When I was five or six years old, every summer, my dad’s mother would worry over her peony bush. The plant was just outside the back door of her side of the old house that had been turned into a duplex. It was the house where we lived. The peonies grew next to a large granite rock, too big to move, so trees and peonies and grass grew around the rock.
Hard winters were always a worry, perhaps the snow and ice might kill the plant, at least that was my grandmother’s worry. However, no matter how severe the winter the peonies always survived and each summer the bright pink and white blooms burst into flower. I loved the peonies and always marveled at the ants crawling on the buds.
I would always ask, “Grandma, why do these flowers have ants?” Her response, never very scientific, was always, they’ve always had ants, if there are no ants, they won’t bloom.” When I got older I looked up the ants and peonies question in a library book. Ants are attracted to peonies because of the sweet nectar that is on the buds. Ants are not necessary for blooming.
After my grandmother died my father acted on a plot he always harbored against the peony plant. He always thought it was a pain to mow around both rock and peony plant, so one spring as the plant began to grow, he just mowed over it.
I was long gone to college and grad school by that time and came home infrequently. When I did stop for one of those summer visits, I noticed, when I got out of the car, that there were no peonies to be seen. There seemed to be a remnant of the original plant, but no beautiful blooms.
I asked my father about the plant and he said, “It just gets in the way. I mowed over it.” The response saddened me and wondered if he would have gotten away with that if my grandmother had still been alive.
Time passed as it always seems to do and my father died. My visits to home were more frequent and each time from spring to fall, it was my lot to cut the grass.
I stopped mowing the peony bush. First one summer passed and then another and I believe it was the third summer when I came to cut the grass there were buds on the peonies. There were ants on the peonies. And before I left to return home, there were blooms. Some how the peony bush had survived not only another winter, but the mowing as well.
The other flower that marked my early years with its beauty and fragrance (yes fragrance) was the yellow iris that grew on the other side of the yard. One description of the iris reads: Iris is a genus of 260–300 species of flowering plants with showy flowers. It takes its name from the Greek word for a rainbow, which is also the name for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris.
I loved the way the iris looked and the incredible bloom in our yard had a slightly sweet aroma. Some folks say they have no smell but in my memory and in our back yard the iris had a fragrance. I have since found out that some iris have a fragrance and some don’t.
The blooming iris was always a thrill to observe, to smell and to cut for a bouquet to take inside for my grandmother. The older I got, my experience of the iris broadened. A friend introduced me to an iris that he called “a black iris.” In reality it was a deep purple with a little yellow tips on the inner petals. It was incredibly beautiful and always one of my favorites.
If you don’t have any in your flower garden, find some one who has and discover once again the beauty of the peony and the iris.
My grandmother, apron clutched in her hand,
walked from the back door, toward the
peony bush that she loved so much,
in the clutch of her apron were the crumbs
from the breakfast table, which she quickly
dispensed for the birds, while shaking her
apron she eyed the peony bush, looking
for telltale signs of life and bloom.
I can still see her take that solitary walk
which she made two or three times each day,
from kitchen entry way to the preferred
disposal ground for the crumbs of meals
eaten in the Scandinavian way, three times
each day, toast crumbs, cookie crumbs,
and other miniscule left-overs from the
rhythm of life between a husband and wife,
and then the lonely life when her husband died,
but the days sign post of coffee and eating were
always marked with the crumb disposal and walking
from back door toward the peony bush looking
to see if there were signs of life, emerging from
the endless winter, the slow spring and the first
signs that it could be true, winter was over,
summer had arrived.
There was a kind of hope and expectation in
her look always directed at the peony bush,
a look that was always expectant and at the
same time pessimistic, wanting the blooms
but secretly wondering if maybe this was the year
that her peonies would not bud and bloom.
The house with the yard where the peonies grew
is gone now, bulldozed, gone are my grandparents,
gone are my parents, and all of the aunts and uncles that
once gathered in the back yard or dining room,
family events great and small. But when I returned
to look at the vacant lot after a mean winter
the summer sun had given birth, to just a shoot,
a small glimmer of green, and it seemed as if
the peony bush was alive again, next to the rock.
I half expected my grandmother to come and
shake the crumbs from her apron, for the birds,
and while the crumbs fell to the ground,
my grandmother would steal a furtive look
to see if the peonies were in bud.
Each of has flowers in our lives. Flowers from our past or our present, even if they are just purchased from a shop. Flowers invite us back to nature in a way that is like no other. The beauty, the variety of flowers take us into a place of memory, a place of present, that washes us with fragrance, color, and the stories that come with the blooms.
Let your mind wander and remember the flowers you have known, the delicate buds of lilacs, the fragile blooms of violets, the dandelions and buttercups, the ways in which flowers have woven themselves into the seasons and into the ages of your life. Now take pen in hand, or let your fingers hover over the keyboard, and “write on,’ a flower story.