The Secret of Sunflowers

My sister and I used to do all the baking for Easter together. But at our age, how many more did we have left?

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- Posted on Mar 24, 2015

After the Easter egg hunt, Mary Lou delights in leading the grandkids in a song and a story.

My sister, Libby, found me in the kitchen, surrounded by pots, pans and mixing bowls. “Happy almost Easter!” she said, leaning on her cane. “Looks like you could use some help.”

Could I ever. The next afternoon, 35 family members would be descending on my house for an Easter celebration. That included seven grandkids and seven grandnieces and nephews, all under the age of 11. I’d promised them a dessert party plus an Easter egg hunt.

I passed Libby a tray of sugar cookies to decorate and went back to icing the chocolate sunflower cake. The recipe had caught my eye because it included marshmallow Peeps. Libby and I always took on the baking for birthdays, holidays and special occasions. We usually had a blast reminiscing and competing over who could decorate the most cupcakes per minute.

But this year, something weighed on my mind. I couldn’t help but wonder—would this be our last year doing this? Every time I saw Libby these days, she seemed less and less like the big sister I’d looked up to all my life. The Libby who never ran out of energy and who once dry-walled an entire house. Who, at 13, had wowed the judges at the county 4-H fair with her jams, cakes and pies.

She was the only one Daddy let drive the tractor on the farm where we grew up in central Indiana. There was nothing she couldn’t do.

Until now. Some days, her rheumatoid arthritis was so bad that she could barely get out of bed in the morning. The last few years had been especially rough for Libby. Her husband had died. Her son was paralyzed after emergency surgery. She had been diagnosed with both fibromyalgia and diabetes.

And yet, here she was, helping me to make treats for the kids. She had to take breaks every 20 minutes, but she refused to go home early.

I finished icing the cake and set it in front of Libby to decorate. She lined the top edge with bright yellow marshmallow Peeps, then arranged chocolate chips in the center. Voilà, a perfect sunflower! I began filling plastic eggs with jelly beans for the Easter egg hunt.

“Do you remember how Mother used to put the Easter eggs in the barn?” Libby asked.

How could I forget? Mother hid the eggs—real ones dyed brilliant colors—in the hayloft. Libby would give me a head start, but always managed to find more eggs in the end.

“We’ll plant these seeds
next spring, and then you’ll
see, we’ll have a whole
new bunch of sunflowers!”

Life was so much simpler back then! Idyllic, even. Catching fireflies in the evening when all our chores were done. Making puppets out of old socks and putting on “shows” in our cardboard-box theater.

Attending 4-H meetings and choir practice. Carrying cold water from the well to Daddy in the cornfields. Lying awake at night, talking about who we’d end up marrying and how grand our futures would be, until Mother came in to shush us.

Now I didn’t know what our future held. Or even if Libby would be able to keep up with all the Easter activities tomorrow.

The next afternoon, after church, Libby and I set the desserts on the kitchen table. The kids, still dressed in their Easter best, piled into the kitchen, practically toppling me over. Their eyes widened at the spread. Chocolate-chip bars, cherry cheesecake, six dozen bunny-shaped sugar cookies, fruit-and-Peeps kebabs. And, of course, our crowning achievement—the sunflower cake.

After dessert, the kids raced around the yard, unearthing neon-colored eggs from car bumpers, tree branches and bushes.

Libby was resting in a lawn chair by the edge of the grass, the perfect spot for watching the action unfold. I grabbed a piece of sunflower cake and joined her. We clapped and cheered when my five-year-old grandson discovered the “grand prize egg” with a 20-dollar bill inside.

I dug into my cake, thinking about the sunflowers Libby and I had planted as kids in Mother’s garden. We watched green leaves emerge from the dirt and grow up and up until giant yellow blossoms bobbed on stems thicker than my thumb. All summer, those flowers lifted their faces to the sun. Libby laughed when I gave them names like Penelope and Jeremiah.

One morning, though, we went out to the garden and found the sunflowers bent over, their heads drooping. It made me want to cry. But Libby knew better.

“There’s a season for everything,” she said. She plucked the seeds from the centers of the flowers and dropped them one by one into a Mason jar. “We’ll plant these next spring, and then you’ll see, we’ll have a whole new bunch of sunflowers!”

Out on the grass, my grandson was running victory laps. Libby laughed as his parents scrambled after him, trying to capture the moment on camera. I couldn’t help but chuckle too.

Maybe we weren’t the young sprouts we used to be. But there was a time and season for everything. And this too—sitting on the lawn with my sister on Easter Sunday, laughing at the children’s antics—was a season that I’d cherish.

Try Mary Lou's Sunflower Peeps Cake at home!

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