Heirlooms by Erin Miller Reid

I spent the summer tending the seedlings 
that father-in-law 
gave to a friend 
to give to sister-in-law
to give to me, sending word 
the plants had a decades old Hiawassee Hollow pedigree
grown in the garden next to the cinderblock house with no plumbing.
Or, as far as I knew,
came from the Pulaski County Lowe’s.

When father-in-law died
a week later, drowned in a flood of his own heart’s making,
I sunk those plants in the ground quick,
expecting yellow squash from the looks of the leaves,
according to Google.

I crossed my fingers,
prayed they lived,
summoned the signs because
father-in-law never gave us much.
Last time it was a transistor radio in 2006, battery-powered.
In case the rapture came, he said, and we got left behind.
Or, I figured,
maybe even if the power went out in a storm.

I doubt there’s ever been a squash plant
pinned with such hope because
I didn’t cry much when he died,
didn’t comfort my husband the right amount,
didn’t change our vacation plans.

When the blooms came, I rejoiced.
Full-bottom squash blossoms,
skirts wide as the hem of my wedding dress
at the ceremony he didn’t attend because
he was in jail, another DUI.

The blossoms lengthened 
to prickle-skinned shafts,
butter and egg yolk yellow,
peeping from under broad fronds, jungle leaves,
looking like they belonged in the outskirts of Manila,
where he ordered a wife once.

The squash came and we ate it,
roasted, sautéed, boiled
casseroled with shredded cheddar and Ritz crackers.
One was forgotten on the vine, 
rocket-sized and too course to eat,
but glutted with 
dense, pinkie-nail seeds
that I laid out on a dishcloth to dry,
and gave to the half-brother
none of us had ever met
who drove across three states
to attend father-in-law’s graveside service
held two months late.

Then the blossoms died.
Wilted to day-old coffee filter brown.
Google said 
there weren’t enough female flowers
for the males to cross-pollinate,
not enough females to be fertilized
so the last crop of male flowers
withered, shriveled,
lay unrequited.

That whole seed batch given to
the half-brother none of us had ever met,
who’d never listened to a liquored sermon about microchips and vaccines,
who’d never forged the tetanus-bearing rusty nail dog shit laden landmine of a yard,
who’d never drunk a cup of pudding thick instant coffee from a spit-cleaned mug,
who’d never visited the hospital, never explained the situation to a social worker,
never sent care packages of mixed nuts and summer sausages to get his weight up.

Those seeds
folded up in a paper towel
stuffed in an envelope seven hundred miles away
with a half-brother
all of us just met
holding the only legacy we ever got.

Erin Miller Reid was raised in Williamsburg, Kentucky. She lives with her family in Kingsport, Tennessee, where she works as a dermatologist. Erin won Still: The Journal’s annual literary contest in fiction writing in 2018.

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