Of Sunflowers and Small Potatoes

Of Sunflowers and Small Potatoes September 18, 2023

small white potatoes in the soil
image via Pixabay

Nothing is as it ought to be– at least, that’s how it felt.

Adrienne is happier than I’ve ever seen her in in her life, and adjusting to middle school like a koi fish released from a tiny bowl into a lake. It’s only I who am not doing well. I barely sleep at night. I sit bolt upright when she wakes up at 5:40 even though she wants to get ready by herself and take the municipal bus to breakfast with her new friends. Sometimes I don’t fall asleep at all until she’s left. And then the worries and the despair creep in, and I don’t get out of bed until after noon.

My spiritual battle isn’t going well either. I went back to having panic at the thought of the sacraments, so I can’t go to Mass or listen to it on television. I wake up every morning certain I’m going to hell, afraid to talk to Christ and Mary, just hoping they don’t smack me.

I was going to get a part time job at the grocery store or the craft shop near my house as soon as Adrienne was settled in the new schedule, but I keep losing hours to the despair and the insomnia so I haven’t yet. I still live just off my writing, which has led to a slump lately. The Twitter algorithms are a mess. Nobody sees the people they follow anymore. Hardly anything’s coming in the tip jar. I keep telling myself slumps always pass and I’ll start a new chapter of my life soon, but anxiety doesn’t let me believe it.

I think I’ve just been through an awful lot these past few years. Now everything’s changing, and my brain is worse off than usual.

In any case, I stepped outside with the guinea pig, Lady McFluff, who wanted to graze under a laundry basket. The weather was nearly perfect, just warm enough I didn’t need a jacket but not hot enough to make me sweat. The sun was low over LaBelle and the clouds were a pink and white fantasy out of a cartoon. The earth smelled like Autumn.

There was Jimmy’s boy, in nothing but Crocs and shorts as usual, playing in his own front yard.

“Today’s the day I dig potatoes!” I called. “Do you want to help?”

He did want to help. He ran over with his friend in tow– she is a little girl who goes to the same Kindergarten. She lives in that duplex where the neglected boy used to live, the place where a neighbor once overdosed. Jimmy’s boy was already so filthy that he looked like he’d been digging potatoes all afternoon. The little girl was neat and clean, with shiny red pigtails and a colorful plastic beaded bracelet on each wrist.

“Now,” I said, “If there are any green potatoes, we’ll have to throw them out. But if you see any white potatoes, you can take them home for dinner. I don’t really eat potatoes very often, I just grow them because it’s fun.”

We started digging through the big half-whiskey-barrel planters. Jimmy’s boy was up to his elbows in potting soil instantly. The red-haired girl was more hesitant, raking the top layer with her fingers. Jimmy’s boy immediately found two white potatoes and two nasty green ones. The girl found a potato the size of her fingernail.

“The fastest way is to sift the dirt out into something bigger,” I said, just as Adrienne came around the corner with a disused wading pool that was perfect for the task. Jimmy’s boy shoved the nearest barrel into the wading pool and started to dig again. The red-haired girl took off her bracelets and dug in up to her wrists. We sifted through soil, sorting out rocks and dirt clods and the odd cicada casing.

It was the worst potato harvest I’ve ever had.

Other people get crops of potatoes so abundant, there’s hardly room for the soil. They get proper sized potatoes to last all winter. For me, in both giant barrels, where there have been luxuriant potato vines growing all summer, there were only about twelve golf ball-sized potatoes and a handful of potatoes the size of the red-haired girl’s bracelet beads.

I felt that familiar despair washing over me, as if everything I’ve ever done is a failure and a disappointment and nothing good will ever happen again.

But the children were not disappointed. The children were thrilled.

They dug long after I was sure there weren’t any potatoes left, and just kept digging. They raked through the soil as if it was a sandbox. They carefully divided the potatoes into two little piles, one for each of them to take home. This was the first time they’d ever seen a potato come out of soil instead of a grocery store. The children were in awe.

After they finished with the potatoes, they helped me look for the remaining red tomatoes. I showed them the strawberry plants that would be ready again first thing in the springtime. We pulled up crabgrass and threw it on the compost– them reveling in the mess, and I lecturing about the virtues of composting and the miraculous way plants return to the earth.  I said they could help me cut down the wilted sunflowers. The words were barely out of my mouth when Jimmy’s Boy made a bee line for one of the thick stalks and yanked it out at one go. Adrienne picked up the uprooted stalk and smacked it against the sidewalk, just the watch the dirt explode in all directions. The red-haired girl covered her clean face with her messy hands and laughed. We tore down all the thick woody stalks and heaped them on the compost.

There was one last fresh yellow flower, which I gave to the red haired girl. “You can give it to your mom,” I said.

She held it reverently, as if it was a relic.

“Timber!” I cried, as Jimmy’s boy knocked down the last and the tallest sunflower, the one that got over six feet.

“I’m going to plant daffodils and irises and tulips in those potato barrels so they can overwinter,” I told them. “You can come and help me. If you’re going to be farmers, you can’t just learn how to grow food. You have to grow beautiful things as well! And here’s where I’ll overwinter the garlic. I want fresh garlic first thing in the spring.”

“Garlic is easy,” Jimmy’s boy informed me. “Potatoes are hard.”

“That’s true. Are you going to be a farmer when you grow up?”


Two grown-ups came around to the backyard just then– a young man, and a young woman with a baby slung over her shoulder.

“These are my mommy and daddy!” said the girl, gathering up her share of the potatoes.

Jimmy’s Boy was now so caked with dirt that he looked like a chimney sweep. “You take the tiny ones for your tiny little brother,” he instructed.

She had wanted the failure potatoes especially because they were so small they reminded her of a baby.

The girl scampered off with her parents, that last bright yellow sunflower in one fist and my pathetic little crop of potatoes in her arms.

“Come back next week and the popcorn will be ready,” I said, pointing to the cornstalks.

Jimmy’s boy sat on the back steps and chatted with me until dark while Adrienne busied herself with more yardwork.

The clouds went from pink to lavender to smoky gray, as the sky went from blue to black. The wind blew chilly. Jimmy’s boy eventually took his share of the baby potatoes and went home.

I realized that I wasn’t depressed, just for a moment.

Nothing is as it ought to be, and maybe that’s for the best.

It’s when nothing is as it ought to be, that miracles happen.





Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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