Lisa looks out her kitchen window and frowns as she sees her five-year-old daughter, Katelynn, playing in the dirt on the side of the house.
“Not again,” she mutters. “How many times do I have to tell her to stay out of that nasty pile of mud?”
She finishes placing the last dish on the drying rack, turns from the window and begins to cry. The grief she feels is sitting on her shoulders, weighing them down and making it hard for her to stand without effort. Becoming a widow at such a young age has shifted her worldview, which is now colored in shades of grey. When Lisa looks at the sky, it is just a sky. When she looks at the dirt, it is just dirt. There is nothing special about any of it.
Katelynn comes running into the house holding a worm up to her mother’s face and says with wonder, “Mom, look what I pulled out of the dirt. Is it a worm or a caterpillar?”
“Well, honey, if you pulled it from the dirt then it is a worm. Worms need moist soil conditions to survive. A caterpillar lives on a plant and eats the plant to stay alive.”
Katelynn raises her voice, “Wow, that is so cool, mom!” Lisa turns her face away for a moment as Katelynn inspects the worm. She wipes her eyes to remove any evidence of tears. She ponders, “The subject of worms and caterpillars shouldn’t make a grown person cry.”
“Mommy, I’m going to put that worm back into the dirt. I want it to survive.” As her daughter runs out the door with the worm in the palm of her hand, Lisa thinks about how much she too wants to survive. Survive the loneliness and uncertainty of being a widow.
As the sun slips out of sight, Lisa tells Katelynn it is time for her to go to bed. After completing their nightly ritual, Katelynn makes a run for her bed and jumps on top of it, giggling as her head hits the pillow. Lisa uses Katelynn’s pink and white comforter to make her into a human burrito.
“Mom, can you read to me this new library book I checked out today at school?”
Lisa grabs the book from her nightstand, sits on the edge of Katelynn’s bed and reads the cover out loud, “Beautiful Things.”
She opens to the first page and begins to read the illustrated story about a dirt lot sprinkled with weeds that is next to a city corner and gets very muddy when it rains. Nobody in the neighborhood cares about this lot. It is just ugly and full of dirt. Dog owners try to keep their dogs off the lot to avoid dirty paws that will mess up the house. Parent’s scold their children as they are about to step into the gushy, mushy mud.
Everyone sees this lot as an inconvenience to the neighborhood, and they complain how ugly it looks. Except for Wilbur Wilson. He sees the potential in this small plot of land on a busy, city street corner. One day he rings the doorbell of the house that is next to the lot. A very, sweet old lady opens the door as she is leaning on her cane.
Lisa pauses and Katelynn urges her mom to keep going. Lisa continues to read out loud.
“Good day. My name is Wilbur. Have you ever thought of planting flowers in the lot next to your house?”
“Yes, I have,” she responds with a shaky voice. “For many years I have longed to plant rows of sunflowers, but I am unable to complete this task.”
“Can I gather up some neighborhood kids to plant the rows of sunflowers?” Wilbur asks.
“That would be delightful,” says the very, sweet old woman as flashes him a kind, sweet smile.”
“And what is your name?” asks Wilbur. She answers with a twinkle in her eye, “My name is Hazel.”
The next day, Wilbur pays a visit to the neighborhood middle school. The old, brick building is surrounded by cement. He asks the principal if there is a teacher who has yet to decide on a class field trip, and if so, would he be able to suggest to this teacher that the class help prepare the soil on the dirt lot and plant three rows of sunflowers. He is told that Mrs. Brown is up for the challenge. Within two weeks the three rows of sunflowers are planted in the corner lot. The kids in the class are excited that they are in on something that most of the neighborhood will not know about until the flowers rise from the dirt into the sky.
Spring turns into summer, and the sunflowers eventually grow to 6 feet in height. The centers of the flowers look like mini suns on stems. After a morning rain, the pedals glisten in the sun paying respect to the warmth and light it provides. Bees suck the nutrients from the flowers, and the butterflies sit on the pedals, fluttering their delicate wings in the air. The dog owners still try to keep their dogs off the dirt lot, and the parents still scold their children when they want to play in the mud, but their reason to do so has changed – they want to protect the beautiful flowers.
People stop and stare at the flowers which lends itself to conversation among total strangers. They notice the contrast of the dark mud, the brilliant yellow flowers, and the deep blue sky. Hazel often stands among the strangers as she leans on her cane and joins in on the conversations.
The neighborhood has never been the same after the spring planting. Each year, another middle school class is chosen to plant the sunflowers. When the flowers are in full bloom, Wilbur cuts off two flowers from their stems, walks over to Hazel’s house and presents them to her. She then promptly places them in a vase and sets them on her front windowsill for all to see. The lot is now affectionally referred to by the people in the neighborhood as the sunshine lot and Hazel is referred to as the sunshine keeper.
Katelynn looks at her mommy with a big smile and says, “Mommy, I get what this story is trying to teach me.” Lisa asked, “And what is that?”
“Mommy, dirt is not a messy, muddy bad thing – not when it can make beautiful things!”
Lisa smiles as tears wet her eyes. “That is right honey bear. That messy, muddy, no good dirt lot makes beautiful things.”
Katelynn’s eyes start to get heavy. Lisa turns off her table lamp and gives her a kiss on the forehead. She gently closes the door to her room and walks into the kitchen. She thinks about that dirt lot and how the people of the neighborhood initially viewed it. To them it was a messy, muddy, and ugly piece of land. She realizes that she has been viewing life just like the neighbors in the story – she has neglected to find any potential beauty in her messy, and not so pretty life.
She declares out loud,” I want to be like Wilbur who sees the potential in the mud.”
She looks down in silence for a minute and decides right then and there that she and Katelynn will buy sunflower seeds in the morning, and they will plant two rows in the dirt on the side of the house.
Lisa whispers into the quiet room, “We will call our dirt patch the sunshine lot and Katelynn and I will be the sunshine keepers. She goes to bed and for the first time in many months, she sleeps peacefully as she dreams of sunflowers and blue sky.