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DAFFODILS: FLOWERS OF HOPE

February 27, 2021

Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what, as you are able, to globalbike, a nonprofit organization supporting women-owned bike rental and repair programs in rural communities with concentrated poverty where women have not traditionally had the opportunity to work outside the home. Founded in Spartanburg and based in Tanzania, globalbike gives women the tools they need to grow their communities through entrepreneurship. Hillcrest Market Place, 1855 East Main Street #14, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29307, 301-920-0408, http://www.globalbike.org.

Last Sunday, I was pleased to see in the Spartanburg Magazine’s latest issue a fascinating article on daffodils for the Southern garden. These reliable bulbs deserve a place in every garden. They are low maintenance and add an artistic touch to the early spring landscape. Perfect timing! The daffodils in my garden are beginning to bloom, strutting and dancing in the cool breeze.

The daffodil symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings. It became associated with the arrival of spring because it is one of the first perennials to bloom after the winter frost. Though daffodils do grow in shades of white and orange, they are best known for brightening up the garden with their yellow hues.

The Latin name for daffodil is Narcissus. It is believed to be named after the son of the river god. The story of Narcissus comes to us from ancient Greek mythology.  Narcissus was a sixteen-year-old young man who became infatuated with his own reflection.  He spurned the affection of the beautiful maiden, Echo, until she was finally reduced to nothing more than her sad, pleading voice.

Narcissus was celebrated for his beauty, but he was arrogant. The goddess Nemesis noticed this and lured him to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection.

Some sources say while he was staring at his reflection, nymphs transformed him into a narcissus flower to get revenge for how he treated them. Others think he drowned trying to capture his reflection, and the flowers growing along the riverbed were named after him. The blooming plant that bears his name is commonly known as the daffodil.

Some even liken the nodding heads of daffodil flowers to Narcissus, bending down and gazing at his reflection.

In England, daffodils are also known as Lenten lilies. They typically bloom between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

A.E. Housman, an English scholar and poet, wrote a poem entitled “The Lent Lily” in tribute to the flower.

And there’s the windflower chilly

With all the winds at play,

And there’s the Lenten lily

That has not long to stay

And dies on Easter day.

A dear lady, Helen Babb, lived in the South Carolina countryside between Greer and Gowansville. Mrs. Babb loved beautiful flowers. In the late summer, old-fashioned rose companions with soft silver foliage and deep red blossoms covered an area near the old barn. They reseeded each year, multiplying in number and in beauty.

In the early spring, Helen Babb’s yard featured bright yellow jonquils, the petite relatives of daffodils. They, too, spread each year, flowing like a graceful yellow ribbon down a gentle slope.

After Mrs. Babb’s death several years ago, her daughter knew that she would have to sell her mother’s home place. She wanted to save some of the heirloom flowers for her own yard in Spartanburg. In the fall, she dug up a box full of the jonquil bulbs, many more than she needed. She shared some with me.

On a rainy, cold November afternoon, I planted the bulbs on an embankment near the waterfall in my garden. Every February, the tiny flowers put on a magnificent display.

This is the season of the garden narcissus, the family of flowering bulbs that includes jonquils and daffodils. These cheerful blooms are harbingers of spring and symbols of hope.

Daffodils and their smaller Spanish cousins, jonquils, are the promise that spring is drawing near. Other flowering bulbs, like crocus and Dutch iris, along with pansies and Lenten roses, are welcome sights even in the snow. But once the daffodils bloom, there can be no doubt that seasons are changing. It is as if the nodding trumpet-shaped flowers herald the arrival of spring.

Some time ago, when I was younger and more agile, two of our sons and I took a backpacking trip during spring break along the Foothills Trail in the Dark Corner, the northwestern section of South Carolina. Somewhere between the Keowee and the Whitewater Rivers, we crested a hill and were greeted with the stunning sight of hundreds of yellow daffodils. An old homestead had long since disappeared and was now marked only by a crumbling fieldstone foundation and a collapsed chimney. The flowers that graced the mountainside each spring had survived and naturalized, spreading through a meadow and across the forest floor.

The English poet, William Wordsworth, immortalized the daffodil in lines penned in 1804.

I wander’d lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Gene was a dear friend who grew up on a farm in Cherokee County, South Carolina. His success with the family business enabled him to build a home on the family farm within a stone’s throw of the old home place.  The beautiful house had a wrap-around porch with big rocking chairs. Visitors approached by a long driveway, flanked on the left by with horse pasture and a weathered barn. Up a hill to the right is the foundation of the former home.  In the early spring, this hill is covered with bright yellow daffodils. Originally planted by Gene’s mother around the old farmhouse, the daffodils have naturalized, spreading helter-skelter down the hillside.  Each year the flowers bloom from late February through March. The yellow-splotched hill is a sight to behold.

A few years ago, after several months of increasingly severe health problems, it became clear that Gene was quite ill.  The diagnosis was a rapidly growing, rare form of cancer.  His death came quickly, far sooner than most of us had expected.  While his death was anticipated, it was also sudden, making the grief experience jagged and confused. 

In mid-March, Gene went home from the hospital. On a bright, warm Sunday afternoon, Gene asked if he could see the daffodils.  Surrounded by his loving wife, children, and several grandchildren, Gene was transported by wheelchair down the driveway near the barn.  He sat quietly for a few moments, taking in the sight of the hillside covered in delicate yellow blooms dancing in the breeze. 

Three days later, Gene died.

At the graveside in a country churchyard, the children and grandchildren each placed a daffodil, picked from the hillside, on the polished wooden casket.  Even though yellow daffodils bring to mind bittersweet memories, they will be a perennial symbol of hope for Gene’s family.

In his concluding lines in the poem, “Daffodils,” Wordsworth captures the wonder of these spring flowers for all who find in them a signal of hope.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Jesus taught his followers how to deal with worry and anxiety. His counsel was to pay attention to birds and flowers.  For Gene’s family, as well as for many others, those flowers will always be daffodils.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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