My Grandmother's Peonies

She was as plucky and improbable as each spring's blooms

| January-February 1999


My maternal grandmother's garden outside New York contained Festiva Maxima peonies, flowers I called "pom-poms" as a child. I was 3 or 4 years old, led by the hand between garden beds, out of which reached blooms the size of my head. I could see at eye level into the white depths of their petals, where bees buzzed and crawled—a lush, more vivid heaven than any pictured in Episcopal Sunday school. Now when I bend to a peony bloom its scent recalls this past, the elegant garden, its layout and borders. I want to recall also the exact feel of Gran's hand holding mine, the tall presence of her beside me in her pressed slacks and low-heeled slippers, but these sensations have to be mostly imagined; they are as hard to recall as the exact scent of a peony itself. When she was 84 and dying of colon cancer, Gran took her exit early, "taking her exit" being her euphemism, conceding to illness the inevitable, but at her own pace. She had a supple hand on the reins, as she might have said, to the end.

She left behind an opulent house. But of the opulence left behind when she was gone, her peonies were not least. My mother dug up the "eyes" of these the autumn my grandmother's house was sold. She replanted them in her own Vermont yard where there was still no garden, only a pond and an expanse of lawn. When the peonies broke ground the following spring their fine red stalks unfurled to green, and from the buds opened flowers as glorious as in memory. In that resurrection, obviously, what had been transplanted from Westchester to Vermont was mostly spirit.

One of Gran's candid sentiments was to say about a woman friend that growing up she'd had no home, and was for that reason a "kennel dog." I understood her to mean by this two things, both in sympathy: the creature not accustomed to the home, unacclimated to the parlor, not knowing how to behave. From this I inferred "kennel dog" might mean also the wandering soul that had no calm or place, shunting here and there all its life as though pursued.

A shrub or perennial bought from a nursery is like a kennel dog to me. It is in a category different from that of the cutting, seedling, or mature plant acquired from another garden or gardener. A nursery plant comes from parent stock in the same way as the slip or division I've acquired from a friend or neighbor, with only this difference: It has spent its life in a plastic pot, moving here and there on a truck bed, living on Peters and Pro-Gro. I tell myself it is imaginative to think this makes any difference—then put the latest purchase out on the porch to harden off, acclimate, "learn how to behave." I pity and want to console nursery plants for their hothouse tenderness, their lack of heritage, their lack of ground.



Gran's peonies stand at the other extreme of this bizarre discrimination, since the ground they come from is my own past. Their transference out of the past into the present is legacy, and it carries a light burden: The sole living remnant of a lost landscape will dictate the nature of its new surroundings. I'll say it was in their honor that my mother and I began to work in her yard—it's only a guess. But soon we were making walls of stone and laying out beds, apparently trying to make a garden as elegant as the one the peonies had come from.

It can't be broadly true, but every male gardener I know attributes the genesis of his interest in gardening to a grandparent. In their retirement from moneymaking and in their quieter, more nurturing attentions, grandparents might be well suited to unveiling the happy work of horticulture. In my own case, going through the vegetable garden with Gran was an easy pleasure uncomplicated by labor. The garden was situated on a broad natural terrace above the house; in June we cut flowers there, and in July we collected peas. On hot days in August we ate warm tomatoes off the vine.