There was nothing beautiful about dandelions. They stained my skin yellow and had a musty, cheesy smell so opposite the soft scent of other flowers. The dandelion plant consumed my early Saturday mornings then: throughout the summer that I turned nine and my chore list expanded to include weeding the yard. The sun drenched my shoulders those early mornings as I muttered to myself about the injustice of my workload as it compared to my sister’s.
An hour into the task, and I would still be at it, going to war with the ferocious weeds. Oddly, I thought at the time, my efforts seemed only to speed the plant’s evolution; each flower grew back stronger and more resistant, and I never understood why we couldn’t just spray the things with chemicals and be done with it.
When my father and I speak on the phone, it’s to reminisce. I rarely see him, since I took a job in Texas, but our distance has worked to strengthen the depth and honesty of our conversations—this, I hear, is often the case with small families. When I inquire about the purpose of those childhood lawn care assignments, my father responds without hesitation: “I wanted you kids to develop a strong work ethic.”
“But," I want to say, "I would stay out there for hours.” And then I remember that I’m thirty years old now, and I should probably get over it.
Dad asks me how Laura is doing, if she’s working full-time yet, and I tell him that she's looking. He says he isn’t going to call her no matter what. It’s his new experiment; he wants to see how long she will go before reaching out, asking how he is.
When I was nine, pulling weeds in the yard, I rarely tried an excuse to get out of the job. My sister, on the other hand, would throw a fit and get her way; inevitably, she'd end up with one of the easy chores: crushing soda cans or washing dishes. At the time, I envied her resolve.
“Did you think I lacked discipline as a child?” I ask my father.
“No, Honey. I just wanted to ensure that you knew how to work. That’s why I gave you big tasks, real work. The funny thing is, I never said you had to stay out there in the yard as long as you did. You would just stay out there until you were finished.” He laughs then adds, “For hours!”
I tell Dad I’ll call my sister when we hang up; that I’ll tell her to call him. “Nah. She’ll come around,” he says, “in her own time.” I ask him if he would’ve called me had I not called him first. He says he hadn’t thought about it.
I’m surprised when Laura answers the phone on the first ring. I ask her how she’s been, and she says not good. She lost her job, wishes she had enough money to pay her gas bill, wishes there were more job opportunities in Ohio. I draw exaggerated loops as I sign my name, making out a check she didn’t ask for.
When I hang up, I begin thinking about that summer I spent crouched down in a bed of dandelion weeds. Why did I fight the weeds while my sister fought our father? And did my willingness to complete such tasks cause her to swing in the opposite direction? I think so. I decide not. And then I tear up the check before I breakdown like a smoker trying to quit. I sign my name again, reignite the small blue flame; this will be the last time.
That summer, when I was finished weeding, my sister often joined me in cursing the dandelions. We delighted in snapping the yellow heads off the weeds, and then we reached down to collect the heads and throw them into our alley where they belonged. They would settle there, along the curb with gum wrappers and cigarette butts.
At the time, we thought the yellow flowers were trash, but the white ones, which we called dandelion ghosts, were different because they granted wishes. The ghosts we held close to our faces, cupping our hands around them as we closed our eyes. We blew the soft, cottony petals into the air along with our secret and not-so-secret desires. Dad would tell us to stop if he saw us doing this, so if we heard him at the backdoor we’d grab handfuls of ghosts and take off running toward a nearby park, the seeds falling at our feet. The ghosts, it seemed, were never in the same patches as the yellow flowers I so despised, and so my sister and I delighted in collecting them, trying to get as many wishes as we could. I pulled a lot of weeds that summer, but I also made a lot of wishes. I tear up another check and make a wish.
Three months pass before I speak to my sister again. I have returned to Ohio for a short visit, and I’m nervous about speaking with her. When I call, however, she says she can’t wait to see me.
I pick Laura up from her new job, which, she says, might offer her full-time hours soon. She’s doing well, and she’s on speaking terms with our father—who has since moved to Massachusetts. I can’t help but think about the correlation between physical distance and emotional closeness in our family, but I do not bring it up. We walk the old neighborhood, toward our childhood home.
“You look tired, Jen. You’re working too much,” Laura says. I see her lips purse slightly, the genuine concern, and I nod.
There is a heavy, cool breeze, the sort that comes before a light rain, and it fits with the melancholy sweetness of home. We sneak around the house, which seems paler than it was when we lived there; the trim is pastel green now. I can’t remember what it used to be: something brighter, maybe blue. We sit on the back porch and peer into the backyard until we are startled from behind.
“Excuse me,” a man says, stepping onto the still-creaky porch. “Can I help you?” The man’s voice is soft; he doesn’t sound bothered by the squatters in his backyard, just confused.
“Um, no. We’re leaving,” I say, but I do not explain our reason for being on his property. Laura and I exchange a look as though we’ve just been caught doing something wrong. We begin to laugh as we duck into the alley and take off running, just like children.