On the coast of Alabama, there is a house cloaked in mystery, a place that reveals the truth and changes lives…
Ellie Calvin is caught in a dying marriage, and she knows this. With her beloved daughter away at college and a growing gap between her and her husband – between her reality and the woman she wants to be – she doesn’t quite seem to fit into her own life.
But everything changes after her controlling mother, Lillian, passes away. Ellie’s world turns upside down when she sees her ex-boyfriend, Hutch, at her mother’s funeral and learns that he is in charge of a documentary that involved Lillian before her death. He wants answers to questions that Ellie’s not sure she can face, until, in the painful midst of going through her mother’s things, she discovers a hidden diary – and a window into stories buried long ago.
As Ellie and Hutch start speaking for the first time in years, Ellie’s closed heart slowly begins to open. Fighting their feelings, they set out together to dig into Lillian’s history. Using both the diary and a trip to the Summer House, a mysterious and seductive bayside home, they gamble that they can work together and not fall in love again. But in piecing together a decades-old unrequited-love story, they just might uncover the secrets in their own hearts…
Coming up for Air is the story of one woman’s search for truth – and what happens when love steps in along the way.
WILDFLOWERS is an iPhone app inspired by a wildflower scene from Coming Up for Air. With original illustrations based on a fusion of Japanese woodcuts and Scandinavian design tradition, each of the app’s wildflowers offers a unique and beautiful way to show the vital people in your life what’s in your heart.
There are both wonderful and awful moments in a woman’s life. Many of them, really. Standing in a white dress in front of family and friends, vowing to forever love the handsome man in front of me, is on top of my wonderful list. Then years later, standing in the receiving line at my mother’s funeral and pulling away from that same man’s touch because I knew I didn’t—couldn’t—love him anymore is more than awful. It’s tragic.
In these pages, I will try to wrap words around all of the tumultuous, confusing emotions, attempt to make sense out of what at the moment feels senseless.
On the day of my mother’s funeral there was only one type of flower: Lilies. Everywhere. There were too many to count. With all the flowers in the world, the millions of blossoms and buds, you’d have thought that someone would have brought another sort.
I know what the lily means in the language of flowers: innocence, purity, and beauty. But this is not why the church overflowed with lilies. For twelve generations, or maybe longer, the firstborn daughters of firstborn daughters in our family are named Lillian. I understood why mourners brought these blooms, but God, the aroma was overwhelming, drowning me in cloying sweetness.
Sadie, my best friend, stood next to me in the funeral receiving line. “Ellie,” she whispered.
“What?” I leaned closer to her.
“I wonder if there are any lilies left in all of Atlanta. This is insanity.”
“It still wouldn’t be enough for her,” I said.
Sadie laughed in the quiet manner of churchlike respect. “No,” she said, “it would not have been enough.” My husband, Rusty, stood on my opposite side with his hand on the small of my back, and our nineteen-year-old daughter, Lil, was to the left of him. Sadie and I attempted to hold in our laughter, like the nine-year-old girls we once had been in the chapel at private school instead of the forty-eight-year-old women we were. The misplaced amusement bubbled up from places forbidden and grabbed our guts and throats with the release of hilarity. I don’t know why laughter comes at moments it should be banned; I don’t know why it rains when we least need it or why love leaves when we most need it. But there we were: laughing at death.
“I bet,” I said as I stifled the rising and irresponsible laughter, “everyone thought they were being original and thoughtful, sending lilies to Lilly’s funeral.”
In her attempt to stop a choked chuckle, Sadie snorted, and it was then that we broke into full laughter over something that was only vaguely funny or maybe not funny at all. But just the way you find yourself wanting something worse when you know you can’t have it, we were unable to stop laughter in the one place it is inappropriate—the middle of a receiving line at Mother’s funeral.
Rusty glanced at me, which for a reason I still don’t understand made me laugh harder. He reached out to touch me, and I pulled away. My daughter looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, and I wondered if maybe I had. Sadie squeezed my hand, and we returned to normal— our mournful expressions intact.
Of course, nothing about Mother’s death was funny. It was sudden and awful and left our small family bereft and confused. I’ve discovered the finality of death in this: It remains unchanged and unmoved by loneliness, regret, or grief. My need for Mother, for some kind of redemption or reconciliation, came fresh with every thought and reminder of her absence. Missing her was the ache with which I woke and then fell into restless sleep knowing.
The funeral was a huge event, and Mother would have been proud to see how many people came, considering we’re a small family. Mother is an only child, and Dad has only one brother, Uncle Cotton—an elusive figure in my life, an author who is constantly traveling and in exotic locales, a writer about whom Mother rolled her eyes as if writing were a wasteful career that didn’t even deserve a comment (much as any career in the “arts” is wasteful, which is an odd opinion for a woman on the High Museum of Art board). But that’s my mother—contradictions seamlessly fitting inside one another like the babushka dolls my grandmother brought me from her trip to Russia. Mother’s best friend, Sadie’s mother, Birdie, walked through the crowd, making order of the crowd and the event as smoothly as if Mother were there doing it herself. Our web of friends caught Dad, Lil, Rusty and me, cradling us with their grief and respect. There were newspaper articles and monuments, trees planted, and a bench placed in front of the High Museum. The last woman in line then approached us, holding a single lily in her hand as if she were a bride going down the aisle. I thought I’d start laughing again but found I was finished. The day was almost over, and I was lulled into that certainty that I’d done well, that we had made it through the worst of it.
“Ellie?” A voice behind me said my name. Softly. Perfectly.
A hand fell on my shoulder, and then I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn’t passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the deep color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind. I reached for Rusty’s hand to steady myself, but he was making large gestures while talking to his buddy Weston and didn’t feel me groping for firm grounding.
Then I saw Hutch’s smile, a little crooked and higher on the right-hand side.
He hates being late.
I smiled at him. “Wow, hello, Hutch O’Brien.” My voice held firm and fast, and for this I was grateful.
He is witty with a cutting sarcasm.
He loves his eggs fried with buttered toast.
There is a scar on his cheek where a dog bit him when he was ten years old. For every person who asks, he has a new story for how he obtained this scar. I’ve heard more tales than I could remember.
“Ellie,” he said, “I’m so sorry about your mother. I know how close you were.”
“Thanks, Hutch.” I took his hand and shook it as if we were past and vague acquaintances.
We stood silent, holding hands. I felt tears rising and I wanted to place my head on his chest: I knew where it would fit. “Don’t cry,” he said, and squeezed my hand.
“It’s great to see your beautiful face. Even in your grief, you’re adorable.”
“Not true,” I said. “But thanks.”
“Did your mom tell you that I’d interviewed her last week for the Atlanta History Center exhibit?”
“Yes, she did.” Proper sentences formed on my tongue with the well-practiced art of social graces.
He likes the cold side of the pillow and the aisle seat on the plane.
Hutch glanced around the sacristy. “I know this is an awful time and you probably won’t even remember seeing me, but can I ask you a favor?”
“Anything,” I said.
We were still holding hands, and I wouldn’t let go.
“We—your mother and I— didn’t finish our interview. Would you . . . talk to me when things calm down?”
“Okay,” he said, and let go of my hand. “I’ll call you? Is that okay?”
“I’m sorry, Ellie. I’m really sorry you’re going through this pain.”
“Thank you, Hutch. And thanks for coming.”
Rusty tuned in; he’d heard the name. Hutch walked away, and Rusty took my still-warm hand. “Was that Hutch?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“What the hell was he doing here?”
I shrugged. “I assume he’s paying his respects just like everyone else here.”
Rusty turned back to Weston and released my hand.
We were leaving the church when I saw the wildflower arrangement: A glass vase shaped like a large fish bowl was full of cornflowers and black-eyed Susans, forget-me-nots and Texas bluebonnets. I stopped and slid my finger up the stalk of a cornflower, rubbing the petal against my cheek. A long inhale of the sweet jasmine vine, which poured out of the urn like wine, made me dizzy.
I lifted the card from the arrangement. “Condolences, Hutchinson O’Brien.”
Rusty came from behind and hugged me, wiping the tears I hadn’t realized were wet on my face. “I think the worst is over, baby. Let’s go home,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Home.”
I placed the card back in the flower arrangement, but it fluttered to the floor, where I left it with his name staring up at me.
We make our choices and then we live with them.
The following scene from Coming Up for Air inspired Patti Callahan Henry's WILDFLOWERS app.
Mother’s garden was a flurry of color and wild splendor. As a child, I’d thought it was the
purest expression of beauty. Even I understood Mother’s love for flowers, for their beauty, for their fragrance and extravagant fragility. I also understood her frustration with their unpredictability and wildness—a flower’s ability to become what she didn’t expect or intend. When she planted a pink Lady Banksia and a red bloom emerged, she blamed the soil or the grower or the humidity.
Limestone rocks, flat and raw-edged, lined the paths between the flower beds. Moss grew in
between the stepping-stones: sphagnum— even moss has a “real” name. Mother believed all living things had an ordinary name and then a cultured name.
Ellie,she’d once told me. Yes, we call you Ellie, but your name is Lillian. Never forget that. We might call you by your ordinary name, but your real name is innocence and beauty. And this—no matter what you are called—this is who you are—Lillian.
There was one day—a day of very young and unspecified age in my memory—when the weather was frigid and clear. I’d walked with Mother as she gently placed blankets and fleece over the rosebushes to protect them from the frost that would come that night. She mumbled their botanical names while covering the bushes as if she were tucking precious children into bed, murmuring bedtime prayers. I was jealous in the way a child can be when the world isn’t centered.
I shivered as I followed Mother. She didn’t notice me or my coldness, only the flowers. Oh, how she adored them and called them by their full and real names. I ran off—I don’t remember where I thought I was going, but I know what I sought: warmth, compassion, and someone who spoke my name “that” way.
I’d ended up at Sadie’s house with her mom, Birdie, bundling me in blankets. “Child, what is wrong with you?”
“I want to be beautiful like those flowers. Not ordinary.” What I’d really meant was that I wanted Mother to treat me the way she treated those flowers.
“Nothing living is ordinary,” Birdie said while rubbing my back. “There is no ordinary beauty.”
I nodded at her. “Oh, yes, there is.” I wiggled closer to Birdie’s warm body. “I am.”
“No, precious child, you are no ordinary beauty. You are extraordinary.”
Birdie had then called my parents. Mother and Daddy took me home and sat me in front of the fireplace with hot chocolate warm against my lips. I heard their voices as all children do when parents believe they can’t be heard. I deciphered their words in jigsaw puzzle pieces that I put together as I pleased.
“Weren’t you watching her?” My dad’s voice.
“Of course I was. She was right behind me, and then she was gone.” Mother was crying.
“Oh, Red, she is such a wildflower.”
Months later, the frost passed and the warm earth opened, allowing flowers and grass to pass through the once frozen soil. When Mother went to the nursery to buy more bulbs, I snuck a packet of wildflower seeds into the pocket of my red sundress. I figured I would be forgiven for stealing if I was doing it for a good purpose—to make Mother happy. This packet was a secret surprise for her, one that would make her smile and laugh and look me in the eyes and say my name with warm sweetness. Surely, oh, surely, she loved wildflowers.
In the middle of a moonless night, I snuck out and scattered the seeds throughout her cultured garden. Then I waited with the expectant breath-holding pleasure of any child waiting for a birthday party or a trip to Disney World. I lay in bed at night and envisioned the seeds below the deep soil, opening and thrusting upward with green stalks and wild colors like fireworks bursting into the sky.
I was coloring in my Brady Bunch coloring book at the kitchen counter when I saw her: Mother weeding the garden. Her straw hat covered her platinum hair, and the strings dangled below her chin, flowing in the wind. Her pink-flowered gardening gloves were yanking green stems from the ground and tossing them into a wicker basket she carried in the crook of her elbow.
I dropped the crayons to the floor and ran, slipping and running out the back door. “Stop!” I screamed.
Mother looked up from the ground. “Ellie, what is it?”
Tears were warm on my face and in my mouth—I tasted them. Mother dropped her basket and the new green shoots and brown crumbling roots landed on the ground.
“The flowers. Stop,” I whispered.
“I’m picking weeds, darling. What is wrong with you?”
“Those aren’t weeds. They are me. They are wildflowers. Me.” I took a long breath in. “My wildflowers.” I pulled the crumpled packet from the pocket of my culottes and held it out to Mother. “These.”
Mother looked at the packet. “Oh no, Ellie. You planted these?” I nodded.
“These are just ordinary wildflowers.”
“There is no ordinary. All flowers are extraordinary.” I tripped over the words I didn’t fully understand, repeating what Birdie had told me.
“I don’t understand.”
I dug small holes with my fingers, trying to shove the disconnected roots into the ground.
“But you love wildflowers. . . .”
“Not in my garden, Ellie. Not here.”
I froze, the heat and wetness of the day felt only as a cold ice settling over my body. I ran inside and up to my room. Mother found me under the bed. She sprawled down next to me. “Ellie, what is wrong with you?”
“I thought you wanted wildflowers. I was surprising you.”
She held out her hand where dirt sat under her fingernails, the dirt from my flowers. I took that hand and crawled out. We sat on the edge of my white chenille bedspread.
“You wanted to surprise me? That is so sweet and wonderful. Thank you so much,” Mother said in a singsong voice.
“But you don’t love them.”
“I just didn’t know. That’s all. I just didn’t know. I thought weeds were taking over my garden. You see, wildflowers aren’t a specific kind of flower. They are a mix that grow wild. . . .” Mother paused and then pointed out the window. “That garden is for botanical and cultured flowers.”
“Oh,” I said.
“There are thousands of wildflowers, and they grow where and when they want. But that garden is a botanical garden—one where I document and cultivate specific plants for ornamental purposes.”
She laughed. “Let me try new words. It is a garden where I grow very specific flowers for their prettiness and cultured pedigree. Okay? So no wildflowers in my botanical garden. And you see, wildflowers usually aren’t planted on purpose.”
“Thanks for trying to do something sweet, Ellie. Would you like to plant a wildflower garden on the other side of the yard?”
“No, thank you, ma’am,” I said.
She kissed me on the forehead. “You okay?”
She left me alone in my room. I stood and walked to the window overlooking her cultured and botanical garden.
Her garden: Cultivated for ornamental purposes. Me: Not planted on purpose.
I’d told that story only once, and it was to Hutch.
The conversation guide is available for download in PDF form.
I decided to take a pilgrimage to the Montgomery, Alabama sites in my novel Coming Up for Air. I'm alone and taking a photo of myself headed out—taking fiction to the next level.
My first stop was the Greyhound Bus Station where the Freedom Riders ended with a bloody and terrible attack.
Seeing this place sent chills up my spine, and broke my heart. What bravery; What Heart; What Desire that changed our world.
Then I drove the half mile to the Civil Rights Memorial where Ellie went with Hutch and began her journey not only into her mother's past but her own....