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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Winter Wind Down

It’s not quite the big melt down today, but  I can  definitely  see it from here. And for the most part we are all  ready for spring. And here is something I have noticed; no matter how mild the winter, how few snow days were called most people commenting on the weather want winter over, gone, finished, done.

It seems that our patience with snow, ice, and its next of kin slush, diminishes daily in proportion not to how many inches we may have shoveled but instead how many days we must wait before slipping on sandals and shorts.

I have lived in the Midwest (capital “M”) most of my life,  and I wonder why we have all gotten so whiny over winter. I like spring as much as the next person, but this constant moaning over windchill and accumulation totals is getting old.

Maybe it’s the television media’s overuse of “storm watch” forecast bulletins. And does anyone else think it unnecessary to see another poor reporter standing in another local parking lot describing how snow “falls” (down) while the camera zooms in on the reporter ‘s foot showing us, guess what, it’s snowing.

I like snow, and winter, in moderation. And that, is what we have most every year. As a mater of fact we are somewhat under our usual snowfall totals to the extent that we need more rain and snow to get our water levels up to healthier amount.
A friend recently commented on her winter walk how “very quiet , no lawn mowers and garden tools running. It’s like everything is resting. So quietly peaceful.” Sounds divine  doesn’t it?  It is.

So let’s put our big girl\boy snowpants on and get a grip. We live in the Midwest, we get four seasons, delivered to our doors. One of them involves boots,hats, and mittens. It also brings pristine clear mornings, laughter on snowhills, crisp evening walks, and ice-laden branches auditioning for fairyland. Shovel what you must, walk carefully if you will, and hang in there. Soon enough it will be time to complain about high humidity and mosquitos. I’m just say’n.

Lessons and Carols

It’s back….with all of it’s beauty, excitement and memories. Christmas is back. It’s another year older but are we any wiser? The question your friend in the blogosphere has is this, what have you learned from Christmas?
Over the years I have enjoyed the return of the Christmas season to the extent that it often highlighted the lessons the year had delivered to me. Sometimes those lessons were happy. In other years, the “classwork” of Christmas was too difficult. When you have experienced a loss of a loved one Christmas holds up the loss to you in the cruelest of ways. When everyone else is having all that Christmas fun you are reminded in a thousand ways, small and large how much you miss by missing a loved one. When everyone else is singing you are sighing and wishing for one more day, one more moment with the friend, parent,or child no longer present.
But, there are other lessons too,poignant if not painful.There was the Christmas I learned how to let my children gift me with needed time. They were young and I was busy trying to get all the things I felt I must do for Christmas done. That Sunday of Advent I had much to do to get ready when a request was made I could not turn down. An older member of my church congregation,unable to attend services had requested communion be brought to her. As a deacon I could do this. But my “to do” list beckoned. On the other hand how could I not? So, I took the children home (my husband was out of town for work) and drove to the seniors apartment. I remember how grateful she was, and how she urged me to stay for a cup of tea, so happy for “Christmas company” as she called me. I left feeling I had done the right thing, but anxious over the task in front of me with 3 hours now gone by. A big stack of gifts for cousins, nieces,nephews, aunts and uncles waited for me to wrap. But, when I arrived home I was met by my two excited elves. They had wrapped all the gifts themselves while I did “church work” as they called it. Now like all “Christmas control” moms, those gifts were not wrapped as I would have wrapped them. Instead they were done with love and shining eyes for me. What a gift!I don’t remember any other present I received that year. But I remember how proud “big brother” was and how excited his little sister was to help mommy that day. What a lesson.
Christmas music like Christmas memories flood our days and nights the closer we come to Christmas Eve. And I am addicted to the sounds of Christmas even more than a child to peppermint. The more I think about it the best telling of the Christmas story is probably done through music. Whether it is the rich sounds of a wonderful practiced choir or in the unpolished carols sung by children. The essence of Christmas is best displayed by voices raised in song. Think of the simple rendition of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the gang from “Peanuts” breaking into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and you will understand what I mean.
If you are like me you probably have many memories of Christmas’ past. The “live Nativity” I performed in as a 13 year old, an angel on top of the stable. One of my best friends was “Mary”, we still laugh when we remember how the real barnyard animals brought in to add realism provided more “realism” than planned, on the shepherds sandals.
It’s memories like these that connect our Christmas’ to each other one year to the next. When the children were little I waited to decorate until they were sleeping to “protect” the delicate bells and ornaments. When they were older I assigned them a task and they whirled through in a frenzy of excitement fueled by Christmas cookies. And I stood back trying not to “adjust” their work. Later, they were too busy to help with the tree,or lights beyond a cursory attempt to humor me fueled now by a modicum of guilt.And this year I missed them both, he in his own apartment in another city, she away at college. Once again I decorate mostly alone waiting for their return to enjoy and share the holiday. When they were small I waited for them to to wake up from nap,come downstairs and see the decorations. Now the house and I wait for their return to give their stamp of approval.
Christmas continues to be a gift and a lesson to me. Remember a loved one, let others wrap and sing, treasure the days, they fly by in a moment. And when I look at the Christmas bells on my mantle, I recall the little hands selecting one each night to ring before bedtime. A lesson and a carol with each sweet chime.

No Words

That morning was beautifully sunny, cool and crisp. I had just walked the dog and was going to throw in a load of laundry. Typical, mundane, like countless other mornings in my little Wisconsin village. The kids were at school and they were young enough that I was glad that school had begun again and that I had until 3:15 until they were home.

We had a patio poured the day before as well as a walk-way to our front door. They were both edged in stamped concrete simulating red brick. And that was the problem. The contractor had not,as he had promised, “cleaned up.” And from my driveway’s foot and gutter and to the four houses past mine to the corner, there was reddish sludge. What a mess. A surefire way to annoy my neighbors. I realized I would have to clean it up. First I took the dog back into the house. Before I went back out I turned on the TV. An initial report announced a fire at the World Trade Center. I watched for a minute, and then sat down at the kitchen table to watch the horrible story unfold.

We all know how the “fire” turned into a much more hideously terrible story. And you like me probably recall the typical mundane things you were doing as history unfolded in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania that day. Then like you I called people. First I reached my husband, his office a 10 story Wisconsin style “high rise” was later evacuated as a precaution. My girlfriend in Colorado called. We were both doing laundry as we talked on the phone. Trying to avoid watching more of the carnage on our TVs.

Since the advent of mass communication, first radio then TV, now the Internet, people have ‘touchstone’ moments. For my parents it was the attack on Pearl Harbor. For those my age the day JFK was shot. For people no younger than my now 18 year old daughter,it was September 11. She was in 3rd grade, my son a freshman in high school. For a long time after ward they both called those events “the tragedies.”

I remember other things that happened in the hours and days that followed. That very afternoon I pulled myself away from the TV, and went to the grocery store. I needed groceries but could only bring myself to buy milk. As I left the check out I saw a neighbor come in. She looked at me with consolation in her eyes walked towards me, and we just hugged each other wordlessly. At our church the following Sunday there was no sermon. Just the reading of Scripture. I forget which ones. But I remember as church ended and we filed quietly out, the minister waiting at the door as usual, when one congregant,a young mom like me, broke down into tears in his arms. No words spoken.

There have been many changes in our lives since then. But, taking our shoes off at the airport, dims in comparison to the loss of loved ones by families on that day, or in the days that followed our country’s military response to the attacks.

I remember all of this. But mostly I remember a great heavy feeling of sadness shock and grief. And, unable to watch anymore that day, I went out to my yard, picked up the hose and started to clean my red stained gutter. The water worked the heavy sludge down the street. But I didn’t have enough water pressure to get it all the way to the drain at the corner. One of my neighbors saw me and came out and stood with me, his wife followed a few minutes later. “The second tower just collapsed,” she said. He walked back to his house and picked up his garden hose and turned it on, joining me at the curb. Soon as I looked down the street I saw my other neighbors doing like wise. Silently- all of us, trying to wash away the ugly red waste from our sight.