Tucked away in a small box on the top shelf of my father’s closet is an old 8 mm film. It is a chronicle of our family during the years of 1965 and 1966. One scene in particular has always brought me a chuckle. In this brief snippet I am seen as a three or four year old boy walking through my backyard on a sunny May day. Then as now, the yard was lined by peony bushes in full flower. I stroll along looking at the bushes and eventually stop to smell one of the blooms. Although there is no sound, my father who is holding the camera asks me to pick one of the blossoms for my mother, so I try to oblige him. I take the peony bloom in my hand and give a gentle tug, but nothing happens. Undaunted, I decide to give it a little more effort, but unfortunately the result is the same. As the smile slowly fades from my face, I shift tactics and grab the bloom with both hands, lifting and pulling with all my might. Nothing! I start stamping my feet, and as I turn to the camera I am clearly frustrated. My face is red and there is a trace of tears welling up in my eyes. Even then my pride reared its ugly head and you can see my determination grow as I try to accomplish the job and regain my dignity. To show that I am up to the task, I put one hand behind my back, confident that this time I had the strength to win the battle. I take hold of the bloom and charge away from the bush, but the stem does not yield and I am quickly snapped back. Repeatedly, I lunge and lunge, and repeatedly the peony holds fast. Finally out of sympathy, my father stops filming.
|One of the ever present ants exploring a bud.|
That was about 45 years ago and so much in my life has changed, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that fencerow of bushes. One of the many wonderful qualities about peonies is their long life, and these plants, at nearly half a century of age, are a testament to that fact. They are as full and their heady fragrance still perfumes the air in April just as it did all those many years ago. It is a scent I can still appreciate, but now that my sense of smell has greatly diminished, I can no longer appreciate the aroma of the foliage itself. I became acquainted with it as a boy searching for the occasional errant baseball that had disappeared into their dark recesses. With only a general idea of where the ball had disappeared, I would move bush by bush, separating the stems and searching their bases for the ball. Two things would become obvious - the air was always cool and moist below these bushes, and there was a very distinct smell to the leaves. In my memory the smell is still quite strong, but in actuality my nose can no longer register it.
For many years the peonies became part of a family tradition. Each May my mother would sell bouquets of their blooms for those who wanted to decorate graves. Although Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) was originally recognized as a day to honor fallen veterans, it has evolved into a day to remember all loved ones who have passed on. Peonies were a very popular flower to leave at grave sites in those days, although the tradition has seemed to fade over the years. But in those days, when May rolled around, Mom would make signs to place in the local grocery stores advertising our flowers. I was given the job of taking a sign and nailing it to a telephone pole along 16th Street, the busy avenue that ran a block from our house. Then we would wait for the people to come. The total was never large, but each year a respectable number would knock on our door and ask for some flowers. Mom would grab her scissors and lead them out back to pick out their bouquet. Our bushes were pink and white with a couple of cherished red ones that bloomed a deep mahogany. These were Mom’s favorites, and I think she tried steering people away from them, but I’m sure if they asked, she snipped them a few red blooms, too.
Our peony selling days eventually came to an end for a couple of reasons. Perhaps the greatest reason was that we started spending all of our weekends, when the “flower business” was at its peak, at our trailer at Raccoon Lake. Weekends were the prime time for visiting cemeteries and people were looking for fresh blooms. Another reason was that our bushes tended to bloom late, and it seemed that over time their bloom period finally became too late for Memorial Day. That opened the door wider for our biggest competitor, the Huebners who lived behind us. The Huebners held a couple of big advantages over us. First, their peonies were an earlier blooming variety, so they had a good supply ready when the holiday rolled around. Secondly, they lived on 16th Street itself, so they had lots of traffic. Our house sat on a dead end, so unless you lived on our street, you never passed our house. I’m sure our ads at the store and my sign on the telephone pole probably brought them a little extra business. While trying to find our house, the customer would invariably drive past their house with its own “Poenies for Sale” sign posted out front and turn in. But I don’t hold that against them. They were a wonderful family and had as much right to sell their flowers as we did. In fact, one of those weekends when we were “playing” at the lake, Mrs. Huebner sold some of our flowers. We did not know this until we returned home Sunday evening, and she came strolling from her backyard through ours. She knocked on the door and presented my mother with money, explaining in her thick German accent, “While you were gone it rained, and all your peonies looked so sad beaten to the ground. I shook the water off, but they would not stand up. I did not want to see them lying on the ground, so I clipped some and sold them.” We would have never noticed the missing blooms, but the Huebners were an honest couple.
They say peonies are one of those generational plants that gets passed from family to family through the years. Such is the case with my family’s plants. I have owned two homes in my life, and at each one I have planted peonies from my parents’ backyard. My sister has even presented me with starts from the Huebner’s yard, which to me is just as meaningful.
This year the peonies will again serve their original purpose for our family. In a week or two, we will gather a bundle of the pink, white and burgundy blooms, and we will take them to the cemetery. There they will be placed in a vase at my mother’s grave. It will be our first Memorial Day without her, but I know she will be happy seeing her peonies once again.