I didn’t grow sunflowers this year. Last year was our first one here and the best place to grow them – at the front in the sunshine – was annoying to water and beyond reach of the hose. They did well and had massive heads, particularly the ones in compost, and I kind of regretted it in the end, but there we are. I grew seeds in the greenhouse – nasturtiums and geraniums and star shaped cosmos and potted them up for the back.
It grew hot, the air stilled, we went away. The cat lady came to feed the plants and water the cat and we came back to trees loaded with fruit and a full vegetable garden. I regretted the sunflower thing. They are such extraordinary plants – the tallest ever grown was over thirty feet high, they are thought to have healing properties, they are heliotropic. That is, they face east in the morning and as the sun moves during the day, the flower buds follow, turning their faces towards the warmth. Eventually their heads become too heavy and the stems stiffen and they remain facing east.
We came back and I pottered in the garden on that first evening, checking my pots. Through the door of the greenhouse, which is old and needs attention, I could see the cat in his usual position sunning himself in the corner. But he was at a slightly different angle to usual. I looked again, and I saw a sunflower, inside the greenhouse.
I was amazed. I didn’t plant it. But I did have a go at planting some sunflowers at the back last summer, though they didn’t get enough sun and came to nothing. Until this.
Poor thing was twisted towards the light, leaning across, as it hadn’t had space to grow up. It hadn’t been watered but the previous owners didn’t put a floor in the greenhouse so it got what it needed from the ground. It lay there across the mess, smiling at me defiantly. I grew anyway. I’m alive.
I felt sorry for the sunflower. I hate small spaces myself and felt bad for it. I thought of the time, years ago, when I got stuck in a tiny lift in Turkey with my husband, two children, a Pole and a Norwegian. The lift stopped in mid flight. There were walls both sides and it was hot. There was a tiny button on the control panel that said something like “Press for emergencies”. We launched ourselves onto it. But nobody came and I began to feel panicky, wondering if there was a god after all. It was cramped and smelly and if the volume of the space had been greater, our communal sweat would have set us afloat. We shouted. We did that thing where you count to three and jump. Nothing (It was so tight we almost didn’t come down again). But we survived, for an hour, because of the Norwegian. He made us laugh with his jokes and introduced games to pass the time. He contorted his considerable length into different shapes to amuse the children. He told stories.
The Norwegian was the sunflower. He was tall, one of the tallest men I’ve ever met. He was always cheerful. Even in that very stressful situation, he was somehow able to remain positive, determined to keep smiling. He was not a young man but age had not ‘stiffened his neck’. He had a child-like trust that it would work out in the end, twisting inner eyes towards the light. We followed his gaze.
When the Turkish janitor finally got us out, he was amazed. I think it’s because we weren’t hysterical.
Things I learned and forgot and need to learn again: –
Stand tall, follow the sun, be the hope that heals. Refuse to let age or a heavy head stiffen your neck.
Be a sunflower.