“A Promise,” Friend, Oct. 1985, 10
Sara stared at her bowl of oatmeal. She hated oatmeal. She had always hated oatmeal. But ever since Grandma had come to live with them, she cooked a big pot of oatmeal every morning. Sara had told her grandmother that she didn’t like oatmeal, but Grandma always forgot. Grandma forgot a lot of things. Sometimes she forgot to put her teeth in. And she often forgot where she had left her glasses. Even worse was the way she dressed and talked. She called Sara “Sarey,” and she wore flowered cotton housedresses that came down to her ankles. And when she went outside, she always put on a sunbonnet.
Sara’s mother said that they should be kind and humor Grandma. Well, today I don’t feel like humoring anyone, thought Sara. Her best friend, Gail, was moving to San Diego, and this was her last day of school. “I’m not hungry,” Sara said. She pushed away the hated oatmeal, got her books and sweater, and went out the back door.
Sara walked slowly down the street toward Gail’s house. They had been walking to school together since second grade. In fact, they had been doing everything together since second grade. Gail, as usual, was waiting in front of her house. She had blonde hair and blue eyes, while Sara had dark hair and eyes.
A big yellow moving van, with its back doors open, was already parked in front of Gail’s house.
“Hi,” said Gail.
An enormous lump filled Sara’s throat, and she couldn’t answer for a minute. The girls walked to school in silence. Sara went through the motions of schoolwork and lunch and recess as if she were a robot.
After school the girls walked home together for the last time. When they got to Gail’s house, they stopped. The moving van was almost loaded. The front door of the house was wide open, and Sara could see the empty rooms inside. She had never felt so lonely in her life. Nothing would ever be the same again.
“Be sure to write,” said Sara in a choked voice.
“I will,” Gail said, her eyes brimming with tears. They had talked before about writing and visiting each other during the summer, but this time it was for real.
Suddenly the dam in Sara’s throat broke, and sobs wracked her body. She turned and ran. As she got close to home, her heart sank even further. A tiny figure topped by a sunbonnet was bent over the flower bed.
Oh, no! I can’t talk to Grandma now, thought Sara. I’ll go around to the back door. Grandma’s hearing isn’t too good, so she’ll probably never notice me.
Sara cut across the lawn and was almost to the corner of the house when Grandma’s shrill voice cut the still air. “Sarey, is that you?”
Sara had a wild impulse to keep going, but she stopped. She pulled a tissue from her pocket, wiped her eyes, then turned around. “Yes, Grandma. It’s me.”
“Will you come over here a minute? I need some help.”
Sara sighed. “All right, Grandma. I’m coming.”
Grandma peered up at Sara from under the sunbonnet. She looked like a sharp little bird. Sometimes Sara had the uncomfortable feeling that Grandma could see right through her.
“You’ve been crying, Sarey.”
“A little,” admitted Sara. “Today was Gail’s last day at school.”
“Oh,” said Grandma. “Sarey, would you mind helping me plant these tulip bulbs. It won’t take long if we both work at it.”
Sara put her books down and knelt beside Grandma. Grandma dug a hole with her trowel. “Now, set the bulb right in there,” she said.
Sara did as she was told. Then Grandma poured water into the hole from a watering can, placed dirt on top of the bulb, and watered it again. “There, that’s all there is to it. Do you think you can do that?”
“Sure.” Sara picked up the other trowel and started to dig where Grandma showed her.
“When’s your friend moving?”
“Today,” said Sara.
“Too bad. That will be a big change for you.”
“Yes,” said Sara in a choked voice. She wanted to tell Grandma to be quiet, that she didn’t want to talk to her about Gail.
Grandma was quiet for a while, then started chuckling. “Did I ever tell you about my Grandma Ruth, Sarey?”
“No,” said Sara, grateful that Grandma’s mind had wandered off to a different subject.
“She was born and raised in North Carolina and moved to Kentucky when she was a bride of sixteen. She rode a horse alongside her husband. They had everything they owned piled onto their two horses, and it wasn’t much, I can tell you.”
Grandma set a bulb into the hole she had been digging and continued, “One thing that Ruth had with her was a little bag of tulip bulbs. Her mama gave them to her before she left. As soon as Ruth’s husband got a little log cabin built, Ruth planted those bulbs. Then came one of the hardest winters on record in Kentucky, and she and her husband nearly froze to death. But when those tulips came peeking through the ground in the spring, she knew that they would make it.”
Sara put dirt over a bulb and patted it down.
“Ever since then, we’ve been a tulip family,” Grandma went on. “I received some bulbs from Grandma Ruth when I married and went to Missouri with your grandpa. Many’s the year the tulips coming up in the spring have lifted my spirits. Grandma Ruth always said that tulips are the Lord’s promise to us. No matter what happens, those tulips just keep coming up every spring.”
Sara stopped digging and looked at her grandmother. “You brought these bulbs with you from Missouri, didn’t you?”
Grandma ducked her head shyly. “Yes. I put them in my suitcase because I was really afraid to come out here to live. I figured I needed that promise more than ever to hold on to.”
Sara looked down at her dirty hands. “Some things will always be the same, won’t they?” she said softly.
“That’s a fact,” Grandma agreed.
Suddenly Sara had an idea. “Grandma, do you think you could spare one or two of these bulbs?”
Grandma’s eyes widened in surprise. “Why, sure, honey. I brought plenty.”
Sara held out her hands for the bulbs Grandma gave her. “I want to give these to Gail to take with her. She can plant them at her new home. Is that all right?”
Grandma smiled. “It’s a fine idea. Grandma Ruth would have liked knowing that her tulips will go all the way out to California.”
Sara stood up and dusted off her hands. “Grandma, do you have any pictures of her? Of Grandma Ruth, I mean.”
“I sure do, honey, and I have a peck of stories about her too.”
Sara reached down and hugged her. “I’ll be back in a little while, and you can start telling me about her.”
Sara clutched the bulbs in her hand and started for Gail’s house.