lauren paige kennedy
Father’s Day is approaching, and my rose of Sharon bush is about to flower with its first annual bloom in my backyard.
My father planted it last summer, almost a year ago now. As he kneeled down in the dirt beneath a hot August sun and dug out the black topsoil with his bare hands to anchor the shrub into the earth, he told me he wanted me to look upon it every day going forward and to think of him.
I have an oversized picture window in my open kitchen and family room that looks out onto the yard. When I’m making dinner or helping my kids with their homework, I gaze over the counter and find the rose of Sharon on view as if framed, and, for the first time since I was child of seven when he left, a daily vision of my Dad.
The winter was rough. It was long. And my father’s offering looked spindly against the hard white snow. Even when spring finally dawned and all else flourished—the fuchsia azalea bush, the three varieties of Hostas that leapt to life, the flowering oak trees, and the plush grass—it did not bud. I pretended not to feel anxious about this in April, in early May. I needed our symbol of reconciliation to be firmly rooted, and to grow.
Now it’s mid-June. It came alive a few weeks ago. Its leaves are thick and telling. I can see where the blossoms will soon be birthed. I tend to this plant like an ailing child. Does it need water? Did I give it too much? Where is the sun? My rose of Sharon needs some light, some warmth. No, dear dogs, you may not do your business here. Shoo. Go find another spot in the yard.
Last summer, when my father, who is now 73 to my 47, came for the first time to spend time with his two granddaughters, my husband and me, we spoke of the past, the ancient divorce, the war wounds from it, and the mistakes that were made. Our conversations occurred late at night, sometimes over wine (for me) and Irish whiskey (for him), or while swinging together on my front porch in the moonlight. He said all the right things. He didn’t make a single excuse. He owned what was his, and he asked for another chance. I’m no longer a little girl. I don’t need him now as I once did. But am I his daughter. Some very old stem, long thought withered, opened again and showed green. With a little nourishment it fully sprouted. And here, a year later, we bloom.
I used to dread Father’s Day. I hated trolling the aisles of CVS for a Hallmarkian greeting—any card, really—that said the bare minimum. Try finding one that reads only: Happy Father’s Day. You won’t. Instead, they’re filled with sloppy sentiment, and nothing rings true. I’m so glad / You’re my Dad! / You’re the best father / A girl ever had! Some years, I skipped the ritual all together. It was torturous. I wanted to tell my father how much I loved him, even though his absence had left a wide hole in my heart. I wanted to say anything but something silly or false.
Since he came last summer—when we found each other again over five days and nights, and my daughters got to know their grandfather, who, they discovered, gives ticklish mustache kisses—there have been so many easy phone calls. Easy talk, not strained. We ramble on, he and I, without any self-conscious intent about our days, about a breathtaking trip he took to Italy, about the girls’ recitals, or some recent book I read. Do you know how glorious it is to speak fluidly to one’s father after a near-lifetime of occasional, contrived play dates where we struggled to find the right words? Where we often came up empty? And not because there wasn’t anything to say. Because there was just too much.
I see my father every day now beyond my windowpane. He planted me a rose of Sharon bush so I won’t forget what’s taken root between us. It’s deep and it’s thriving. And when its flowers come, I’ll find his face in every blossom. I’ll think: today is my father’s day.