Asha Bernard/Voices: A special bunch of zinnias

Asha Bernard/Voices: A special bunch of zinnias


The zinnias are gone. Maybe forever.

It all began in the earlier days of my life here. I had been in the area for a few months. On one bright sunny day, I saw them, and I couldn’t take my eyes off.  The zinnias. They were so alive! Lush, vivid colors — red, magenta, pinks, yellow, orange, they seemed to scream happiness and life. That one narrow strip of bright, rollicking blooms filled me with such delight. They were beaming at me, and I must have beamed right back, trying to take them all in greedily. Till then, I hadn’t known that zinnias grew here. Possibilities! The fact that they reminded me of home added to the euphoria. That was going to be one of the flowers that will grow in my garden, once I had one of my own, I decided right then.

I wanted to know who the creator of this wonder was. And on another bright day I saw him. An elderly gentleman. He was tall, thin and a little stooped. He never glanced at the people who passed by, as he ambled to his flowerbed, in his brown pants and grey shirt. He looked alone and not minding it at all. So this was the person who created this little bit of miracle! I marveled at his skill, his love for his flowers. I did not want to talk to him, I did not imagine him as a young man, or a child, or his “story,” or guess at the type he would be in a mystery, (as I used to do back then!). I did not wish to intrude. Although I thought I knew what he looked like, I really would not have recognized him anywhere else. In any case, the result of his work made me smile, every time I looked at them.

Winter came, all the flowers were gone. Whenever I passed that flowerbed, I looked for signs of the plants. Nothing remained. But I was not worried, because I knew for sure that come spring, the plants will return, as will the planter. Sure enough, in spring, I saw the man coming out to tend to his bed. Soon there were little plants and, later, the happy, healthy zinnias.

Even as I was enjoying them, I saw that the old gardener looked older. The first niggle of worry could not be put down. I was afraid. Of the coming emptiness of that little strip. I willed him to live on, a childish attempt, I knew. But those zinnias became important to me, as if they were my good luck charms. And they did come up for a couple of years more. And I did see their owner a few more times. The lines on his face were deeper, the stoop became more prominent, but he was there. But then, one summer, there were other plants, and weeds, growing randomly, in that bed. No more zinnias. I had no idea what happened, and I preferred not to imagine or surmise.

The next summer, again, there were no zinnias. The flowerbed looked abandoned. Dead. Not a sign that they were ever there at all. I did not want to think about what happened to the person who was behind the beauty that was. I was used to the inevitability of certain facts by then. Bad times seemed to follow us around, and I expected it to do so. What I did not know was that there are times when one can be swept over by feelings of warmth and coldness at once. The warm glow of a fleetingly joyful moment mingled with the sad knowledge of a loss of someone or something — a someone who had nothing to do with me, or a something that was never mine. I seem unable to recall whatever little I knew of his face, only the bent grey back, with the brown pants, walking away, but I have not forgotten the way it all made my day. And I am grateful.

 I wonder at the next owners — will they know that there was once a whole lot of bright jewel-hued zinnias in their yard, lovingly grown by a proud man, that were watched in turn by a stranger who was cheered up every time she saw them? Maybe some other owner in the future will decide to grow zinnias in that garden. Even though I may not be around to see them, someone else will be, and surely, they will enjoy them like I did.

Asha Bernard lives in Champaign.