Sweetbitter

A sunflower sprouts off-kilter from the edge of a large terracotta pot that houses the rotting remains of plumeria cuttings that failed to root. Resident finches, sparrows, and squirrels deposit seeds indiscriminately, decide what will grow on my canyon-side deck.

My daughter and I planted sunflowers along the back fence of the house I bought when she was seven. Her lifelong love of sunflowers blossomed with them, visible now in the masses she arranges in tall vases, the Van Gogh print in her dining room, the welcome mat at her door.

My grandson spent his first seven years in the same house. “Plant sunflowers with him like you did with me,” my daughter urged me, cherishing the continuity. Another generation, another flaxen head, another set of stubby fingers pressing seeds into soil, waiting eagerly for them to surface. He loved their velocity and majesty, thrilled at their rapid growth—sometimes inches overnight—and enormous flowerheads that nodded under their weight.

The house where she grew up and he was born faced west toward Mission Valley, home of San Diego’s oft-rechristened sports stadium, and we—she and I, later the three of us—would invite friends to watch fireworks from that same back fence on the Fourth of July and during Sky Shows after baseball and football games. When we turned back to the house we’d see the glassy glares of beady-eyed possums on the roof.

Both my daughter and grandson learned to drive a manual transmission in the unbroken expanse of the stadium parking lot, both in the ’81 Toyota Tercel I drove for 30 years. She and I didn’t last long before her boyfriend took over the lessons—our relationship precarious, our patience with each other too easily snapped during volatile teen years. No one else had a stick shift when my grandson’s time came, but his mother insisted he learn to drive one. Even now I feel the needle of guilt that pricked my pleasure during this priceless quality time with him, holding my breath and my criticism, exercising the ease and tolerance I couldn’t muster for her, as he lurched and lead-footed around the lot.

A week ago the sunflower cleared the top of the chicken wire that girds its slender stalk. Days later it’s a foot higher. A week ago the last remaining section of the stadium was toppled, the structure demolished to make way for a new complex. Days later I drive past the flattened expanse, piles of dirt and detritus. My daughter and I exchange reminiscences: my years working there for the Chargers football team; her first concert—The Who in 1983; Padre games during my grandson’s Little League years. Our conjoined memories all lead back to him, because he’s gone too, our hearts still tender after two years, rendering a sweetbitter sadness to soaring flowers, bursting fireworks, and tumbling concrete walls.


Alice Lowe writes about life and language, food and family. Her essays have been published in numerous literary journals, this year in Bacopa, Change Seven, Drunk Monkeys, ellipsis, Epiphany, Burningword, (mac)ro(mic), Superstition Review, and Whale Road Review. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays “Notables” and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, and she recently served as guest nonfiction editor for Hobart. She lives in San Diego, California and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

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