My best friend from elementary school was one of eight kids who were all named after saints. When I went to her house to play, Frances showed me her gold necklace with a tiny cross, and a beautiful white communion dress with a matching veil and shoes. When we had lunch in her kitchen, a painting of Jesus eating at a long table hung above us. At my house, we had modern art, and one of them even featured nudes. And we never went to church. My parents didn't believe in God after my brother died. They rarely spoke of it, but once my mother tried to explain. She said she was raised to believe in a loving God, but she didn't think a loving God would ever have let her baby drown, so she had concluded there must be no God at all.
I was curious and a little envious of the whole religious world Frances and her family seemed to inhabit. At recess, she and I were allowed to walk around the edges of the school field instead of playing dodge ball with the boys. I asked her to explain religion to me, and she tried her best. I interrupted her with endless questions: How could Jesus be the son of God, if Jesus was a human and God was God? Wasn’t that like a dog having kittens? How did Jesus get out of the cave? Who goes to hell and what happens there?
Frances’s family was clearly going to heaven, but I was now worried about mine—what with Dad’s swearing, the bag of pot I found in my brother’s dresser, and the fact that we didn’t go to church. But I secretly believed in God. There was no other way I could explain the beauty of the world—crocus blooming in the snow, sap flowing out of maple trees, the elaborate patterns frost made across the windshield in the morning. Alone in my bed at night, I thanked God. I told him that my people were good people, even if they didn’t go to church. I asked him to forgive us for not knowing anything about the bible, and to please show us how to behave, and love us anyway.
One Saturday, Frances and I were playing in her family’s garage. She took me down some concrete stairs, opened a heavy metal door and showed me a secret underground room. There were small metal bunk beds attached to the walls, each made up with a wool blanket and small pillow. Shelves held water, batteries, tools and lanterns. There was even a tiny sink and toilet.
“What is this? I asked her.
“It’s our bomb shelter,” she said.
“What’s it for?” I asked.
“A nuclear war. There are enough supplies here for my family to live until it’s safe to come out.”
We did not have a bomb shelter. My progressive parents had built a modern house—with cork floors and a flat roof and radiant heat-- but no bomb shelter.
“What happens if your neighbors don’t have one, and they come over and ask to come in?” I said, noticing the heavy bolt on the inside of the door.
“I dunno,” Frances said.
At home that night, during a commercial break in Walter Cronkite’s news broadcast, I told my parents about the bomb shelter, and asked why we didn’t have one. Dad put his martini down on the side table, annoyed.
“Because, honey,” he said, “if the Russians drop an atomic bomb and it kills everyone and destroys the cities and irradiates the land and water, how are these idiots going to survive when they come out? They’ll die from radiation, or starvation, or both."
“Nolan!” my mother said.
“Well, for Christ’s sake, Barbara, it’s true.”
Now Mom looked annoyed. Dad wanted to get out of the hot seat, so he walked over to the fireplace, and jabbed at the logs with the poker.
“Sarahbelle, go get some more logs, please,”he said to me.
Outside, the sky was heavy and low. The trees were bare, and the grass a sickly yellow. But on the way to the woodpile, something green caught my eye. A hyacinth, with a faded blossom, had been tossed on the compost pile next to the carcasses of October’s chrysanthemums and December’s poinsettias.
I recognized the bulb. My mother had bought it, almost in bloom, a few weeks earlier, and placed it on the kitchen windowsill. I had loved it at once—its deep scent, its rich, purple color, the stiff, green leaves that seemed so fresh and full of life. My mother had lots of houseplants, but considered the hyacinth and other seasonal blooms as decoration; when they were done blooming, she threw them out.
But tossing the hyacinth on the compost pile just seemed wrong to me. It had been so beautiful! I picked up the papery bulb and held it in my hand. The soft white roots seemed vulnerable, exposed to the air.
I headed to the shed where we kept the lawnmower and tools, found a small trowel, and set out. I crossed the mossy brick terrace, and climbed the steps to the rear garden, looking for a good spot. The back corner of my mother’s garden seemed safe.
The ground was not yet frozen. In Connecticut, so close to the shore, there are years when it never freezes at all. I knelt, and felt, maybe for the first time, the power of kneeling, the humility and intention of it. Saving this bulb felt like a prayer, a tiny but essential act that might help right the boat of the world.
I pushed back the mulch and leaves with the side of the trowel, and lifted out a few fragrant shovelfuls of dark soil. The earth smelled like root beer. When the hole was deep enough, I loosened the wound roots, kissed the plant, and set it in the hole. I covered the bulb with the soil, and tamped it down, tucking in for the winter.
Months passed and my thoughts turned to other things. But one warm, spring day, I remembered the bulb, and went alone to the garden to check on it. At first I didn’t see anything. I squatted down, to look more closely, and could smell the cold, wet mulch. Finally, starting up through the wet brown leaves, I spotted a small, bright green stalk. My cold hands clapped together in delight. To me, the bulb surviving was proof of something I couldn’t name but I could feel—proof of good, or proof of God, my own secret Easter, a resurrection I could understand.
I leaned forward, brought my forehead close to the stalk, and whispered, “Welcome.”