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Sunflower Seeds

by Eloise Porter

When I was born, my dad planted a sunflower seed in my ribcage.


As I grew, he watered it with anecdotes and art and literature and politics and history. He taught me how to crack open their shells with my teeth and discard them, and inside of each one, I found something odd and unique.


I found the beaches of Crete, where freshly caught octopus waded through puddles of oil before wriggling down your throat between gulps of chilled grappa. Where you could stumble upon an ancient ruin at any turn or literally stumble over an ancient ruin if you weren’t watching where you were going. Which he rarely was.


I found Leonard and Suzanne and Marianne. Those same beaches of Crete but with more womanizing and more LSD. I found Dylan but he was no Cohen, and so I found real music like Chuck Berry and Hank Williams and BB King.


I found the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those bloodied battles and pillaged villages. The epic war stories that maybe I was too young to read but they were part of a good education, like the Declaration of Independence that my sister and I were expected to memorize when we were kids.


I found Judaism and Buddhism and Greek mythology. I found his weird form of made-up yoga where he stood on his head and stared out the window on a rolled up, faded green blanket in the living room every morning. 


In my left shoulder, he potted a bonsai tree. 


As I grew, he tended to it. He cultivated and maintained its roots and pruned its excess branches. In each root through to the fingertips of each branch ran something different.


There was one that led to the 60s in San Francisco, where Janis Joplin played on weed-hazed stoops. One led to the 70s in New York, where starving artists lived off soup cans and cheap whiskey in 2,000 square foot lofts.


One led to sex. But not the shameful kind that you didn’t talk to your children about — not the “wait until marriage” kind — it was the kind found in the pages of James Joyce, Henry Miller, and my dad’s novels, so it was okay to talk about to a kid.


One led to Communism and McCarthyism and another led to mushrooms — but not the magic ones because those were too shriveled and dried to tell what kind you were getting. Those could kill you, but if you ever try them, let me know what the trip is like.


One led to cowboys and little houses on prairies and valleys so low. And comin’ ‘round mountains and Annie Oakley. Another to William Carlos Williams and the Beat poets and one more to Harpo Marx and his honking horn.


There was one that started with Michaelangelo and ran all the way from his sketches and sculptures to El Greco and Tintoretto to Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, and Marcel Duchamp — but the bicycle wheel, not the toilet.


Behind my right kneecap, he placed a cactus. 


Both the prickly things and the flowers that blossomed out of them had something different to teach me. 


From those prickers I learned the difference between waxing and waning and translucent and transparent. I learned that K was Rich In Sky. I learned how to crack Maryland crabs and the right way to slice gravlax, which might include accidentally slicing the tip off your finger. I also learned how to call 9-1-1 after a potato-skewering incident went wrong.


I learned that dancing until you can’t breathe is the best part of life — and so is accidentally breaking glasses or plates and screaming, “Shit!” even if mom gets mad and has to clean up red wine from the carpets.


I learned about the desert and I learned where the buffalo roam. I learned about the Battle of 1817 or something and some general I don’t remember anything about but he did a really honorable thing up on top of a hill.


I learned that enough nutmeg can get you high and that typing with two fingers is every bit as effective as typing with ten. I learned that Main Coon cats are the best kinds and that foxes don’t make the best housepets, even though he tried that one summer in San Francisco. 


Out of that cactus bloomed pickled herring and pastrami and potato chips — Vienna Fingers and School Boy Cookies. There were donuts and chocolate sundaes with hot fudge and pickles and hamburgers, no cheese.


There was patience in there, too — like from meditation or ten hour road trips singing the Swingle Singers or four hours spent looking at art in museums or cathedrals or churches in Italy. Or simply from listening to a story that rambled on for a little bit too long.


Somewhere in there I found assembly instructions for a piece of Ikea furniture but also the blueprints for his playground sculpture from Art Park in 1978. There was a user manual for that toaster oven that was too loud when BEEP BEEP your toast was done and a tangle of wires from the stereo system that we couldn’t figure out, so every New Year’s Eve we played the same outdated playlist that still had music from 2011 on it — but a lot of Chuck Berry, too, don’t worry.


There were hot dogs and sausages. But never football, unless it was just an excuse to eat hot dogs and sausages.  


There were all the maps he drew and seashells and driftwood and sea glass collected from chilly beaches in Northern California. There was that one really big piece of driftwood that rolled over him and almost killed him. There was the cruel sea. 


And there were sunflower seeds. Lots and lots of discarded shells that we’d have to sweep up eventually.

About the Author

Eloise Porter is an interdisciplinary writer whose work includes short stories, flash nonfiction, and editorial. She works primarily as a writer and editor for lifestyle publications and lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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