Designed by Kimberly Mortson
“I’m planting sunflowers,” my son Wyatt announces. The bitter winter is over in Seoul, where we have been living for the past eight months. We are at a Daiso store, and I’ve told the kids that we can plant flowers in containers that we’ll put on the sunny balcony of our apartment. Vibrant, golden blooms splash across the cardboard packaging with a small pot, soil, and seeds enclosed.
But sunflowers grow in fields or gardens where they have plenty of room, not windowsills. Furthermore, my kids and I are fairly notorious plant killers. Still, I hear myself say okay with an enthusiasm that surprises me. When we get home, he and my youngest daughter, Annalee, push seeds into the soil, chattering as they do, full of great plans for their little garden.
We climb aboard the city bus. No seats are available, so we stand as the bus swings into the traffic, Annalee gripping my waist as I steady myself. Lilly, my fourteen-year-old, and Wyatt, age ten, easily hold the handlebar above them. My memory skips back to Lilly on her tippy-toes, fingers barely curled over the same bar, saying, “Look! I can reach it!”
Three years. That’s the record my family holds for staying in one house. Most of our homes were home for only one or two years. Being connected to the military, our family measures growth in less conventional ways. We had a real growth chart for my two oldest daughters, but we put it away when we lived in Spain and had concrete walls that were too hard for hanging things. Instead, we measured our kids against the doorposts of closets, marking their heights, the dates, and their initials in pencil where we could erase or paint over the evidence—make it disappear with the next move.
Of course, they grew whether or not there was any permanent record. The little shoulders I scrubbed in the bathtub were eventually level with mine, then higher. They borrowed my high heels for homecoming dances, prom, and finally graduation. Now Lilly, my third, is already taller than me, Wyatt just a few inches shorter. The Rubbermaid boxes of hand-me-downs are almost empty, and the kids push towering baggage carts through the airport during yet another PCS move, all clear indications of growth.
Wyatt proves himself a diligent gardener, watering his sunflower seeds faithfully. One night he even stumbles into the living room after his bedtime and grabs the watering can. “I forgot earlier,” he mutters sleepily.
Soon green leaves appear and a stem pushes up between them, getting taller every day.
When we first arrived in Korea, everything seemed hard. We moved from Hawaii, where we had a fairly perfect existence—a base-housing neighborhood straight out of a 1950’s sitcom, trees to climb, a pool and playground just a stone’s throw from our front door, and of course, the beaches. Our new life could hardly have looked more different. Home was a high-rise with an elderly downstairs neighbor who frequently complained to the management and glared at us in the elevator. The playground was a mere quarter of a mile away, but we had to navigate crossing two busy streets, motor scooters zipping around us on the sidewalks. My kids suffered respiratory infections for months, and I had to figure out their medical care through translators. I was often afraid and stressed.
Over time, my kids learned to listen quickly. They froze in response to the “WAIT!” I ordered at the crosswalk. Our neighbor never did like us, but our perilous journeys to the playground paid off with lots of friends. They finally stopped getting sick all the time. After two years, we moved to Camp Humphreys for two wonderful years where the kids had a playground and forest to play in all day if they wanted.
One day we notice the sunflower plants’ leaves look yellow despite Wyatt’s watering efforts. I tell him maybe sunflowers can’t grow in such tiny spaces, maybe this is a futile effort. He frowns in response, then after a quick online search reports, “Don’t worry, Mom. They’re not dying. It’s just part of how they grow. The old leaves have to die and fall off as the new ones come in.”
We spent four years in Korea, then one year in America, then returned to Korea last year in the middle of the pandemic. More than once, I worried that it was just too hard for my kids, all these moves—especially when an email came from the elementary school, telling me that Wyatt and Annalee seemed to be having trouble connecting with other kids. They suggested they meet with the counselor and a handful of other kids once a week. Of course I agreed, but I lay awake at night panicked, wondering if we were doing everything wrong.
And then came winter. Though we’d bought tickets for our oldest daughters to come home for Christmas, Korea implemented new quarantine restrictions that prevented their visit. For the first time ever, we spent the holidays apart. We couldn’t have anyone over, and we could go almost nowhere. School was virtual for a couple weeks, then in-person, then virtual again. How, I wondered, could anyone possibly thrive?
I took the kids to an empty parking lot on the nearby base most days so they could run around since we didn’t even have a yard for them to play in. They kicked a soccer ball, or rode scooters and skateboards until the cold got to them. Then we’d return to our apartment and play Just Dance for hours, with admonitions to “not stomp” and “jump lightly,” hoping to keep our downstairs neighbor happy.
Finally, winter thawed. Somehow, despite of all the ups and downs of virtual school and the inability to get together with friends they were making, they were okay. Actually, more than that, they were doing well. Every day as they hopped off the school bus and I asked how the day had gone, they told me, “It was great!”
The school year ended. For our summer holiday, we took a trip to Thailand where, at an elephant sanctuary, we met a Scottish couple. After spending a couple hours together, they asked how long we planned to stay overseas. I said I wasn’t sure. While I liked certain aspects, I worried about stability for the kids.
The older Scotsman nodded in understanding. “Eh, well, what I see are some lovely, curious, interesting, and polite children. You’re doin’ somethin’ right.”
And now here we are, riding the city bus. At the next stop, a seat empties. My kids motion for an elderly woman to take it. I think of the Scotsman’s words.
“Mom! Come quick!” Wyatt shouts from our balcony. “There are buds on the sunflowers!” Maybe this isn’t a miracle to better gardeners, but to me, well, it takes my breath away. Soon, the buds open like explosions of brilliant sunshine that we can spot in our window even from the street five stories below. In this tiny, unlikely space, the sunflowers have bloomed, their golden faces pointed toward the light.
Meet the Author: Joy Nicholas is mother to five kids who range in age from 7 to 23. She grew up moving all over the world and currently lives in South Korea, where she is working on her first book, a memoir. You can catch more of her adventures and misadventures on Instagram at @justyouraveragejoy and through her newsletter joynicholas.substack.com.
Continue Reading Volume VIII of Legacy Magazine
To continue reading Volume VIII of Legacy Magazine, order your copy here. Volume VIII will give you the clarity, courage, and inspiration needed to move into a purposeful, value-aligned life. Experience a newfound confidence to take control of your life. Uncover a hope that living and serving in this lifestyle does not need to hinder your personal growth, dreams, or ambitions. Believe in the power of your own voice, your own story. Agency is within your grasp.
Editorial Designed by Eileen Diaz