When I walk through the office in our house my eyes fall on the taco sauce bottle-turned-vase that holds a red carnation. It’s been in the same spot on the desk beside the laptop for nearly two weeks, and the flower shows no sign of dying. I lift it to dust, remembering the afternoon my son brought it home.
It was Thursday afternoon. I pulled into the high school parking lot beside the band room, timing it just right so that the teen drivers had already left campus. I texted Michael, “I’m here.” A quick scroll through the messages on my phone would reveal that is usually the only text I send my son, either that or “Where are you?” When he walked to our Honda Odyssey that day, he had his overstuffed green backpack on his back, his trombone in one hand, and the green-stemmed red carnation in the other. It was four days before Valentine’s Day and the Parent-Teacher Association was selling them. It was the kind of fundraiser that made a bigger impact on people who didn’t receive a carnation than those who did. I wondered who gave it to him. I knew who gave it to him. He tossed his backpack and trombone in the back, and he carried the flower along to the front seat.
“How sweet! Did you get your mom a flower for Valentine’s Day?” I asked.
“No—it’s for me—from Robert.”
I looked at him and knew he was pleased to have it, feeling proud and shy at the same time, holding back a smile and not looking me in the eye. He sat beside me, appearing so different than he did the year before. His blond hair that used to be tousled on his head, halfheartedly combed, was now cut short on the sides, longer on top, parted and swept to the side, styling gel holding it in place. The large sweatshirts he wore to make his small frame look larger in middle school have been replaced with neatly fitting crew neck sweaters over collared button-down shirts with dark denim skinny jeans. He wore black Converse hi-tops instead of running shoes. His squad of friends expanded and contracted with each new season. On the first day of Freshman Honors English, when picking out a coming of age novel, he went straight to the box labeled by the teacher “These might get you in trouble—ask your parents first,” and picked a book about a transgender teenager. For his Shakespeare project he decided to rewrite a scene, calling it Romeo and Julian.
“That was really nice—did you get him one, too?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, almost pleadingly.
I drove on to the middle school to pick up my younger son, Sam, a seventh-grader who would be horrified to receive a flower from a boy or a girl. He hopped in the backseat and asked as he was buckling his seatbelt, “What’s for supper?” This is how every afternoon begins with him, and the simplicity of that is comforting on some days and maddening on others. I resolved not to speak again about Michael’s flower. I told myself, You need to play it cool. You are a loving, supportive mother who has no problem with her teenage son being excited to receive a valentine from another boy. He knows that.
After we got home I assumed that nothing else would be said about it, but Michael found me in the kitchen where I was beginning to cook baked ziti for supper.
“Well I guess it needs water. Can you help me find a vase?”
I tried not to show how pleased I was that he needed me—that he was involving me. It was obviously no big deal—he just needed to know where I keep vases. My vases are on a high shelf in the cabinet above the stove, dusty from neglect, relics from earlier days of marriage when flowers were delivered on birthdays and anniversaries. I spread out three on the counter and we realized together that none of them would do. They were all for bouquets, not for one single flower. I remembered the taco sauce bottle I tossed into the recycling bin the night before and fished it out.
“This will be perfect,” I said as I washed the bottle. The neck was small enough for one stem and the label was pretty with “La Victoria” written in gold cursive letters across a red ribbon with an illustration of a tomato on a green plant in the background.
Michael filled the bottle with water, cut the stem, and put the flower in it. “There,” he said.
I asked if he was going to put it on his dresser in his room.
“No, I’ll keep it out here so everyone can see it.” There was nothing he had to hide. I felt at peace, confident even, that everything was good. Why shouldn’t it be?
Now, as I find myself dusting today I think about Gloria. Gloria Carpenter was the mother in my house before me. We bought the house from her several years ago. She and her husband Ron lived in it for fifty years, raising three children, two boys and a girl, in the brick ranch in Happy Valley. It was built in 1959 and was, according to the Carpenters, the spec house for the neighborhood. Two-car garage, nice level half-acre lot, spacious floor plan, three bedrooms, two baths, full basement, driveway with a basketball goal, big backyard with a row of pines between neighbors, good school district—this was the place to raise a family.
Before the closing, Gloria let us walk through the house with the kids so they could see where we would be moving. We thought they would be excited with each having their own room and an extra bathroom, but at seven and nine years old, all they saw was someone else’s house, with no vision for how it could be our home. She walked us through the house telling me about our future neighbors—Donna, Connie, Mary, and Beth—about how I should be careful not to overload the washer, that the trash comes on Wednesday, and that I could have the large cement planters from the front porch—she wouldn’t have room for them where they were going.
We moved in and tore down Gloria’s floral-and-striped wallpaper, ripped up her white carpet and traded her elaborate heavy drapes for simple wooden blinds on the windows. Since they took their piano with them, we carried in guitars and a drum set. What I call our office was her formal dining room. She displayed china in the place where we dock our electronics, while we gather for meals in the kitchen at the simple wooden table we found at Johnny Penland’s auction.
I can’t imagine that Gloria would’ve ever used a taco sauce bottle for a vase, or that she would’ve understood her teenage son bringing home a gift from another boy. I wonder what life would’ve been like if my son had lived in this house thirty years ago, if he would have felt free to be himself as a teenager. I wonder if I, as his mother, would’ve had the same spirit of support or if I would’ve only seen the hardships to come.