"Marigolds" is a coming of age short story about a young girl named Lizabeth growing up in rural Maryland during the Great Depression. She describes her town as brown and dusty, but there is one vibrant spot of color in the yard of Ms. Lottie: "a brilliant splash of sunny yellow against the dust—Miss Lottie’s marigolds."
Despite being very poor, Lizabeth is too young to understand how desperate the times truly are, saying, "In those days everybody we knew was just as hungry and ill clad as we were." She spends her summer days playing with her younger brother and occasionally annoying Ms. Lottie, an old lady of the town, who is old, grumpy, and very protective of her beautiful marigold flowers. Lizabeth says that the flowers annoyed the children because they "interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place; they were too beautiful; they said too much that we could not understand; they did not make sense." On this particular day, the children throw rocks at the flowers, but something changes within Lizabeth; she feels guilty for how she has treated Ms. Lottie and says,
"I did not join the merriment when the kids gathered again under the oak in our bare yard. Suddenly I was ashamed, and I did not like being ashamed. The child in me sulked and said it was all in fun, but the woman in me flinched at the thought of the malicious attack that I had led."
Later that evening, Lizabeth is awoken in the middle of the night by the sobbing of her father and the quiet, comforting voice of her mother. Lizabeth has never before heard her father cry, and she can't seem to reconcile the man she knows with the quiet, painful sobbing she hears. It's all too much for her to bear, and in her emotional turmoil she leaves the house and goes to Ms. Lottie's house. There, in the early morning, she jumps into the beautiful marigold bushes and angrily tears them all out. Once finished, she sees Ms. Lottie standing over her, and Lizabeth finally understands, saying,
"As I gazed at the immobile face with the sad, weary eyes, I gazed upon a kind of reality which is hidden to childhood. The witch was no longer a witch but only a broken old woman who had dared to create beauty in the midst of ugliness and sterility. She had been born in squalor and lived in it all her life. Now at the end of that life she had nothing except a fallingdown hut, a wrecked body, and John Burke, the mindless son of her passion. Whatever verve there was left in her, whatever was of love and beauty and joy that had not been squeezed out by life, had been there in the marigolds she had so tenderly cared for."
Despite Lizabeth regretting this action, Ms. Lottie never plants marigolds again. Lizabeth, however, finally recognized the beauty and meaning of the flowers and planted marigolds herself as an adult.