My Grandmother’s Peonies

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.

Down in the house there was a staff and staff’s quarters. There was “the man” to drive the car, “the girl” to wash the laundry, and Mary Mack to cook the dinner. Outside the house, the lawns and gardens were tended by groundskeepers–we called them “the men.” By vocation Gran was a sculptor, and in the working world she served many years on the board of Planned Parenthood. But the work of her home life was purely administrative: She had no other task but the management of staff. I remember she liked to give haircuts to her grandchildren, and to cut and arrange flowers.

Her diminished, overstaffed domestic life is illustrated to me in the memory of her doing these things–the movements of her hands, her delight–as though nothing in her life was as simple and pleasurable. It was as though these few manual tasks had been sanctified, raised or compressed to poetry, by the removal of any and all labor from her life.

This may have been just as she wanted it–or not.

She was more complicated than I can convey here. She had a decorative mania for all things faux. I have from her house a fruit basket made all of wax, which sits under its own glass dome, and stone fruit–marble apples and pears of a really pleasing verisimilitude–on two-tiered porcelain salvers. My mother has faux vases piled with faux fruit and flowers made of painted tin. Which is to say that for all the do-lessness and perhaps isolation that her wealth caused her, Gran still thought money was pretty fun. In the attic she kept a huge trunk full of elaborate costumes for capers and plays that were the occasion for large parties, parties that were the occasion for singing and dancing and speechifying. She liked gaiety, as she called it, and her own sparkling moments define this word for me.

I remember her explaining about the ants that crawled over the peony buds. Without their help the sticky bud would remain locked, would blacken and shrivel without unfolding, and maybe this describes the way she felt about her own wealth and position. Money as tool and liberator–or what, well used, might simply make for gaiety, the release of bloom. I say it might have been better for her to be less protected, to have lived outside the hothouse, but she wouldn’t have agreed. And I admit my dour objections are beside the point. It might be the same to say that peonies would be better off with less, when they’re so heavy in their bloom and weak in their legs that they collapse under the added weight of dew.

Peonies–the herbaceous ones I’m talking about–require for good flowering 30 to 60 days of frost: They’re fussy, in other words, not for warmth but for cold. This is contrary and endearing, the bloom of tropical appearance that asks for snow. I’ve spent some years on the ever-temperate West Coast, where winter does not bring this month of freezing nights and where I have tried to feel the absence of peonies well compensated by other plants. But I’m giving it up. Kennel dogs find a home range somehow, however arbitrarily: I return to the Northeast in part because I’ll go without fuchsia and agapanthus and a hundred other species before I will the jump-up and drop-dead glory of herbaceous peonies.

The last time I saw Gran she was slumped in the middle of her enormous bed with the window curtains drawn, in her bathrobe, and with her hair not yet brushed. Her swollen legs were splayed before her and her hands hung limp. She was too sick to make the usual presentation of herself, but I want to think she also intended to be seen “as is.” When I recall this last meeting, I have a recurrent imaginative vision: It is of Gran pulling aside a curtain with a smile. There’s a depth of space beyond her, white and without movement, and there’s nothing in that space to focus on–there’s nothing much to the vision. She’s only opening a divider to invite me in–an admission of frailty from a matriarch, unveiling a greater grandeur of acceptance and grace.

Her last words were to her daughters: “Oh, girls, isn’t it wonderful? It’s working already.” The doctor at her bedside who had administered the lethal dose put away his things. He had been spirited into the house just minutes before, after the home-care nurse, a good woman of problematic religious convictions, had been taken to the movies for the night.

“Oh, girls, isn’t it wonderful . . .” There’s no real locus for enthusiasm like this: It is wide-eyed, infectious; it seems to take in all of the world, and time–the look forward and the look back. Such gusto must be the best thing to cultivate in life, whenever possible: the absurdly lush flower, big as a plate and up from nothing, here and gone; towering foliage that deflates with frost and blackens on the ground in graphic death, then jumps up again from a winter’s sleep–improbable, plucky, resplendent, and impermanent, spring after spring after spring.

Adapted from the collectionMy Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love, edited by Jamaica Kincaid. Copyright © 1998 by Michael Fox. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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