The Presence Of a Tall Sunflower

I WENT to the Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle about 9:15 a.m. I like to go early when farmers and craftspeople are setting up stalls. It moves me to see what effort they go to to bring in fresh flowers, fragile fruit, and to arrange it all in displays as orderly and attractive as they can make them. I had a list of things to buy: tea, rubber gloves - I was still unpacking belongings, and there was scrubbing to do.

I purchased tiny white mushrooms, plump peaches, honey in a comb, then passed a stand of flowers, so fresh, precisely outlined in the morning sunlight and there: a tall vase of sunflowers!

Sunflowers. I'd been wondering what I might find for a slender vase I could put on the floor to bring a splash of color into my almost bare living room.

I told myself that I could come back later for a sunflower. Going on, however, I changed my mind. Nothing was so important to buy as that flower.

``Dolla fifty,'' it cost.

A woman standing beside me at the stall held a bouquet she'd just purchased. She sniffed a warm deep red center with petals cool red, then confided, ``I only had one dollar left to spend. I want to paint them.''

I started to say something about the beauty of the flowers, but was too moved. This has happened to me several times when I've been in an open market. There's something about the farmers bringing the freshness from the earth to us in the city and some of them asking so little for it.

``How much?'' we inquire. They glance at a bouquet and then, ``Fifty cents.'' Or, as happened to me when I once chose four small flowers in the Pike Market, ``Take them. No charge.''

IN Manhattan, where I used to live on the upper West Side, when a few farmers set up on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer, I sometimes felt somebody had brought me a gift in prison, someone I didn't even know.

``It's good to see you,'' I once told a farmer there, my voice quivering a bit despite my effort to control it.

``It's good to be here,'' he said with feeling, and he sounded as though he could use the 80 cents I handed him.

``Will you come next Wednesday?'' I asked.

``Nope. Can't come Wednesday. It's Ma's birthday. We'll celebrate at home.''

I wanted to hug him. Ma's birthday kept him from doing business in the city.

I WAITED for a bit of the Seattle sunflower stem to be wrapped so I could carry it comfortably. I remembered the time when Dan, my husband, was alive and we summered on a beach near Montauk, Long Island, and I once brought a sunflower home, delighted with the enormous find I'd purchased for 25 cents at an outdoor market there.

He, a stage and television director and fine photographer, immediately took out his camera, photographed sunlight shining through yellow petals, the tight scheme of the center, an insect exploring inner ways, the fuzzy skin of the pale green stalk, and the violent-looking place where it had been broken from its moorings. The day I brought home the sunflower, he magnified each intimate, incredible part....

And last year when I attended school in Pennsylvania, the tall sunflowers stood so grandly as they aged in the organic garden, huge withering leaves wrapped around themselves; heads bending a little lower, lower, but still their sturdy stalks standing....

And the deep pleasure I experienced riding West on the train when we passed field after field of enormous yellow blossoms framed with green, all facing one way. Intelligence. Order.

Through the Seattle market I carried the fresh sunflower. It was two-thirds my height, and I enjoyed the smiles that appeared on people's faces when they noticed me with it.

Several blocks later, I realized the aloneness I was usually aware of when I made my way through the market crowd was not with me. It was almost as though I held another's arm, and we were moving through space like dancers. I was not alone, but in the presence of another, the sunflower. My movement grew more fluid. I took the hill home faster than usual.

Now the sunflower stands in the slender glass vase on the floor, a single voice in a room without wind, soil, without sun shining directly on its leaves and face.

I will do what I can to return something of the intense pleasure it brings me. Play music, speak with kindness, live with it thoughtfully.

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