I never knew my father as a young man. He was nearing fifty when I was born, and even in my earliest memories of him there were streaks of gray in his hair. But I thought it was a perfectly natural thing for a little girl to have an old father, just as I thought it was a perfectly natural thing to have no mother. That was the consequence, I think, of growing up as utterly alone as I did. If I had been born in Mexico City, or even in San Diego, I might have come to understand that my life was not the only kind of life there was.
I remember it was quite a shock to me when my father took me with him to San Luis Rey to buy a pair of horses, and I saw one of the blacksmiths at the mission going along the road with his wife and his daughter. I think the daughter had perhaps seven years to my nine. I tugged at my father’s coat.
“Papa, look at that girl!” I whispered. Even at that age I was dimly aware that talking about strangers aloud was impolite. “Look at how much smaller she is than her brother and sister!”
“Those are her parents, Maria,” my father said. “She is their daughter.”
“But that man is too young,” I protested, “and her mother—why is she not gone like Mama?”
My father picked me up and carried me in his arms as the blacksmith and his family faded into the distance. “Not all families are the same,” he said. “Some have young papas and others have old ones, like us. Some have mamas and others do not.”
I remember coming home to the rancho on Peñasquito Creek and being tremendously indignant that some girls were allowed mothers while I was not. I asked my father about this probably enough times that he began to tire of it, and each time took me on his knee and said, “Mija, it is the Lord who decides these things. There must be wisdom in what he decides, even if we cannot see it now.”
As I grew older, I recognized that one of the consequences of my father being an old man was that we would probably have less time together than we otherwise might have. My father knew this, I think, but he did not appear to let it bother him. He had been a soldier once when he was younger—that was why he married old—and I think that taught him to look at death more matter-of-factly than I did.
When the year of the dahlias came, I was fifteen and he was almost sixty-three. It had been a very dreary winter, filled with the angriest storms and great gales from the sea. It was just the two of us in the old house, as it had been since Mama died; the presence of the ranch hands in the outbuildings did not seem to drive away the loneliness. But the coming of spring improved things, and at last the rain stopped and the sky turned a more brilliant shade of blue every day. I liked to take strolls up to a hilltop above the rancho where I could see the ocean in the distance, perhaps make out the white sails of a ship drifting up from San Diego. I went to the hilltop on a morning four days before my father’s birthday, and when I came back I found him
on the slope behind the house. It was the place where the sea dahlias sprang up. They were my mother’s favorite, and she had raised the patch behind our house like children before I was born. Of all the gifts the earth gave us, the dahlias were the dearest to our hearts. They had a brightness that belonged more to the sun than to the world beneath it. In my life I have never seen anything as yellow as a sea dahlia in springtime. They always bloomed in May, before my father’s birthday.
“Are the dahlias opened up?” I asked.
“They are not,” he said. He seemed rather serious, more so than one would expect from idle talk about flowers. But I figured that I was merely being overly attentive, until I found him in the same place the next day with that same stern look on his face.
“What is wrong, Papa?” I asked him.
“The dahlias are not blooming. They should be by now.”
“They will,” I said. “Perhaps they are just a little late.”
“You seem bothered by something,” I said. I had seen the tightness of his jaw, the way his eyes never left the lifeless stalks of the dahlias.
“They always bloom for my birthday.”
“It isn’t your birthday yet. Give it a few days and they will come.”
“Perhaps it is a sign of something,” he said.
“A sign? A sign of what?”
“They always bloom for my birthday,” he sighed. “Perhaps this is the old earth’s way of telling me I shall not have one this year.”
“Shall not have one? Papa, you have a birthday every year…”
“Dead men do not have birthdays,” he said.
I must admit that this unsettled me greatly, even putting aside what happened later. I had never known my father to be a superstitious man. He was pious, but he did not believe in omens. I told myself that the winter had worn on him, that the loneliness had begun to make his mind play cruel tricks. It will pass, I told myself. Summer will come, and light will follow the dahlias back into the world, and we will forget our loneliness.
I found him there again the next morning, with a grimmer face than before. “Still no dahlias,” he said.
“They will bloom. Give them time,” I said.
“I think I shall die soon, Maria.”
The words cut through me; I began to feel dizzy. “What? Why?”
“The dahlias have told me. I shall not live to see tomorrow.”
“Nonsense, Papa. They are just late in blooming, Papa!”
“I know what is coming, mija. I merely thought I should tell you so that it would not surprise you.”
“Papa, do not talk like this,” I protested, but it was no use. I felt a great weight bearing down on me.
“I am an old man,” he said. “I have been for some time. This is what becomes of old men. I have felt the weakness coming. There is no sense in quarreling with it.” “Papa, please do not say these things…”
“I am only telling you so it will not surprise you.” he said. “The worst part of grief is the shock of it. Can you understand that, mija? I know that what I say is shocking to you. But I promise you it would be a thousand times worse if I said nothing. I promise you.”
I fished for words, but the line hung there taught and empty. I felt a great helplessness, against the bewilderment that choked my words, against the dahlias, against the world.
“When your mother died, it shocked me all to pieces. I thought we had a whole life together—and then, in an instant, there was nothing. I had not expected it, nothing had foretold it to me. If I had known before, it might have spread out the blow, you see. That is why I am telling you these things, Maria. I hope it does not seem cruel of me.”
When one has lived in the tender embrace of the earth for as long as he had—for that is the only way to live in as remote a place as this—one begins to feel that the earth is the decider of all things. We told the end of winter by the opening of the apple blossoms, the arrival of summer by the browning of the grass on the hills; the earth was our clock, our sundial, our measurement of the thriving and declining of all that we had. I suspect that my father felt that the reticence of the dahlias was merely the earth trying to relay a message to him, as it had for so many other things.
That night, he wrote out his will slowly and carefully and left it on the table in the downstairs hall, together with a necklace of my mother’s that he wished me to have. I did not sleep that night. When I found him dead the next morning, the old tension had fled from his face, as if all our past had gone up in smoke. I turned away, toward the hillside where the dahlias might have grown, and I saw the land awash in sunlight.