Flour Sack Flowers
The paper-thin slices of carrot cake did nothing to quell the hunger gnawing at every guest’s stomach. Nevertheless, the little white church, situated right in the middle of an Ohio corn field, was full of laughter and love. With their hands entwined and their families and friends around them, Elizabeth and James didn’t care that they did not have a single penny saved or even curtains on the windows of their tiny house. No, they had each other, and that was more than enough.
Months later, when the baby started growing inside her and James started working longer at the automotive factory for less and less pay, big-dreamer Elizabeth began to detest the bare walls of their modest home.
“I wish I had a palace for my family to live in,” she thought wistfully, picturing a storybook castle. “It would have rooms upon rooms of beautiful furniture and fancy decorations.”
But buying ritzy fabrics was just a dream when affording two bags of flour a week was living in luxury.
The fresh bride eyed the half-empty sack laying on the kitchen counter. The blue, flowered fabric wasn’t silk or brocade, but it would be more than enough.
Several months later, Elizabeth struggled to work the pedal of the Singer sewing machine while simultaneously feeding the coarse cotton through the presser foot. Her swollen belly proved a constant obstacle. But the persistent mama-to-be was tired of undecorated windows. Soon enough, she had blue flowered curtains proudly fluttering in the breeze.
James arrived late that night, eyes drooping and dirt smeared across his brow. His lips quirked into a smile as soon as he noticed the brand-new additions to his home.
“Well, you’ve been busy, haven’t you, darling?” he exclaimed, pressing a feather-light kiss to his wife’s temple. He gestured to the scraps of flour sack in a neat pile on the table. “You even have enough left to make yourself something special!”
Elizabeth spent the next day stitching together the leftover cotton into an apron. She tied it proudly around her waist, struggling to knot the ties herself, before scraping together carefully rationed butter and the garden’s first strawberries of the year into a simple pie. It was the first pie of hundreds she would bake in the trusty floral smock.
Joy watched Nana’s knobbly hands grip the wooden rolling pin and push the dough thinner and thinner against the counter. When she had rotated, rolled, rotated, rolled enough times to form a wide circle, she set down the pin with a clunk and brushed her hands on her apron, dotted with cornflower blue daisies.
“There,” she declared proudly, smiling at her granddaughter. “Pumpkin, can you get the pie plate for me?”
For eight-year-old Joy, climbing up the white metal step-stool to reach the cabinet and delicately balancing the ceramic dish was one of the biggest responsibilities she ever had. The little girl treated it as such, slowly gliding over the tile floor to her awaiting grandmother.
“Perfect.” Nana took the dish and carefully covered it with the pastry dough. The small girl gazed in awe as leftover bits of dough were expertly trimmed away from the rim, Nana’s skilled fingers quickly pressing ruffles into the top edges of crust.
Standing on tiptoe, Joy grabbed the rolling pin off the counter and held it reverently in her palms. “Why does it take so long to make pie, Nana? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just go to the supermarket and pick one up, like Mama does?”
The older woman let out a long, hearty chuckle, continuing the pattern of making ridges in the dough. “It would be easier, but not nearly as satisfying. A good pie is made with love, and that takes time. You can’t rush these things. If you don’t roll the dough enough, you won’t have enough to cover your pie pan.”
“And then you wouldn’t have enough crust for pie!” Joy gasped, horrified.
“But, if you roll the dough too much, it will be too fragile and will rip when you try to move it.” Nana finished fluting the crust and gathered the scraps together, pressing them between her palms to make a small ball.
“Come here,” she said, untying the apron from around her waist. She dropped the floral garment over the smaller girl’s head and looped the ties around her torso twice before tying it secure. “Let’s give it a try.”
Joy awkwardly pushed the pin against the dough, barely smashing the ball. She tried a few more times. Her handiwork looked nothing like Nana’s smooth crust.
“All you need is a little more pressure, that’s all.”’ Nana placed her hands on top of her granddaughter’s and pushed the pin back and forth, back and forth until the dough flattened into a small circle. “See? Not so hard after all.”
Nana ducked down and rummaged in a drawer, her gray curls spilling out of her bun. She straightened back up with a groan, a miniature pie pan in her hand. “We can make a second one, just for you,” she said with a grin. “Just don’t tell that Mama of yours I let you eat it all.”
Joy couldn’t fight the lump rising in her throat as she watched her peers, all clad in billowy white gowns, march triumphantly off the stage into the waiting arms of their beaming parents and grandparents. Mimi and Papaw, Dad’s parents, couldn’t afford the flight from Florida, Mama’s dad died in World War II when she was just a girl, and Nana… Well, Joy couldn’t think of Nana without a tear trickling down her cheek. She brushed it off with the back of her palm and adjusted the square cap poised atop her teased locks.
Her plastered-on smile lasted all the way through her graduation party. Once the last cousin had been rounded up and sent off with an exhausted Aunt Millie, Joy and her parents let out a collective sigh.
“I’m glad I only have to do that once,” the new graduate quipped, kicking off her towering pumps.
Mama delivered a towering slice of store-bought cake with a bone-crunching hug. “I’m so proud of you, hon. I have one last gift for you, up in your room.”
Mama winked mischievously. Joy dashed up the stairs and into her bedroom, discovering a foil-wrapped, square package sitting on her bed. She removed the paper gingerly, taking off the tape first like Nana always did. “Waste not, want not,” she had said.
Joy held her breath as she opened the cardboard box and pulled out a familiar floral smock. The tears that had been threatening to spill all day flowed down her cheeks and onto the apron as she held it tight to her chest.
“I wish you were here, Nana,” she whispered, squeezing the cotton like she wished she could squeeze her grandmother one more time. She always thought that there would be one more time, but the leukemia had other ideas. “If you were, we wouldn’t have had store-bought cake.”
As the community’s favorite budding baker, Joy didn’t leave the house to go to a social function without the well-loved apron. Whether it was a church potluck or a cookout with friends, she could count on being called on to whip up a batch of cookies or a pan of brownies.
That’s why she had it stored with her toiletries and pajamas in her duffel bag on her passenger side seat on the way to her best friend’s house for a sleepover… and why she was so devastated when she returned to her car after a quick stop for dinner to find her bag missing.
Missy dashed along the sidewalk in the shadowy evening, the hot pink bag slapping against her shoulder as her feet thumped against the pavement. She reached the shelter out-of-breath and tucked her find under her jacket so that the leering men in the lobby wouldn’t force her to turn over her spoils.
Back in the safety of the women’s quarters, Missy dumped the contents of the bag onto her cot. The clothes looked like they would fit well enough. She scoffed at the hairspray, the days when she would spend hours primping in front of her vanity a hazy memory. The bag didn’t hold any baby clothes, but the new mother knew that hope had been too optimistic anyway. She cast a glance at the cardboard box holding her slumbering son: the best crib the shelter could provide.
Taking a flowered apron from the tangle of clothes and cosmetics, she swaddled her child in the cotton fabric as best as she could. Only three months old, Henry just seemed so fragile. She was sure she was going to break him. She never did anything right. Mother and Father thought so, too: they told her as much, seconds before they slammed their front door in her face, leaving her in the cold Ohio winter, pregnant and alone.
As she gently placed the bundled babe back into the makeshift crib, her eye caught on a fluttering advertisement tacked on the “Jobs and Opportunities” board strategically placed to remind the women in the cramped room that the free roof over their heads was designed to be a temporary one. “Try your hand at culinary school,” the poster read, bearing a picture of a rotund, mustached man displaying a plate of spaghetti. “Free night classes offered weekly.”
Missy placed a chaste kiss on Henry’s forehead before climbing under the threadbare covers on her cot. She dreamed of homemade pasta and another life, one with no worries of where the next meal would come from or of letting others down. She dreamed of Paris and London and finding a love who would never leave her. She dreamed.
With Henry settled in at Brown University, on a full ride nonetheless, Missy finally allowed herself to travel the world. For eighteen years, she had done everything from bussing tables, scrubbing dishes, and managing dramatic, hormonal teenage drive-through workers to catering for upscale weddings-- all to give Henry a roof over his head and a chance to succeed. And succeed he had. It was time for Missy to live her own dreams.
She packed up her belongings and left everything but a single suitcase in a storage unit before boarding a one-way flight to Europe. Just one cardboard box remained in the apartment, forgotten in a dusty corner of a closet.
The new tenant, a twenty-two year old entrepreneur who was determined to be the Midwest’s next multi-billionaire, discovered the disintegrating box when he was hanging up his suits. He barely glanced at the cookbooks and dirty apron inside before tossing the contents into a plastic bag, to be delivered to the neighborhood Goodwill the next day.
The apron, flowers now a faded shadow of the original bright blue, hung on a wire hanger between a black smock emblazoned with the peeling words “Grill Master” and stained with barbecue and a frilly child’s pinafore for six months. Mrs. Moore didn’t look at it twice as she pulled it off the rack and tossed it into her cart.
When Mrs. Moore had volunteered to be Drama Mama for her daughter’s school play, she had expected that the other mothers on the costume committee would actually sew the dozens of aprons the middle-schoolers-turned-villagers needed. Instead, the dozen women sat around the lunch room and gossipped about gym memberships and who was having an affair with whom and which kid was going to get a scholarship to Harvard. Mrs. Moore had sewed all of six pinafores herself before calling it quits and heading to the thrift store.
The thirteen-year-old girls were ruthless as they fought over the handmade aprons. Susie even left a long scratch on Amy’s arm as she snatched a hot pink paisley smock out of the other girl’s hands.
“This matches with my complexion,” the blonde, ringletted girl snipped, clutching the bright fabric to her Aeropostale t-shirt defensively. “Plus, I don’t think it would fit you anyway.”
Susie and her possy snickered as they skipped backstage, brand-new aprons in their hands. The other girls grumbled as they sifted through the pile of second-hand costume pieces. Amy hung back, nursing the angry red mark on her arm as the words “You’re too fat. You’re unwanted. You’re worthless” screamed in her mind. She heard them every day at home and in the hallways, so it was only a matter of time until they crept into the theater, too.
Once the rest of the cast had disappeared into the changing room, Amy trudged to the basket and pulled out the remaining apron. She was surprised at how pretty it was: vintage floral print, a gentle blue that matched her eyes. It was soft, too, she noticed as she slipped it over her head and knotted the ties around her back: no need to worry that it wouldn’t zip, like all of the itty-bitty dresses in the costume closet.
“Well, aren’t you the prettiest villager our stage has ever seen!” Mrs. Moore quipped proudly, picking up candy wrappers and empty soda bottles the students had left strewn backstage.
Amy’s cheeks colored. “You’re just saying that because you’re the Drama Mama.”
The older woman placed her hands on the tween’s shoulders and squeezed, smiling down at her. “I’m saying that because I mean it. When that curtain opens, it’s your time to shine.”
On opening night, Susie let every other middle schooler in the cast know that she had both sets of grandparents attending in the front row and that no less than thirty-four adoring classmates had sent her flowers. Amy didn’t have a single person supporting her in the crowd and her hopefully-brought vase remained empty, but she confidently strode out on stage nevertheless. The limelight may have washed out the faded flowers on her costume, but it made her smile gleam all the brighter.
Lizzie slid her fingertips along the various dresses, suit jackets, and sweaters crammed into the small costume closet, the only space the school designated for the drama department. Letting out a sigh, she took several renaissance-style dresses off their hangers and tossed them into a blue plastic bin. The wrestling team apparently needed the room to store their practice mats, so all of the costumes and prop pieces needed to be transferred to storage boxes and stowed under the stage. If Lizzie had known that the previous director had quit because the administration “just didn’t have any appreciation for the arts anymore,” the new teacher wouldn’t have been quite so eager to take on the theatre program. Especially if she would have anticipated the hours spent condensing the decades-old collection of assorted stage paraphernalia.
The exhausted woman tucked a curl behind her ear as she tossed a few more garments into the bin. As she went to stuff a tulle 80’s prom dress on top, a piece of floral fabric caught her eye.
“What do we have here?” she whispered to herself, tugging on the cotton. She held the blue-and-white apron in her hands for a few moments, tracing the fraying edges and makeup-stained bib. It was practically falling apart, but it was more than enough.
“Well, you’ve seen a long life, but I know just what I want to do with you,” she told it gleefully before shoving it into her purse. Her stomach knotted, slightly guilty and yet thrilled at her small act of theft.
Lizzie disappeared to the basement craft room as soon as she got home, She googled detailed quilting instructions and worked well into the night hunched over her sewing machine. Four cups of coffee, three pricked fingers, and two troubleshooting Youtube videos later, Lizzie proudly possessed a patchwork pillow made from the apron’s fabric.
“I can’t wait to give this to Mama,” she thought to herself, hugging the repurposed flowers to her chest. “They match great-grandma’s curtains perfectly.”
Lizzie could picture her mom’s eyes twinkle, the words of thankfulness that would pour from her too-kind mouth when she received her handmade gift. And maybe, just maybe, she thought, Mama would make the family recipe strawberry pie in return.