Each year when the oxeye daisies bloom on our Michigan farm, I pick bouquets for our home. My husband, John, planted the acres with red Flanders poppies, blue bachelor's buttons, and daisies, his nod toward a patriotic landscape. Over the years, the perennial daisies have spread throughout the farm; and in the hayfields, they float like clouds as the wind ripples the grass.
My penchant for picking daisies germinated in my youth – and a particular bouquet brought great rewards.
The summer after my sophomore year in college, I was hired to serve as a housekeeper/companion for an elderly woman who spent summers in her family cottage on Lake Michigan.
Because Miss Bartow lived in southern Illinois, she asked a Michigan businessman to interview candidates for the companion job, and he gave me the position. Due to my college's schedule, I arrived at Miss Bartow's summer home a full week before she did.
Hemlock and oak trees shaded the house, which had been built in 1898. Weathered shingles blended with the leaf litter tossed over the dune, and small porches graced the three entryways.
I fell in love with the house when I opened the door and walked into a world where the past mingled with the present. Being of New England stock, the Bartow family had never thrown anything away unless it was worn out, so stacks of The Youth's Companion and old field guides to plants and birds filled shelves, while in the kitchen flatirons served as doorstops.
I unpacked quilts and scattered rag rugs according to the instructions that Miss Bartow had mailed me. Among the linens, I found a china doll and set her up to supervise my activities.
But as I worked, I pondered what sort of person my employer would be. I knew that she needed help in dressing and that, although my cooking skills were limited to pancakes and chocolate chip cookies, she was expecting me to prepare three meals each day.
But would this person be demanding? A complainer? In my enthusiasm to live on the lakeshore for the summer, I had not stopped to contemplate the character of the person with whom I would share those three months.
The day before Miss Bartow came, as I pedaled home from the local village on my bike, I stopped to pick a large bouquet of the daisies that bloomed near the roadside.
The next afternoon, I met Miss Bartow on the path to the cottage with the young man who had driven her from Urbana, Ill. We scanned each other and chatted as I helped her into her home. She paused at the door, and then we entered our summer together.
For the next three months, we discussed our favorite authors and debated current events. She told me tales of the lakeshore's history and about her days at Vassar College during the time Edna St. Vincent Millay graced the school's campus. Miss Bartow had gone on to become one of the first women in the United States to earn a doctorate in chemistry.
One evening, I arranged a bouquet of daylilies and set the table for dinner. After I pushed Miss Bartow's chair in, she looked me in the eye.
"Some of my friends questioned my decision to hire a companion sight unseen," she said. "I trusted Mr. Hoffman as a good judge of character, yet I was a mite anxious as that lad drove me north. And when I first saw you, I thought, Oh, no, she's not very big. I doubted that you would be strong enough to assist me, and wondered if I had made a mistake. Then I walked into the cottage and saw the bouquet of daisies waiting for me. I decided that anyone who would stop and pick wildflowers had to be a cheerful sort of person, and I knew we would get along."
My fears had also fled on that first evening, as soon as I realized what a gracious person Miss Bartow was, especially when she handed me her copy of "The Joy of Cooking," and said: "If you can read, you can cook."
Miss Bartow and I continued to enjoy our remaining weeks together, and I also returned to share another summer with her. Eventually, I married a local fruit farmer, and John and I would visit Miss Bartow each summer, bringing her fruit and flowers from our farm. Before she died, she gave me the old jelly jars that her mother had once filled with wild strawberry jam.
So each year when I snip the stems off the daisies from our farm and place them in a pint jar, I think about how a single bouquet affected the course of one summer and many other summers that followed it.