Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
~Mary Oliver, Peonies
Yesterday, I planted peonies, made a memorial garden of sorts. One Moonstone, “This heavenly-scented peony has large double white flowers with blush pink petals along the outer edges,” one Shirley Temple, “This early bloomer has double blush-white flowers with a hint of red. Pale pink fading to white, these medium-sized blossoms with petals arranged in whorls create a very delicate appearance,” and one Rachel, “This attractive perennial is prized for the amount of double blossoms. The late midseason blooming flowers are a bright crimson color and are held on strong sturdy stems above the clear bright green foliage.” I am completely and utterly in love with peonies, so lush and delicate, strong and soft.
At the nursery, the sign said peonies can live for 50-75 years. They live long, are “drought tolerant, deer resistant, and good for cutting.” My friend Susan, Kelly‘s mom, said she has one that her grandmother gave her for her wedding 45 years ago. I love that. Peonies were blooming at Kelly’s memorial service four years ago. Something about them soothed me, gave me comfort, even though looking at those blooms now breaks my heart all over again. Kelly was an avid gardener, and digging in the dirt, cultivating my garden makes me feel close to her.
I bought three to start. That number seems right — three for the three I’ve lost but still carry with me, (Heather, Obi, and Kelly), and three to represent all three of my dogs, (one I’ve already lost, one who is somewhere in between, and the one who will have been here for the grief of both losses, helping to heal me). I planted them in the mound where our cottonwood tree used to stand.
That tree was one of the main reasons we chose this house over the other options — that and the big yard, the location (close to Old Town and Lee Martinez Park, only a five minute commute to work for me), and the decorative plaster ceilings. In truth, at already almost 40 years old, the tree was a liability. It dropped a huge limb on our car once, causing $1500 worth of damage. I made a deal with her then that if she dropped another limb that big, we’d need to take her down (we live around the corner from an elementary school and have lots of kids on our block, and that size limb was potentially lethal, even to an adult if it had fallen just right). A few years later, another came down, so we had to take her out.
she was massive, and beautiful, and terrifying
Taking her down, losing her was traumatic. I still remember how it felt coming home and seeing her there, stripped of all her limbs, a man high in a bucket raising his chainsaw to start taking down the first section of trunk. I felt sick. I wanted to tell them to stop, but it was already too late. I hadn’t realized until she was gone that she’d provided more than shade. That she’d been more than a threat, she’d stood guard, somehow protecting us. Without her, without anything between us and the street, between us and the rest of the neighborhood, I felt exposed and vulnerable. It took almost six months for that feeling to go away.
Based on that, it might be surprising we didn’t simply plant another tree. We chose to put in flowers, vegetables and fruit instead, along with a spot set aside to remember everything we’ve loved and lost, with the intent of eventually getting rid of most of the grass. Eric was telling me that he heard a story on NPR the other day about the history of lawns, how people initially put them in as a status symbol, to show their prosperity — if they didn’t need that land for growing food or raising livestock, that meant they were well off. It reminds me of how at one point in history, having a tan marked you as lower class because it meant you had to work outdoors, but then later having a suntan became a symbol of affluence, showed that you had enough leisure time and money for travel that you could afford to spend your days lounging around in a lawn chair or by the pool or on a beach somewhere with nothing better to do.
So far we’ve put in three new raised beds for vegetables, made another bed for strawberries, filled in the front burm with irises and other flowers, created a spot for the peonies, and dug out other spots for various melons, squash, and cucumbers. I made sure to put a cherry tomato in the back yard for Dexter (we have three beds back there too), just in case he decides to stick around until there is fruit, (he loves them so much, I sometimes catch him picking them himself — if he gets a green one, he spits it out). This morning, he made it an offering of his Little D, so I think he approves.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
~Mary Oliver, Peonies