The Gift of Lilies by Sayuri Ayers

illustration by author of woman and father with tulips between them

In the photograph from the summer of 1980, my father stands in a field of sunflowers with an infant in his arms. He holds me against his narrow chest, a slight smile gathering at the corners of his mouth. Day after day, he lifted me up into daylight until my jaundice skin brightened to a soft pink hue. As he circled the bright fields, I imagine him whispering the name he gave me: Little Lily.

Throughout my childhood, my father would spend sunny afternoons in his backyard garden. Recalling his farming days in Wakayama, Japan, he carefully tilled the soil, coaxing seedlings from Ohio clay. All summer long, crimson and gold tomatoes rolled onto our kitchen counter. My father and I bit into juicy wedges sprinkled with salt, tartness lingering on our tongues.

On Easter Sundays, the heavy musk of the white lilies blanketed our house, their throats laden with yellow pollen. Once, overwhelmed by the stench, I lay sobbing in bed with a pounding headache. My father sat quietly with me, placing his hand on my throbbing forehead. As he prayed, I fell into a deep sleep filled with wavering blossoms.

In his sixties, my father began to plant lilies. All summer they bloomed: slick oranges, searing whites and yellows—the garden beds ablaze with color. After gardening, he would return to the house and spoon citron syrup into hot water. Standing in the front room, he would watch golden petals flicker against windows.

When I reached my early thirties, I struggled with episodes of severe depression.

I was admitted into the mental ward six times.  My father always visited me in the hospital, his cheeks brown and freckled by seasons of gardening. As I slumped pale and withdrawn, my father would encase my hands in his suntanned fingers, bowing his head in prayer. His eyes reflected the gold of lilies opening under the sun.

The spring after my last release from the ward, my father and I waded into his garden beds. The lilies blazed as they swayed in the wind. When I asked to bring some home, my father knelt in the earth. With a spade, he cleaved a young lily from the soil. His fingers lingered on its roots, as he placed it in my hands.

Now, I watch from my front-room window as the neighborhood maple trees cast off their crimson leaves. Soon, December’s chill will settle into the deep earth of my garden, the planted bulbs slumbering under ice and snow. Cradling a cup of hot tea, I channel the strength of summer’s rays. In my mind, lilies emerge from the darkness, their throats coursing with golden fire.

Meet the Contributor

Sayuri AyersSayuri Ayers is an essayist and poet from Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Entropy, The Account, VIDA Review, the Columbia Journal, Cordella, and other literary spaces. Sayuri has two poetry collections: Mother/Wound (Full/Crescent Press, 2020) and Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bottle Press, 2016).  She is a Kundiman Fellow and recipient of The Ohio Arts Council’s 2020 Individual Excellence Award for creative nonfiction. Please visit her at sayuriayers.com.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Sayuri Ayers

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