Diana now looks like a cross, her arms straight out, hands balled into fists. “I want the butterfly to get on me.” The boys run back, digging sticks into mud and finding truck tires in the bank. The butterfly tumbles through the thick Ohio July until it alights on Diana’s head. Its wings, the shape of a lopsided heart, the color of blue enamel, fold into one.

As Diana walks straight, barely moving her neck, the butterfly points skyward like a crown. It clings to clumps of her maple wet hair, even as she grabs onto a branch and climbs out, even as she runs to keep up with her brothers through the pasture to the Dairy Hut on Route 50 to get a chocolate-vanilla swirl cone. 

“The butterfly got your message,” I say, when I see her coming around the bend toward the house, soft-serve smeared all over her cheeks, the butterfly clinging to her bangs like a barrette.

I can feel the skeptics in the family bristle. “There must be a perfectly rational explanation,” they would say. “The salt in the creek water, the perfume of her shampoo, the hue of her skin.”

Just before Diana’s grandmother calls her inside, the butterfly lets go and flicks around the patio. “At least you brought it up to the house, “ Luke says, “and now it can pollinate the flowers.”  

For me, it was the love that made it stay.

Today We Would Have Departed

Today is the day we would have sat on our suitcases to zip them up, flattening down carefully selected outfits and collections of mini lotion tubes, and Mark would have offered to carry his sisters’ bags down, until 7 of them congregated in the entry. We would have given the sunflowers and kiwi berries one last soak, crouched to say goodbye to the cat under the couch, and turned the porch light on as we latched the door. We would have eaten grapes and salami sandwiches wrapped in foil in Terminal B as we watched the sun set over Dulles airport, waiting to board the plane, knowing that in one short night and one long day, Nonno Franco would be wearing his shirt full of pockets just beyond customs in Milan holding boxes of peach nectar and brioches, and the cappuccino that I would get at the airport bar would be the best I’d ever had.

After months of zig-zagging between resignation and hope — Italy has recovered! but New York is a mess — Sicily is offering 1/2 off hotel stays! but only to Europeans — the emotional spikes got softer and softer until they finally lay flat. We asked the airline to issue us vouchers for another year, but no one is sure when that will be.

We were going to go to the Marches where Enrico’s father grew up, where it was his job as a child to buy ice for a handful of lira from the man who would chop off a block with an axe, and Franco would wrap it in a cloth and race home in the noonday sun — “Via, via!” — with the melting ice strapped to his handlebars, past the farms where earlier that morning he and his father had traded the sole and seabreams they had caught in their net for peaches and cantaloupe and watermelons still warm from the sun.

I thought it would be sad when the day of departure came around, but it already feels far far away, like a carful of cousins who stayed for a good long week but are now already 7 states and 2 motels away, and their sheets have already been washed and dried and folded away, the extra chairs stacked back in the garage, and we have returned to following our hearts or to-do lists, sleeping in our own beds, spinning new scenarios in the privacy of our own minds.

Before we canceled the reservation on Vrbo.com, we had planned to argue over bedrooms when we arrived at the centuries-old house on a cliff above Ancona where the pictures showed stone stairs leading down to a sandy inlet of the Adriatic Sea, and at lunchtime we’d toss hot pasta with olive oil and garlic and red pepper flakes and wrap salty prosciutto around melon slices and eat it in our bathing suits under the myrtle trees on the patio, and I didn’t mind that the house had no air conditioning because I like it hot, or pipes so old you could only take one shower at a time, because we would have been all together and it would have been new — to me.

Tables would have been set end-to-end in the courtyard of a Milanese trattoria to fit all of Enrico’s aunts and uncles and cousins, and there would have been dinners that rolled on until midnight with his friends from university, and maybe I would have cried from laughing at the story of the forgotten tent poles when they were camping on a beach in Greece. And we would have met the family of Isabella, the exchange student who stayed with us last September, and the girls would have hung around in beachside bars with Italian teens and I would see vistas opening into their lives where there were none before, and my Italian husband would be like a fish released back into the sea, not waking up thinking about the situation on Ward D2 or the back-to-back appointments until 9:00 pm, but he would be shimmering with plans of which rugged beach we would conquer that day, which hill town we would climb, which odd lamb dish only made in this one village he would track down, and he would do all the leading, and I would feel like I was sitting in the back seat and just looking out, not having to drive the car, decide which way to go or what to do.

We will remember this summer not for these things, but for an ordinary quiet so deep it rivals a symphony. Siestas will keep happening every day after lunch, and I will keep taking walks after dinner when the kids are in bed and the fireflies are starting to shine like diamonds sprinkled in the twilight. We will pair up and go down the list of things that needed to be done but never were, like repainting the antique wrought-iron garden chairs, figuring out how to recaulk the bathtub, and translating the fable their Italian grandma remembers hearing when she was little. I will keep taking Sofia out for driving lessons in half-empty state park lots, and Mark will finish a middle school math class on Microsoft Teams, and we will take a long drive across the Appalachians and hug my parents with masks on and the kids will run free and I will write and sleep, and we will notice how many different kinds of bees there are, and how a zinnia bud looks like a cut gem before it opens.