Mother had pancreatic cancer, which is a pretty bad thing. She was always excellent at the art of denial, and by the time she sort of admitted to the cancer she was about an inch away from the coma she floated in and out of until she floated off entirely. A couple of weeks before she died she stood out on a cold Little Rock street corner to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq, and a letter to the same effect, signed by her among many others, came out in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette while she was in that coma. That's multi-tasking, something she was good at. She was not quite 82, and definitely too young to die.
Now we had to decide about the flowers for her funeral. We had already decided to ask people to make contributions in her memory to some organizations that were dear to her heart: her church, Heifer Project, the international student exchange program AFS. She hated those formal florist displays you see at funerals. But she did love flowers, and of all flowers most of all she loved daffodils. So we decided to steal some.
One gray cold February afternoon the whole family got into an assorted convoy of rental cars and pickups and SUVs and drove out to the old place in the country where Mother and Daddy had lived for 30 years before they finally gave in to age and moved into Little Rock. The place had been empty since my parents had left a few years earlier. To hear Mother's version of the story, the people who owned it were rich and mean and never did a single thing to take care of the place. You had to take her opinions with a grain of salt, though, because all her life she tended to draw stark conclusions based on not much evidence and then hang onto them through thick and thin.
The house was old and ramshackle and beautiful, a country antebellum clapboard Greek Revival structure where (or at least Mother claimed) Arkansas literary light John Gould Fletcher had once lived for a time, I think during his Lost Period. There were wide pastures and woods and a creek running through the bottom, and the whole thing sat at the base of Pinnacle Mountain, a popular place for climbing when Mother and Daddy were growing up in Little Rock in the 1920s and 1930s. Mother and Daddy had always admired the house, even way back then. It had been empty for years when they moved back to Arkansas in the early 1970s, and they had finally talked the owners into letting them move in and rescue it from complete decay. Mother and Daddy were both romantic and impractical people and they never seemed to care that they didn't legally own the property. As long as they lived there they took care of it as if it were their own, which meant they used a lot of duct tape and staples. They were more enthusiastic than skilled, and preferred giving parties to replacing the gutters. Toward the end it fell apart faster than they could patch it back together, and Daddy was beyond repair, too, and so they finally bought a house in Little Rock.
Every spring the daffodils came up out at that old place, a whole huge field of them near the house. And every spring Mother and Daddy invited their friends to come out and pick daffodils. Since they were friends with nearly every person in the state of Arkansas (well, the Democrats, anyway), daffodil season was one long party out there. The spring after Daddy died when Mother was feeling homesick for the old place she called up the owner and asked if she could go over to see the daffodils. “If you do, you'll be trespassing,” he told her, and hung up the phone. So, even given Mother's tendency to dramatize, maybe he really was a mean rich guy like she said. (Or possibly over the years she had driven a perfectly nice man right round the bend. It wouldn't have been the first time.) She was still crying when an old friend called. “What's wrong?” he asked. And when she told him he said, “Get your coat on — I‘m coming to pick you up and we're going out there.”
She had only been back one other time except for then. Come to think of it, that time had involved trespassing, too. That was when she and her granddaughter's husband, Marty, broke into the house so she could get back the gas heaters she had bought when they lived there. The owner wouldn't pay her for them after she and Daddy moved into town, and told her she couldn't go and get them. Mother and Marty talked the little boy who lived across the road into aiding and abetting them since he was small enough to slide through a window and open the front door to let them in. You could never tell Mother not to do something. It just egged her on, and she was good at getting other people involved too.
We pulled up outside the fence next to the ditch that separated the property from a two-lane country road. Some of us climbed over the locked split rail gate that blocked the road up to the house. Some of us went between the rusty barbed wires of the fence and held the wires apart so the rest could crawl through. Soon we were all on the scraggly winter grass of the front yard.
While we were driving out there, I started to worry about what whether there would actually be any daffodils. The fact that we'd had this great idea didn't mean we could pull it off. After all, it was early yet — barely the middle of February. (Mother would have scorned this cautionary thought. To her, every great idea was as good as done, unless you were lacking in sufficient gumption to pull it off, which lack was, by the way, a moral failure.) Now we were in the front yard, gazing down at a small clump of spindly unopened daffodils. Earlier we had developed a Plan B: If we couldn't steal any daffodils we would call every florist in Little Rock to see how many we could get the other way, the conventional way, by paying for them. Now it looked like we would need to go to Plan B. Mother had died just a little bit too soon for the daffodils.
Some of the older grandchildren went into the house and came out looking sad. “The windows are broken out,” they reported. “It was such a happy place,” they said. “We had such great times here,” they said. I was beginning to think this whole thing hadn't been such a good idea after all. Then there was the question of what we would tell the county police when they showed up. Though we never bothered to discuss the possibility among ourselves. We didn't need a plan for that. We knew we could talk our way out of trouble; it ran in the family.
We had given up on the daffodil idea by now, but as long as we were out here we thought we'd look around. We wandered down toward the creek. Then, off the path over in the woods, we began to see the daffodils. At first we saw just a few, and then the farther we walked the more we saw: big beautiful daffodils with nodding golden trumpets. We had brought buckets and knives, but we'd left them up by the house. Now we sent the kids back for the necessary tools of theft. All through the woods then you could hear the murmur of uncles and aunts and cousins and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives — little groups of twos or threes coming together and then wandering apart and reforming with some others. We talked about how Mother had planted those bulbs down in the woods a quarter of a century earlier, and how they would come up next year, too. It was a holy time, and the neighbors didn't call the police.
At the funeral the whole chancel steps of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church were filled with huge masses of bright yellow daffodils. Nobody at church that day needed to ask where we had gotten them. And everybody who wanted some took a bunch of them home.
Sometimes we think of saints as cosmic teacher's pets, but I don't think that's what the Bible means when it talks about the saints as that great cloud of witness that surrounds us. I think it means the actual people we've known and loved, even loved in that complicated way we sometimes have that doesn't necessarily feel like our idea of what love should be. And beyond them, all the people they once knew and loved, and beyond them, all the people they once knew and loved: Start with a cold Little Rock street corner at the beginning of the Iraq War, or anywhere else for that matter, and just keep on going until you get to the ends of the earth and all of time, backwards and forwards. We keep opening up whatever gifts the saints have left us: in Mother's case, a powerful sense of beauty, the determination to make the world a better place, a passion for justice, a capacity for child-like delight, an ever-flowing generosity, and the nerve to trespass. And so grace blossoms and blooms in its season (which can arrive at the coldest time) and we gather it up and hold it in our hands, and give it away, grace golden like daffodils.
Anne Yarbrough is a Little Rock native who lives and writes on an island in Nova Scotia.