For Mother’s Day, the least substantial of holidays, not counting Father’s Day, I bought the boys a flat of marigolds to plant along the driveway. Among cultivated flowers it’s my favorite, as the dandelion is among the wildflowers of suburbia. Both are at once beautiful and homely, and neither is coy. Neither preens like an orchid. The acrid marigold fragrance attracts hardy folk, not honeysuckle-sniffers.
My job as a boy was harvesting marigold seeds in the fall, storing them over the winter in tobacco tins, and reseeding in the spring. The seeds resemble tiny darts or the barbs of a porcupine. Dry like clean hair, they rustle when you shake the tin. All these impressions – color, scent, sound – remain vivid after half a century and more, and represent my first understanding of seasonal cycles. Color and scent lend flowers an evolutionary advantage, but they also exist for our gratuitous pleasure. They look pretty and smell good just for the hell of it. They ease existence. Imagine a flowerless life at the poles or Death Valley. Wait for the marigold in Anthony Hecht’s “Despair” (The Darkness and the Light, 2001):
“Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean.
“Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.
“But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine.”