Flowers From Uncle Sam

Originally published in Newsweek, September 26, 2008

Every time I step outside to water the flowers on my front porch, I am reminded of how my “stimulus” check from the federal government stimulated little more than false hope and pretense. My household has never been flush with cash, but this year things have been tighter than most.

As a freelance writer, I am accustomed to alternating between fat times and thin. But this year, the thin has definitely outweighed the fat. A trade publication to which I’ve contributed for years folded, without warning. Clients who once spent freely on marketing materials suddenly tightened their belt buckles, squeezing out my services in the process. Though my husband’s job as a teacher has always provided a stable, albeit modest, income, these days it’s not enough to carry us through the ebbs in my cash flow.

As I scramble to pick up more assignments, I have begun to feel as though there’s some sort of financial conspiracy clamping down all around me. What used to cost $30 to push the gas needle in my car past the full line now takes $50. Although my kids’ appetites have increased with age, they can’t possibly be eating enough to account for our ballooning grocery bills. Our modest family of four has begun eating our way through $1,000 each month, sometimes more, according to our grocery-store bill. Consequently, the credit card reserved for groceries— the one I used to pay in full each month—hasn’t seen a zero balance for months.

Initially, at least, news of a stimulus check equaling roughly $2,000 had my mind spinning in happy delirium at all the ways I could spend it. Certainly, I thought, it would allow me to pay off my credit-card bill. I also assumed there’d be plenty left over for the little things I’d been meaning to buy over the last several months, but simply couldn’t justify. I wanted new dinner plates to replace the old ones, chipped at the edges from overuse. Our sheets need replacing, too: when tossing in his sleep, my husband put his foot through the once-minuscule hole in our favorite set. Then there are our bath towels, whose frayed edges spread with each wash. Recently, after a bath, my 5-year-old asked me if I had accidentally given him a rag to dry off instead of a towel. I made a mental list of these “must-have” purchases.

But topping the list, ahead of new plates and linens, were plants. Every year since I can remember, I’ve diligently hung window boxes from railings, placed planters around my porch, filled in the beds along my front walkway with flowers—and dutifully changed each of the colorful clusters come the new season. But this year, beyond the fledgling plants my children had grown from seed, my pots contained nothing more than the soil left in them from last year. The beds were weeded, waiting to be filled.

It pained me to approach my porch and see the empty window boxes and empty pots. It looked like a barren wasteland. Worse, I wondered what the neighbors thought. I could hide the frayed towels and chipped plates from them. But the empty pots were on full display.

By the time my stimulus check arrived in the mail, my credit-card bill—the one with which I bought only groceries—had ballooned beyond the $1,800 I’d received from Uncle Sam. I could part with the idea of getting new kitchen plates, bath towels and sheets. But, without question, I knew I had to get the flowers.

With the check barely in the bank for a day, I drove to the nearest Home Depot, got the biggest cart I could find and loaded up: impatiens, wavy petunias, hardy ground cover with variegated leaves that promised to come back next year. The damage wasn’t too bad: I’d spent just under $100.

As soon as I got home and unloaded my goods from the car, I pulled on my gardening gloves, got down on my knees and began to plant. The earth was dry and tough. I had to push down hard with my shovel to dig holes big enough to contain the plants. But it finally gave way and, within a few hours, my mission had been accomplished.

Later that night, as I put away the dishes in the cabinet above the sink, I avoided looking at their chipped edges. Instead, I thought of the pretty ruffled edges of my petunias waving in the setting sun.