“Lightwork” by Dayna Patterson

LIGHTWORK 

I didn’t know until after Grandma died that daisies were her favorite flower. Daisies on her coffin. Daisies in the pallbearers’ boutonnieres. Daisies arranged with Hershey kisses, another of her favorites.

Daisies belong to the Asteraceae or sunflower family. What looks like a single flower at the end of a stem is actually manifold individual flowers, sometimes ray flowers, sometimes disc flowers, sometimes both. Asteraceae, I learn, is the largest plant family in the world. 

There are so many varieties, Grandma — Oxeye, English, Subalpine, Arctic, Blue — which one, in particular, or is the answer: all of them? 

Grandma’s Daisy Florets

MANY HANDS 

I am 12, 16, 24, 18, 10, 32. I’m in a church gymnasium, a church classroom, a church kitchen. I pull a chunky needle threaded with thick yarn through fabric and batting stretched tight on a quilting frame, surrounded by girls and women who are doing the same. I’m washing a mountain of dishes after the church Christmas party, my friend rinses, another two friends dry and put away, while Grandma packs leftovers for a family down the street. I’m bent toward a sewing machine, the whole room buzzing with electric whirr, piecing together a pair of fleece mittens. I’m standing in an assembly line. My job: add a toothbrush and tube of paste to the bag before passing it down to receive soap, a comb, maxi pads, shampoo, nail clippers, a packet of tissues. I’m seated in a circle of girls, all learning to crochet, our goal to each make a four-foot leprosy bandage, light and porous so the skin can breathe. 

We are tying quilts for the new baby, the new missionary, the homeless. We are alight with laughter, sudsy and grumbling as we scrub another casserole dish, rinse, dry, put away. We’re making winter wear and hygiene kits to send to the front, to the flooded city, to the town hit by a hurricane, to the shelter for women and children. We are trying to bandage the world. 

MAKE-LIGHT 

Every summer, Grandma’s raspberry canes fruited, turned our mouths ruby. She let us pick and eat as many of the jeweled fruits as we wanted. We were young, we hid in the rows, ate with stained fingers. She had magic we didn’t understand, jammed the remaining berries, jars of it in our fridge that never lasted. We called her Mom, and she let us roam her garden in summer’s wild.

Grandma’s Daisy Disc Flowers

MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT 

In the home movie, it’s my birthday. We’re in Grandma’s living room. I’m wearing a polka dot dress, my long blonde hair neatly brushed. I’m not sure if this is Grandma’s doing or Dad’s — by then he’d grown adept at fixing my sister’s and my hair, joining two small braids at the back the way we liked. 

My aunts are all there with my girl cousins to celebrate. Aunt Janet gets out the toy instruments, turns on “The Teddy Bear Picnic,” and we march around in a circle, beating our tiny drums, jangling bells and triangles. Aunt Norma emerges from the kitchen’s swinging doors with a white-frosted cake. Four candles. Aunt Carol holds back my hair while I blow them out. 

I wouldn’t discover until years later how much Grandma and my aunts helped Mom when she couldn’t live with Dad, couldn’t take care of us anymore. Bulimia. Severe depression. Aunt Norma drove Mom around town to find an apartment. Grandma took care of us kids most days, letting us hold the kittens in her garage or swing on the swingset in her yard. Sometimes we went to preschool at Aunt Norma’s. She guided our hands as we dipped strings into warm wax to make candles. We didn’t know how we needed their light. 

HANDS 

Stepmom says, You’ve got to stay in your room until it’s clean. Don’t come out! 

Six hours later, all that my sister and I manage to do is tie scarf-vines for our Barbies from bedpost to chair, chair to closet, closet to bedpost. We’re deep in our jungle-verse when Stepmom knocks on the door. 

Her eyes widen. Instead of cleaning, we’ve made more mess. Of course she snaps. Of course she does. 

Ten minutes later, we finish cleaning, stuffing everything we can fit under the bed, jamming dirty clothes into our dressers, our bottoms raw with red handprints.

Eight pallbearers. The average metal casket weighs roughly 200 pounds. Grandpa’s remains, perhaps 90? Too much math, when all I want is to help. I watch my brothers place their rose and baby’s breath, a final farewell, on top of Grandpa’s sky.

Pearly Everlasting

WORK 

Grandpa calls Dad, asks if a grandson would like to take on the job of mowing their lawn. The job has always fallen to a grandson, and just now there is a vacancy. None of my brothers volunteer, so I do. 

Every Thursday after school, I walk around the block to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Grandpa teaches me how to work the mower, how to check the oil and gas, how to refill each, if necessary. He teaches me how to use the weed whacker to trim along the edges of the yard, shows me how to shake the grass clippings up and down the rows of the garden to suppress weeds, not so close it’ll rot the roots of the seedlings.

After mowing and trimming, I go a step further and sweep the sidewalk, patio, driveway. My hands blister, then callous over. 

Grandma is always waiting for me when I’m done, ready with her smile and a crisp twenty dollar bill. She whispers conspiratorially, You’re the best lawnmower we’ve ever had. 

LIGHT 

Grandma’s living room. Grandma’s rain lamp hangs by a window, over the TV cabinet. I’m mesmerized by the woman inside the lamp, the beads of light descending around her in a slow gold cascade. I’m too young to understand how it works. Too young to recognize the soft hum of its motor, the bright raindrops of oil tracing the path of fishing line. I watch, transfixed. I don’t need to ask. This is more of Grandma’s magic. 

Rain-Soaked Purple Aster 2

MANY HANDS 

Stepmom says, You’re grounded until that room is clean. 

My sister and I languish on our beds, glum and sullen, when Grandma comes in. She picks my pink sweatpants up off the floor and puts them in the dirty clothes basket. My sister and I join her, gather other dirty clothes, add them to the basket’s heap. Grandma helps us make our beds, snugging the corners of the gingham quilts, pink and yellow, that she’d made for us. She helps us gather trash, empty the bin, vacuum. 

Suddenly, surprisingly, miraculously, we are done. The room is sparkling and Grandma smiles. That wasn’t so bad, was it? 

She opens our bedroom door, releases us from our temporary prison into a sun-filled day. 

MAKE LIGHT 

July. My sister and I hold hands. A pale pink casket this time, to match his. When brothers and cousins lift her from the hearse, I don’t feel the same hurt. I know what to expect.

And I can’t complain. Before she passed, Grandma carefully planned her funeral service, choosing a representative grandchild from each of her four children’s families. She’d selected me to read her life sketch. 

Approaching the podium, I remove my mask — I’d caught a terrible summer cold — and read what Grandma had written years ago, before she began to fall, before dementia set in. 

I laugh when I read how she loved living by the gas station where Grandpa worked, since it meant there was a constant supply of soda and candy bars nearby. (I inherited that fierce sweet tooth.) I cry when I read how she loved poetry. (Maybe I inherited that, too.) 

Now the funeral is nearly over. Grandpa and Grandma will be side by side. Summer sun beats down. Family members huddle beneath a blue tent for its small offering of shade. No flag, but Aunt Carol drapes a folded quilt over part of the casket, a sample of Grandma’s mastery. Aunt Janet places a bouquet next to the quilt. We take pictures. We hug. Boutonnieres on Grandma’s quilt already wilting in the heat. 

Aunt Norma invites everyone to take a daisy from Grandma’s bouquet, a final farewell. 

Boutonnieres on Grandma’s Quilt

HANDS 

A week of stomach flu. Stepmom has a new baby to look after, so Grandma offers me her couch. Her hands press a cold washcloth to my forehead. Her hands hold the throw-up bowl. Her voice on the phone, asking the nurse what to feed me. A plate of plain toast. A glass of cool water. She gives me a book to pass the long feverish hours, a book about a sick girl who moves to the country and gets better. Day after day, her healing hands, her lotion-and-pear-soap hands. 

MAKE-LIGHT 

After Grandpa died, Grandma wanted to go, too. She would wake up and make a list of reasons why God might still want her alive. A grandson’s missionary homecoming. A new great-grandchild on the way. Then she would sit on her couch and smile. She smiled till she felt like smiling. Often, she sat there — alone in her house, smiling — for a long time. 

LIGHTWORK 

For months, I see her everywhere. Hawkweed, yarrow, dune tansy, chicory, alpine aster, arnica, pearly everlasting. All Asteraceae. 

At the funeral, all the granddaughters and great-granddaughters sing Dear Grandma, all flowers remind me of you. 

Back home in Washington, dune tansy blooms along roads, by my mailbox, in people’s gardens, in ditches. A bright disk with no surrounding rays. I read about how it was placed under the winding sheets of the dead, how green tansy juice gave Easter cakes their color and bitter flavor. I read how dune tansy has become a good luck charm to some First Nations people. In my walks around the neighborhood, I begin to appreciate how tansy can mean both, charm and bitter. 

I often go walking in meadows of clover, and I gather armfuls of blossoms of blue. 

Chicory flourishes alongside the tansy. I love its bouquet of names: blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffeeweed, cornflower, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, wild endive. All that blue. I’ve admired its color before, but now I’m looking closer, noticing the curling tongues of its disc flowers. 

(Hello, Grandma. Hello. Did you know aster means star? I’m sure you knew. Your intense word-love, the only person who could beat me at Big Boggle. Did you know you were the bright star of my childhood?)

Hello, Grandma. Did you know aster means star? I’m sure you knew.

I hike up to some abandoned gold mines, wild Oxeye daisies along the trail. Many of them are wilted, desiccated from the too-hot summer, but some offer up their bright centers like a warm hand squeeze, a peck on my cheek. 

Chicory

MAKE 

No one taught Grandma to quilt. She taught herself: from books, magazines, mistakes. Scraps of fabric from her children’s worn-out clothes became 10,000 Pyramids. Log Cabin. Streak of Lightning. Trip Around the World. Square in a Square. Double Irish Chain. Little Baskets. Handkerchief. Prairie Stars. Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Drink the Living Water. Drunkard’s Path. Devil’s Puzzle. Harvest Heart. Kitchen Sink. Rail Fence. Mountain & Meadow. Stars at Sea.

LIGHT 

The puppy is dead. My awareness slowly grows: I’ve killed her. Playing house, I put her in a blue cooler like a baby in a crib. Parents gone. Someone calls Grandma. She lifts the body tenderly to a table, puts her pink lips against the puppy’s black lips and blows, rubs her brown fur. When Dad and Stepmom get home, Grandma explains for me. We bury her in a shoebox beneath the apple tree. 

WORK 

As my husband hands the electric sander to one daughter, a hammer to the other, tells them to keep their fingers clear, their grip steady, I cringe and imagine the worst. Smashed digits. Skin scraped clean off. But there are no accidents, just a steady drone of deckwork, stray nail heads pounded back into boards gone soft in rain, whine of the sander’s rotating head as it buffs away flaking varnish, bits of lichen. Later, on hands and knees with scrub brushes, they coax black mildew from the grain. Then paint, cedar-color. All of us with brushes, slopping on thick coats. Late summer, August. We haven’t done half the things we swore we’d do. Blackberry air ripens our thirst. We’ll petition these boards with lacquer to last a little longer, ten more years. Make time slow. We’ll paint till the rain can’t get in. 

MAKELIGHT 

After her first bad fall, tumbling down her front porch steps, Grandma joked, You’ve heard of Niagra Falls? Well, I’m Lillian Falls. 

She didn’t want a fall to be the reason she died, although, in the end, there was no recovering at 91 from a shattered hip and wrist. People will laugh at me, she said. I want to go in my sleep and be found the next morning, peaceful, bless her little heart. 

Dune Tansy Fully Bloomed

MANY HANDS MAKE 

Aunt Janet asks Grandma about forming a Quilt Club. Aunt Norma, Aunt Carol, and Stepmom join in. Once a month they gather to make a quilt block from a pattern called Pioneer Sampler. 12 blocks. 12 months. Each block represents a place the wagon trains passed through. 

Dad takes me into the living room, points to the Pioneer Sampler displayed on the wall. He tells me this quilt will be mine one day, if I want it. 

I imagine Grandma, Aunt Norma, Aunt Janet, Aunt Carol, and Stepmom gathering each month, their laughter and songs and stories and jokes fused right into each fiber, each tiny stitch. 

MAKE 

Poiesis (ποίησις). To make. A poem is a quilt. A quilt is a poem. 

LIGHTWORK 

Aunt Janet assembles a book with pictures of Grandma’s quilts, transcribes Grandma’s stories of their making, scours Grandma’s journals for dates, details. 

Dresden Plate. Double Nine-Patch. Postage Stamp — hundreds of two-inch squares sewn together to form a whole. 

I’m admiring the beautiful patterns, the painstaking labor, quilt after quilt hung on her backyard fence for a photo, Grandma standing next to her handiwork, smiling. 

Then I see them, her answer blooming on tall stems among the poppies. Chrysanthemum leucanthemum. Oxeye daisies. Each one a warm squeeze, a swift kiss. (Hello, Grandma. Hello.) 

Dandelion Gone to Seed

EPILOGUE: MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT 

The room is full of women: we are mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins, friends. We’ve spent the weekend listening to each other’s stories of pain, grief, and healing. We’ve made art together, shared meals, laughed. Now, we gather one last time. We lean in, as if invisible thread draws us close, as if our hearts were stitched together. 

Fara begins by asking Lindsay lots of questions. Do you want to sit or stand? Are you comfortable with others joining the circle? Are you comfortable being touched? Head or shoulders okay? Could others who feel moved join the circle and touch the shoulders of those touching you? Do you just want me to speak, or do you want the others in the circle to speak, if they want to? How would you like us to address you in the prayer? Are there terms you’re more comfortable with addressing deity? 

Nita, Mindy, and Fara make a circle around Lindsay. Two other women sit on the ground at her feet. Nita opens with a prayer to invite the Spirit. Nita and Mindy and Fara place their hands lightly on Lindsay’s head. Then Fara gives her a blessing of healing, not only for the temporary sickness she feels, but for the bigger burdens she carries. 

When Fara addresses God, she says God of Trees and Mountains and Waters. 

She invokes the God of Fish and Rivers. 

She calls on the God of Daisies. ⋑ 

Dayna Patterson is a writer, textile artist, and macrophotographer. | daynapatterson.com 

Winner of the 2022 essay contest

ARTIST STATEMENT 

During the first year of the pandemic, I found it necessary for my mental health to go for a walk every day. Each walk became a meditation — I grew increasingly aware of the trees, mushrooms, wildflowers. I feel deeply how much the earth heals and sustains us, coupled with an urgency to care for our planet and make art that will connect people to each other and to our environment. Macrophotography, like poetry, invites people to slow down, to look closely, to pay attention, which in turn makes the world strange and new again, reinvigorating wonder. 

Dayna Patterson | @poetry_plus_fungus 

More from Exponent II