The Poetry of Peonies

This is my peony summer. Or rather, it is the summer that  I have given  the fluffy flower its due. I admit that I’ve arrived late to the peony party.  In the first home my husband and I owned there were peonies planted next to the back step.  As the new foliage arrived that spring I was unimpressed. And when I saw all the back ants on the closed buds, yuck!  I  had no time for peonies and exported them to a welcoming and wiser neighbor.  Several years later while driving on a sunny early summer morning I spotted a rural yard with a double row of tall graceful peonies nodding in the morning sun. I appreciated their waves but did not connect them to the ant carriers I had exiled. In the next  and current home we live in, we also inherited peonies. They had earned my respect if not my warmest affection and I transplanted them from an out of sight corner to a place of prominence near the patio. But it is this summer that I’ve begun to really love these ladies.

I notice them on my morning walks in the park. The mounds of earth await the village workers bringing flats of annuals to plant. But the peonies have a permanent home in the small city park, and a head start on summer.  I watch them as they grow taller. Likewise in my own yard the green stalks have returned. Which will burst forth in color first, mine or the parks? I watch for the ants. I now know those busy, tiny soldiers, are necessary for the flowers bloom.  Where are the ants?  Don’t they know they have work to do?   The peonies that bloom first are in the flower section of the grocery store. I hold off buying them. I want my own. The park peonies bloom next. Come on, I encourage my own plant. Will it bloom soon?  Will its timing between rain storms be wise enough to protect its’ blooms? Finally, they open, three big beautiful  flowers. And it is summer.

I know what follows. The peony once opened can’t stop. Its many tiny petals reach and open further each day. Until finally they drop off the stem. Other flowers in my modest garden will need to be plucked, dead headed, as we say, or they will shrivel to brown and withered detritus. But the peony can not stop opening, until it can no longer hold on to itself. The peonies in the park, so heavy with their own beauty, lay down their weary blooms. My own, held up with wire baskets are also destined for the same end.

And then I notice all the places I have inadvertently planted peonies. On the pillows that cozy up my sofa: peonies.  On the cover of the small notebook I carry; peonies. On my wedding china; peonies. And there, framed and hung in my dining room a water-color painted by a beloved cousin; peonies.

Recently a friend sent us a beautiful arrangement of her favorite blooms. You guessed it, peonies. As I watch their intense salmon blooms open and open more. Their unbelievable color morphs into a more traditional pink. They refuse to remain static, until they are white. Only then do they start to release their petals onto the table. I do not wipe up the scattered petals. Even they seem perfect in their faded glory, laying across the mahogany.

Peonies, summer, ephemeral delights both of these. Children laughing as they run through a sprinkler. Voices in conversation, in the dark of the patio the gentle clink of ice cubes in glasses of cold drinks, moments of summer.

Poet Mary Oliver  wrote about peonies,  “with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling..to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever.”

I’m just say’n, yes, I love the peonies, ants and all.

 

 

 

 

 

The Mother Thing

Recently, I was selecting my Mother’s Days cards. Looking for just the right card for a neighbor and another for my cousin, and a mix for my girlfriends.  My own mother died 25 years ago.  I still remember that first Mother’s Day with out her. The card racks in the local Hallmark store practically brought me to tears, and the holiday brought a level of sadness I had not planned on.

When your own mother is gone you not only miss the intimacy of the bond but the immediacy of that font of support and information. Advice and knowledge on a range of subjects you never realized you would miss that she shared.  Sometimes with out you even asking for any of her input at all.  Oh yes, a mother’s prerogative.   From stain removal to work issues, chicken pox identification to book reviews, my mother always had something to add to the conversation. And when that voice was gone the silence mocked and saddened me.  The next year I made a plan. I would send a card to the friends who had helped fill in the blanks, the ones who had “mothered” me.

And so to the friend. who showed up to help me pack my mother’s kitchen when I moved my parents closer to my home I send a card. The packing was work.  But the conversation while we marveled that anyone would have that many colanders, was light enough to keep me moving in the face of my mother’s illness.  To the friends who called me and held my hand when an adoption plan went south, I send a card. And when that longed for baby finally arrived and friends showed up to hold the baby, take his picture and make a fuss with the same enthusiasm as if I had experienced labor and delivery, I sent a card.  The other moms in my playgroup,who helped me navigate roseola and teething, card worthy indeed. Then there was the experienced cousin by marriage who cemented her place in my heart with her steady reassurance during the tumultuous teenage years. She told me that I was capable and loving and that all would be well.  Mothering friends helped me navigate the healthcare system when my parents faced their final illness.  And mothering friends helped me plan memorial services for another friend when he died. These women took my child to soccer/school/ballet when I was sick and my husband was out of town. They made me soup after surgery, picked up my daughter and cared for her while I was at the emergency room with my son. They even stepped in to visit my mother-in-law when we travelled, to ease our worry when we were far away. And when the time to close up and pack up my parent’s final home came, so did a  friend or two to help with the task and hand me tissue for my tears.

Sometimes I hear people say that women treat other women badly. That at work or socially, we undermine and attack.  Like the characters shown on one of those “real”  television shows, we plot and plan to hurt and demean.   That has not been my reality.

This past winter, a week or so before Christmas I was in the parking lot of our local gift/card/toy emporium.  The same one where I buy all those Mother’s Days’s cards. On this day, I saw a young mom soldiering toward her car carrying a baby in a carrier,while she tried to shepherd two older boys into her mini-van.  The older one, maybe 6 or so was cooperating, but the younger perhaps two or three-year old, was having a good old fashioned melt down.  I knew just what had happened; toy department, little boy, two parts fatigue and one part “no toy” disappointment. This almost always equals tears and the dragging of feet as mom tries to get everyone home, something we all remember.  I parked my car and walked back to the family. I didn’t want to add to the drama so I asked her quietly, “Can I help you?  Would you like me to carry the baby while you get the boys into the car?” By the time she had everyone in and seat belts fastened she and the younger boy were in tears. He had tried to make a run for it but between the two of us he was finally in his car seat.  “Thank you so much,” she said between sniffles, “I don’t know what I would have done.”  I smiled and told her she would have been fine. “We’ve all been there, you were so patient and calm you’re  doing great.”  She thanked me again, this time with hug, and we said good-bye.

So this year once again I’m buying Mother’s Days cards. For the women who’ve  taken the time to lovingly mother this motherless mother. I couldn’t help thinking about them that day in the parking lot.  I think each one of them would have done the same thing I did. Being a mom is hard, but being a mom with the mothering of others helping and supporting us, that makes the experience more rich and meaningful. Thanks, and Happy Mother’s Day, I’m just say’n.

In the Middle of a Moment

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I was watching my favorite TV comedy, The Middle. I love its portrayal of a mid western, middle class family. The shows mother, Frankie Heck, is beleaguered, harried, and always fully cognizant of her failings and shortcomings. In this episode she was feeling nostalgic and wanted to celebrate an important moment in the life of her family.  Introspection on Hallmark moments is not something she does a lot of. But she wanted to take note and more importantly she wanted her family to recognize the moment with her.  And in true television sitcom form laughs and zaniness ensued.

That’s what happens with plans to create moments in  real life too. The moment that we think we need to spotlight may not pan out just as we  had planned. But sometimes the momentous moment sneaks up on us.  Yes, moments are funny things.  We all have memorable ones.  The first time you hold your very own baby. The first kiss at the wedding, the first dance.  And there are the other kind as well.  The heart stopping heart breaking kind. The phone call about , cancer, the divorce or and accident.  They are just as unforgettable.  Touching our hearts and grabbing our breath.

This past summer we were awash in weddings.  Five brides had invited my husband and I to share their day.  Weddings are quintessential planned beautiful moment productions.  The walk down the aisle, the music, the dress all selected to provide memorable moments.  And each wedding we attended was lovely and meaningful.  But for me there was one moment. It was unplanned, and unscripted as all the best moments are.

My god daughter, was the bride.  She and her family had planned a small intimate wedding.  No big church with hundreds of guests. Rather 70 or so friends and family in the dining room of an Elks lodge.  Flowers, a cake, dinner and homemade jam as party favors, defined the day.

The bride’s mother was quite busy before the ceremony.  Doing all those things  that mothers do. Running hither and thither pining boutonnieres on her husband and son, checking with the catering staff. Now I admit I love to catch a peak of the bride before a wedding if I can, who doesn’t ?  So I knocked on the door of the designated bridal dressing room.

“Oh thank goodness!”  she said. So I went in.

And there all alone, the beautiful bride was obviously going to be unable to hook up the intricate back of her gown. And so I set to work.

I knew.  It was a moment. The moment I would remember  and treasure long after this wedding season had passed. I had been the one to hold her at her christening, included in her milestone events, birthdays and graduations. At six years old she had announced to her mother I was a great cook based upon my peanut and butter and jelly sandwiches.  And now here we were in the middle of a moment. I felt equal parts gratified, useful and honored. Feeling the the moment in every hook and eye I fastened, connected as each lacing I tightened on her gown.

That week the bride’s sister and I had co-hosted a dinner for her.  It was lovely, just as we had planned. During the wedding I had selected and read a reading, my husband officiated, he was great.

But the moment I will treasure took place in the ladies room of an Elks Lodge that Friday night.

Frankie the TV mom, wanted to make a toast at a family dinner to commemorate a transition the rest of the family was oblivious to.  She had to settle for clinking and olive jar in front of her open refrigerator.

We try so hard to create those memorable moments but often the most wonderful moments happen with out a plan or even a wedding planner in sight. It’s a wedding, mothers cry, father’s beam, enjoying the moment.
Summer wedding season is over now.   I’m walking through crunchy leaves and crisp fall air.

“I’m having a  moment. ”  It’s a  cliche and sometimes even a punchline.  But if we are lucky those moments leave trails in our hearts and memories as we walk through our days and nights.

I’m just say’n.

 

 

The Bittersweet

The Bittersweet

It has been very bittersweet around here this spring and early summer. Perhaps in your world as well.  May and June often bring important transitions and changes.  Graduations, weddings and the like are just two of the  traditional bookmarks of this time of year and we have seen both in our family this year.

The word itself colors our perception of the events.  You’re all set to be happy on your way to the wedding or graduation, baby shower or parade and someone says “How nice, bet it’s bittersweet.”

Well, now that you mention it.

The dictionary defines bittersweet as “pleasure alloyed with pain.” It’s also a woody type plant that gardeners can’t quite decide whether or not  is friend or foe. Invasive species or decorative vine?

And  of course there is the baker’s world of bittersweet chocolate. And that last one does it for me.  I see the dark, rich chocolate. Its aroma deep and heady. I break off a small piece, take a bite… the smoothness covers my tongue and palate, its essence warms my taste buds.  And then, it bites back.  Not the sweet confection of even semi-sweet, like the chips I bake into cookies. But bitter. Is it disappointing, or just surprising? A happy respite from sameness or the taste of something foreign and unpleasant?  Oh yes, bittersweet.

My niece in her bridal gown perfectly beautiful. But nothing defines bittersweet to the parents, aunts and uncles like her happy march down the aisle. Wasn’t it just yesterday, that we all explored the beach together? Took photos with Minnie Mouse?

My own daughter took her own walk this spring to pick up her college diploma. It was her commencement. But to her father and me it seemed like an ending. Oh yes, happily we are done with tuition payments, but we know she has taken even more steps away from us and our sphere of influence. And as she is our youngest, for me at least, the feeling is more intense. I am pondering all these things while knowing full well that the bitter of the bitter sweet is probably only being experienced by those on the older side of the equation.

My recollection of my own to walks down those two aisles of adulthood is only of the joy, the happiness, the fulfillment, the sweet. I felt no sadness, no pain, nothing bitter. Oh perhaps some fear, anticipation, but pain? No.

And that is the bitter pill we not so young and not (quite thankfully) old parents must swallow. The sadness is all ours. We know that they, our babies our children have more wonderful moments to experience and that some of them will be bittersweet. They will take a child to school for the first time and think “where did my baby go?” They will leave a job or move  or end a relationship and know it’s for the best and yet be sad, bittersweet.

It’s my understanding of bitter sweet that colors my understanding of not only the milestones but of the seemingly regular path of days. Summer with its longer days and smells of cut lawns and the flowers in my garden are experiences I try to embrace and appreciate. All to soon the temperature will change and the days will shorten. Bittersweet. To me it lends a richness and a dimension to my days I had no understanding of while I accomplished the milestones. An though I know I have many more wonderful experiences and days ahead (God willing) for me and my family and “framily” this view of bittersweet keeps me in the moment and joyful. Breathe in, taste, embrace the bitter  it makes the sweet taste even better. I’m just say’n.

Original Recipe

The Thanksgiving feast was no sooner put away when I began to think about when I would begin Christmas baking.  Not because I love those cookies so much but rather I love what my family says about them.  They speak of my egg nog logs in dulcet tones, they praise my Mexican wedding cakes  with effusive smiles. But, I don’t for a moment think it is because of my superior baking skills. I think it is because I have harnessed an important part of the holidays.  Repetition.

Let me explain.  We’ll return to the Thanksgiving meal. When my husband and I were  dating and he came to my family’s home for Thanksgiving for the first time, he was looking forward to a home cooked turkey dinner.  But not, he told me, to the stuffing. He did not like stuffing, he told me. As a matter of fact, he rather detested it. (Why I continued to date him after he confessed to this heresy I don’t recall.) He arrived at my parents home on time and suitably charming and as dinner began I watched to see how he would handle himself when the stuffing was passed his way. He must have decided that  tasting was the better part of valor and he took a small helping. Which he ate, I noticed.  And then he went above and beyond and asked for seconds. I whispered to him, “You, don’t have to.” “I want to.”  “You don’t like dressing.”  I said. “I like your mother’s dressing, a lot.” And that was that.

After we married I made the dressing for each holiday. And he asked most years “You’re making your mother’s dressing, right?”  If  I ever thought of  switching to cornbread or adding sausage, I was quickly   reminded of the superior nature of “your mother’s dressing.” And to this day the dressing (that’s what we call it now, stuffing no more) is much like my mother’s.  A basic herb seasoned, bread concoction with celery and onion.
Families are a lot like dressing and holidays. The recipe for our days depends much on that which we can count on. The parts we play in the theatre that is our life story are based on birth order, hardwiring, and repetition . Maybe we call it tradition. Big brother is freakishly adept at assembling legos. He grows up and is still the one everyone asks for help in assembling all that needs putting together. Princess daughters know/remember who wants/needs the gifts and where the nutcracker looks best. And everyone wants the dressing to be just as it always was.

“Should I make the onion tarte?” I asked my husband. “You will if you don’t want writhing on the floor and gnashing of  teeth,” he replied.  It makes us feel connected to the holidays of our past. And yes even to those no longer with us. I think of my mother every time I make the dressing.

And yet, some traditions are ripe for change. Like most people my age, I was served (and in my case, did not eat) canned cranberry sauce. It was probably a function of the 1960 grocery store that cranberries sauced or gelled and in a can, were most common. And it is a sign of the 1990’s and the 21st century that homemade fresh is so common today. But I have one friend who still loves that scary canned concoction complete with ribs imprinted on the the gelled  sauce, best. We serve it to him with a wink and a nod while everyone else enjoys the other. It is his tradition we respect.

So, here is my metaphor for the day. The food, the decorations, the music of the holidays are how we connect to our past, to our families, to our younger selves.

And here is my confession. Sometimes we need to tweak or refresh those recipes.  I make my mother’s dressing. But, a few years ago I snuck in mushrooms, and a year or so later I added wild rice.   It seemed to work. That’s  the dressing at my house now.

Our children grow up and bring others to the table, just like I did all those years ago. We set another place and add a chair. The beauty of the holidays is that they are able to grow and morph while still retaining their original “flavor”  if you will.

It’s a gift more beautiful than the crystal returned to the china cabinet, or any gift under a tree. We belong to each other because we remember  the dressing and how we all fit together.

It’s a dish we can have second helpings from. I’m just say’n.

A Letter Not Sent

I am a card sending, note dropping, letter writing kind of person. I have raised two children who always send “Thank You notes.” It is an important touch of civility in a sometimes un-civil world. And I cling to the notion that sometimes a written expression of thanks, congratulations, or condolence is welcome and appreciated. So early this year when our dearest friend announced his retirement as well as his relocation to his Florida retirement home I knew a letter was in order. Almost immediately I started composing in my mind what it would say. In the five months between his announcement and his leaving I considered all his contributions to our family life and how to put them down in a meaningful way on paper. It would read something like this. “I want to thank you for all you have meant to me and mine and how much we will all miss you when you are soaking up the sun and enjoying your retirement. Over the past 39 years you have been the best kind of friend. More like family or “framily” as I have called it before. You have shared holidays, trips, good times and hard-times with us. A member of our wedding party, a pallbearer at my father’s funeral, you have always been there. When we were adopting our oldest and the process turned into a dreadful drama of disappointment and tears. You were with us every day in court. And when it all ended improbably with a wonderfully happy ending you were there too. Was it any wonder that we picked you to be our son’s godfather. You had already demonstrated your love. Six years later when we drove to the airport to pick up our daughter when she joined our family you were there again. That night I had carefully orchestrated the order of her welcome. First to hold her when she was brought off the plane would be her father, I would take her next. But after the ride home from O’Hare and the entrance of us all into our home, I handed her off to you. When I think about it, the relationship you have had with our children has been one of the most gratifying parts of our relationship. Even during those angst ridden teen years your presence was always appreciated by them. And the buffer you sometimes provided often gave their parents much needed breathing space. The laughter we have all shared, at holidays, sporting events, backyard barbecues, birthdays, graduations. These have cemented your place in our lives as a family and I am grateful for all of them.” That’s something how my letter would have gone. But, as summer went on busy days and no little amount of denial of your departure on my part, the letter went unwritten. So on that early morning of your departure I had no letter for you. Instead, I handed you a framed black and white picture I had taken of you with my daughter, both of you intent on the iPad she held. Perhaps you were helping her with her resume, maybe she was showing some goofy U-tube video. The picture just exemplified that close relationship you shared. You looked at the photo and I could tell you saw in it what I had. We hugged goodbye and you left for the airport and winters without snow and ice. We spoke often over the next several weeks. And you being even more dedicated to the U.S mail than I, sent me a card for my birthday as well as flowers. Ten days later our anniversary brought a card from you, I told you I would not open it until the actual date, just as I always did with every card you have sent for every birthday, Easter, Mother’s Day. You laughed and said you counted on it. I was still formulating the letter I would send to you, as we ended the phone call. Sadly I never wrote that letter. But you had one last note for us. For somehow, a dark insidious sickness had followed you on your journey. One you had hidden from all those who knew and loved you. From your brothers and sister, from your beloved mother from all of us. And on a rainy day one day before I would open that last anniversary card the darkness over took you. You wrote that you were sorry, you said you loved us all. And you were gone. My husband as shocked and horrified as all of us, warned me that we all would probably process the grief and feel anger at you and your decision. His expertise is founded on eduction and practice. And more than one person has shared with me that they were indeed angry with you. But I cannot find it in me to be angry. No, someone else can have my “mad.” The despair that laid you low was a symptom of a disease that you tried to protect us all from. It was the wrong choice, I wish your judgment had been clearer. But the dark cloud of depression somehow overtook you and we are left with sadness and only speculation of what might have been. So there was no final letter from me to you. And yet somehow I know that you knew everything I would have written in that letter. The understanding is there in your smile in the last photos I took of you. A group of us at the botanical gardens and then a concert at Ravinia, enjoying a summer day and laughing. You knew you were appreciated and loved by many. You will be missed. The poet Dickinson wrote, and I paraphrase, “This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me,- Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!” You could say our last notes to each other crossed in the mail. But the thing I will remember is that our lives crossed. And I am glad.

Wedding Season

The mother of the bride leaned over to me on the dance floor “It seems not to long ago we were dancing at each other’s weddings.” Her smiling comment echoed my thoughts completely.  It was as if she put a book mark in the chapter of life I’m experiencing right now — wedding season.

My husband and I have attended 4 weddings recently, and we have another still on the horizon.  And I have been thinking how these happy events have reflected the different eras of my life. Maybe you have had the same type of wedding party timeframes.

The first weddings we often attend are those of older relatives when we are ourselves just kids.

Those 20-something cousins or perhaps even siblings seem so grown up,and well old, when they walk down the aisle. And we sit and watch in our new scratchy clothes a little bored and yet entranced with what even then we realized was a big deal. My first time as a wedding guest was a sweet scene in the brides living room. The room was dressed in white flowers on the mantle and the stairway bannister. And when the bride entered the room down those stairs, in a 60’s style white min-dress to marry a young uncle, I thought it was just perfect. The dress, the flowers the room crowded with family. Sandwiches and punch were served afterward.

A few years later at another family wedding I experienced my first church wedding with  a reception afterward with a BAND! Wow! Party! Dancing! In a new dress and wearing my first heels and nylons, I felt very mature dancing with 2nd and third cousins I had only just met.

Living in a small rural community  I attended several weddings  of older friends who married at what now seems an almost shockingly young age. Brides and grooms just 18 or 19 taking the step right out of high school. At this point for me my wedding attendance really multiplied as I made extra money for college singing or playing for wedding ceremonies. I developed a reputation as one not only able
to sing the wedding songs brides favored but I was also generally helpful and unusually adept at defusing little wedding disasters.  Especially calming down young flower girls and ring bearers who had locked themselves into bathrooms and such.

College graduations came and with them more weddings to attend. This was the first big wave of my peers and close friends tying the knot. Those days were filled with visions of pastel dresses and caravans of friends on the wedding tour.  Definitely, one of the most fun rites of passage.

And then I myself was married and working and being a grown up when the next wedding stage occurred.  I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of a co- worker.  So now I became one of
“those” guests. One the bride or groom would not recognize in a lineup. When I realized my role, I truly felt like a grow up. ( and couldn’t help wondering if at the family meeting to put the guest list together had the bridal couple said.  “Who’s she? And do we have to invite her?”

The years pass, a wedding here or there, late nuptials,a much younger cousin or sometimes a second marriage. The parties are fewer and further between.

Which brings me back to that comment on the dance floor.  It did seem like just a moment ago I watched the bride’s mother walk down the aisle. And I can’t help but  think of all that has rushed by in these 30 odd years.  The children of the brides and grooms of my past are inviting me to their weddings. They are the children in the pictures of my son’s first birthday. The dressed up cherubs at my daughter’s christening. The groom in the elegant New York skyline backed wedding is my godson, whose mother only allowed her mother and I to baby sit him. I remain dry eyed and smiling through the beautiful ceremony and dinner. Until he dances with his mother and my eyes unexpectedly fill. Where did the time go?

Yes, we danced at each other’s weddings.  I never knew that a wedding would be such a marker for not only the couple marrying,  but for all the guests as well.

Weddings really do join people together, and not just bride and groom or two families. I am connected, and so are you, to all those couples trading I dos, whom we have witnessed. I have gone from a little girl big eyed at the beautiful bride, to bridesmaid, to bride, to anonymous guest, to honored to be there guest. I may not be up front singing the “Wedding Song”  but back here in the pew near the aisle,  I’m enjoying the day and the flowers and the wedding. Taking it all in with gratitude and love. I’m just say’n.