By Jeff Hampton
“Come on Mommy,” said Maggie, pulling at her mother’s fingers. “It’s time to go! It’s bluebonnet days!”
“Huh . . . what? . . . oh,” said Nancy, looking through crusty eyes at the digital clock on the nightstand and then at her fully-dressed six-year-old daughter. “Okay sweetie, I’m coming. Go wake your brother.”
Maggie scampered down the hall shouting “bluebonnet days, bluebonnet days” as Nancy dragged herself out of bed and got dressed. The clock said six o’clock and from the lack of light coming through the curtains she knew it wasn’t lying.
A few minutes later, as she was standing at the kitchen counter spreading peanut butter and jelly on slices of bread, Nancy’s thoughts drifted back 35 years to a similar morning when she and her mother and father went to the bluebonnet fields. She had fuzzy memories of that occasion – mostly the sensation of standing knee-deep in a purplish-blue sea – but her parents had evidence of the day on their mantle: a fading photograph of a little girl in a white dress, knees red from bug bites and stumbles, a little hand shading eyes from the bright sunlight, and bluebonnets all around.
There was nothing so remarkable about the photo. In fact, Nancy was pretty sure that just about every home in Texas – every home worth living in – had at least one photo displayed of someone posing in a field of bluebonnets while Grandpa Hank or Aunt Sally snapped the picture. If the image was slightly blurred it meant the photo was taken right off the shoulder of a busy highway just as an 18-wheeler went roaring by.
Now Nancy was a mother herself and the day had come to take her own children for their official bluebonnet photo. At age six Maggie was long overdue. Many toddlers and even infants were photographed crawling through the bluebonnets, but Nancy and Larry had been too busy until now. Their auto and tractor repair business had not allowed a moment’s break since they started it six years earlier, and even on this day Larry left the house at 5 a.m. and wouldn’t be home until after dinner.
So it was up to Nancy to load the kids in the car, pack a picnic and Chester the yellow lab, and head to the bluebonnet fields. She got the camera ready the night before: cleaned the lens, blew out the dust, and popped in a fresh roll of film. She wasn’t going to trust the moment to any new-fangled digital camera. She’d use her father’s prized Nikon – the same camera that caught the image of the little girl in the white dress.
Living in a wooded corner of the Blackland Prairie where the soil was too gooey with clay to support wildflowers, they’d have to drive the county road down to the state highway and then on to where it intersected with the interstate. There, thanks to Lady Bird Johnson and the highway department, they were sure to find plenty of the famed State Flower of Texas. Nancy had it all figured out: If they left the house by 7 a.m. they could get there around 8:30 and still have plenty of bright, low sunlight for the photo.
The trip got off to a good start with Nancy and Chester in the front seat and the children in the back. Maggie sang to herself while tapping away at her little car table with a crayon. In the child seat next to her four-year-old Nick’s head bobbed in and out of sleep.
“What are you working on?” Nancy asked.
“A picture like what we’re going to see,” said Maggie.
Nancy peaked through the rearview mirror and sure enough her little girl was dotting a piece of white paper with a blue crayon.
Traffic was light and they made good time, but an early-morning fog shrouded sections of the road that crossed creeks or passed pools of standing water from the early spring rains. They were in an especially thick fog bank when Nancy made the turn onto the state highway. She didn’t see a large chunk of loose concrete on the edge of the road, and when she struck it with her front right tire the bump tossed Chester into the floorboards and woke Nick from his slumber. “Potty,” he said immediately, and that was reason enough for Nancy to pull off the highway and take a break.
“Maggie, walk with Nick and Chester over to the trees while mommy checks the car,” Nancy said, and after she saw them safely out of the way she turned to inspect the front end. It wasn’t good: a rusty piece of rebar had broken out of the concrete and pierced the tire. It was holding the air in, but she knew from experience that any attempt to drive would dislodge it and let all the air out. She also knew that she didn’t have a spare. Larry was so busy keeping everyone else rolling that he hadn’t kept their own car in good shape.
Nancy called Larry on her cell phone, and he said he’d send one of the guys in a truck to change the tire, or he might come himself if he could break away. He told her to sit tight, and she said they’d go ahead and have their picnic on the side of the road.
Realizing that she’d let time get away from her, Nancy turned and hollered like the country mother that she was: “Maggie . . . Nick . . . Chester . . . come on back now!”
The sound of little feet and paws tramping through the brush got louder and soon the children and Chester spilled back out of the trees. Nancy started to deliver the bad news – “well kids, looks like we’re not going to make it to the bluebonnet field this morning” – but Maggie interrupted excitedly, “that’s okay Mommy, we have our own bluebonnets.”
“Where?” Nancy asked, looking up and down the highway where bluebonnets would be if there were any to be found.
“This way,” said Maggie, pointing back into the trees. “We’ll show you.”
Skeptical but curious, Nancy borrowed one of Maggie’s crayons and wrote a note for Larry and left it under the wipers. She grabbed her camera bag and the picnic basket, locked the car, and followed the children and Chester into the trees. Walking down a narrow trail cut by deer or armadillos, they came to a break in a barbed wire fence.
“Did you kids come this far?” she asked.
“Sure, Mommy,” said Maggie, “it’s just through the fence.”
“Hmmmm,” Nancy said, not completely convinced. Maggie had a good imagination and maybe she only thought she saw bluebonnets. Maybe her young eyes had mistaken a distant piece of highway debris – perhaps a blue hay tarp – for the wildflowers. Or maybe she’d seen the light glint off the surface of a stock pond.
Still, she followed them down the path beyond the fence to where the trees began to thin out into an opening. The children ran ahead with giddy laughter but her first instinct was to gaze upward. The thick canopy they had been walking under was now carved into openings of blue sky, through which the morning sun angled downward and lit up the last remnants of the morning fog. Her eyes followed the golden rays all the way to the ground.
“Oh my goodness,” she gasped, covering her mouth as if to keep her very soul from leaving her body.
As if mirroring the sky above, the ground around the base of the trees was covered with tufts of thick bluebonnets. It was as if someone had come into the woods, removed half of the trees and brush for an acre or so, and laid out big round blue blankets. Each of the blankets was illuminated by a spotlight from the sun above, and encircling the entire scene was a little stream that trickled out of the woods into the opening, moved around the perimeter and disappeared back into the trees not far from where it entered.
“Isn’t this the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen anywhere?” Maggie shouted.
“Yes, sweetie, it is,” said Nancy as she walked forward, looking down at her feet to make sure she stepped over the stream and stayed on the path that the children had already made between the blankets. “And it’s going to make the best bluebonnet photo ever.”
For the rest of the morning – although it may have been longer because time has no meaning when you’ve found a piece of heaven on earth – Nancy arranged the children in every pose imaginable: alone, together, with and without Chester, playful and serious. Nancy even let Maggie handle the camera so she could be in a few pictures herself.
When they ran out of film, they sat down in the thick green clover beside the stream for their picnic lunch. As they ate Nancy passed on to her children the legend of the Comanche Indian girl whose gift to the gods of a doll with blue feathers broke the drought and left Texas covered with bluebonnets. She told them about the woman named Lady Bird who made sure the state never ran out of the blue flowers. And she gave them a stern warning – false as it was – that picking bluebonnets was an offense so horrible they could end up in jail if ever caught.
About that time they heard the sputter of a diesel engine and the crunching of tires on the highway shoulder.
“Sounds like Daddy is here,” Nancy said.
By the time they packed everything up and followed the trail back through the fence and the trees, Larry had already changed the tire and was lowering the jack.
“Daddy, Daddy, come see the bluebonnets,” Maggie said, racing ahead to greet her father.
Larry looked at his watch.
“It’s beautiful,” Nancy gushed. “You really must see it.”
“Okay little girl,” he said, tossing the damaged tire into the back of his truck and wiping his hands with a rag. “Let’s go see.”
With Maggie leading the way they followed the trail back into the woods, but something was different this time. When they got to the fence, there was no break in the wire and the path turned abruptly to the left and followed the fence line.
“Maggie, are you sure it was this way?” Nancy asked.
“I don’t know,” Maggie answered back. “I think we just went through the fence.”
“Not through there, you didn’t,” said Larry. “You’d be scratched up from head to toe.”
“Then maybe this isn’t the right part of the fence,” said Nancy. “Let’s follow the trail to the left.”
So they set off in that direction for a while but there was no break in the fence.
“Okay,” Larry said finally, “I’d like to keep on hiking and see your bluebonnet field, but I need to get back to the garage. We’ll come back some other time.”
“It wasn’t a field, Larry, it was a . . . a bluebonnet island,” said Nancy, confused and disheartened.
“Maybe so,” he said, “but it’ll have to wait for another day.”
He was in the lead now and led his dismayed wife and children back through the trees and out to the highway.
“I just don’t understand what happened,” said Nancy as she buckled Nick into his car seat. “We all saw it – gorgeous bluebonnets laid out under the trees. We stood in them, sat in them, ate lunch in them. Shoot, Chester probably got fleas in them.”
“Maybe . . . ,” said Larry, in a clipped, lower tone, “. . . you stepped off the highway . . . and into . . . the twilight zone.”
“That’s not funny,” Nancy said, punching him in the shoulder as he started to mimic the familiar theme song. “They were there. We saw them.”
“Well then you can show me your pictures,” Larry said.
“That’s right,” said Nancy. She pulled her camera off the front seat, hit the rewind button and when the motor stopped whirring she popped out the yellow film canister and handed it to him. “Be a help and drop this off in town, okay?”
Nancy drove back to the house in silence while Maggie continued to work on the bluebonnet picture she’d started that morning and Nick went back to dozing. It was already evening when they got home so she made dinner, got the children fed and into their beds. She was washing the dishes when Larry came in through the kitchen door, dropped his keys into the basket on the shelf and leaned against the counter with a heavy sigh.
“What’s up?” Nancy asked. “Bad afternoon?”
“That roll of film you gave me – nothing.”
“What do you mean – nothing?”
“Blank, no images.”
“That’s impossible,” she said.
“No light flares, no signs of exposure, nothing,” he repeated.
Nancy dropped a handful of flatware into the sink and dried her hands. “That was a fresh roll of film. I loaded the camera like I have a thousand times before, and I rewound it the same way. That just can’t be,” she said.
“I don’t know, maybe . . .”
“Maybe what,” Nancy asked.
“Maybe it’s like when they try to take pictures of ghosts or vampires and nothing comes out,” he said.
“Oh stop it,” she said and threw the damp hand towel at him. “It’s not funny. Maggie’s going to be heartbroken.”
“No, she won’t. She’ll be on to something new tomorrow. I think you’re the one that’s heartbroken,” he said, reaching out and squeezing her hand. “Don’t worry about it. There’ll be more bluebonnets.”
“Not like these,” she said.
Larry went down the hall to the bedroom to clean up. Nancy was too upset and frustrated to relax, so she went out the kitchen door to the driveway to clean out the back of the car.
Like so much else with the car the dome light didn’t work, so Nancy dug around in the darkness picking up toys and trash. Her hand found a large piece of paper, and crawling out of the back seat she turned it over in the moonlight to find Maggie’s picture. “This’ll have to do,” she said.
Back in the kitchen, she found an old picture frame and sandwiched the drawing between the glass and the backing board. She carried it into the den, moved some other pictures to the side of the mantle and placed the frame in the center.
Stepping backward, Nancy saw the drawing in the full light and she gasped for the second time that day. It was all there in vivid crayon colors – the trees, the round blankets of bluebonnets, the little stream, and Maggie’s stick-figure renditions of herself, Nick, Nancy and Chester. She even added her father. Scrawled across the bottom in Maggie’s carefully drawn block letters were the words “BLU BONET DAZE.”
“What’s that?” Larry asked as he came back into the den.
“Just the best bluebonnet picture ever,” said Nancy.
Twenty-five years later on a bright spring morning, Maggie loaded her own children in a car and drove to the bluebonnet fields. On the way she told them the legend of the Indian girl and about Lady Bird’s gift to Texas. And then she told them the story behind her own bluebonnet picture – the framed drawing of the bluebonnet island that was visited one sunny day and never found again.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Hampton