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  • In Late May, When the Peonies Are In Bloom

    Photo by Ian Wilhite

    The peonies are blooming.

    At the house where I grew up, there is a small peony bush at the end of the drive, surrounding the mailbox. Since I was a child, I’ve loved the brief time when the peonies bloom. When they do, I tell myself: This. This is my favorite flower. I tell no one about this yearly revelation, and in fact, often forget just how much I love the peonies until they return, and I’m a child again, taking in big, deep breaths at the end of the drive where the peonies, pink and red, make even our old mailbox look beautiful, and perfume the air.

    I was home this weekend to witness the peonies open, as luck would have it. When I arrived Saturday afternoon and pulled into the gravel drive, I noted with disappointment that they weren’t quite ready. I worried I would just miss them, right at their peak. I felt sad for a moment, but was quickly distracted by Butterscotch, one of the outdoor cats, blocking my way up the driveway. The peonies were forgotten, once again, so quickly.

    On Sunday, we — my dad, his girlfriend Debbie, and me — took a day trip to Bloomington, Indiana to visit Oliver Winery. As we walked on the grounds, Debbie noticed a blooming peony. “Ours aren’t quite there yet,” my dad said.

    “Someone just took a picture of a peony, though,” Debbie said, trailing off as she stared at this particular peony, a big, white flower that wasn’t quite like the peonies at home I found so familiar. I reminded her that it was my cousin Ian, because of course it was Ian, and we continued on, Dad and Debbie stopping every other second to call out another flower.

    The next day, I again made my way down the gravel drive in my car, this time to head to my aunt Linda’s house. And then, I saw it: the peonies had bloomed, apparently overnight. I hadn’t missed them after all.

    Later that afternoon, my dad and I made our rounds in the yard to put together some flowers to take to the cemetery, to my mother’s grave. As is our habit, I followed him as he walked around, stopping every so often to snip a new flower—some honeysuckle, a purple iris, wildflowers, pink flowers from the shrub—which he’d then hand over to me. I asked if he had seen the peonies. “Did they open?” he asked, sounding surprised. Soon enough, two bright pink peonies were in my hands, in our bouquet.

    What a beautiful bouquet it was, too. Once at the cemetery, I placed the mason jar with our bouquet next to my mother’s tombstone, and shifted one of the peonies, gingerly, into the middle of the bouquet. It really is beautiful, I told my dad.

    Then, he told me a story: my grandma, his mom, used to have peony bushes lining the yard. For a certain number of years, she would cut them and sell them from the driveway. It was perfect for this time of year, when people wanted flowers for the cemetery and all these silk flowers weren’t the popular choice, he said, gesturing toward all the silk flowers atop tombstones around us. We stared at the flowers for a minute, as we do, and then he asked if I wanted to see where some of the Hamm’s were buried, in the next plot over.

    I’d heard the story about my grandma’s peonies before, just as I’d seen before where the Hamm relatives were buried. But my dad had forgotten he’d told me, and I hadn’t remembered, until I heard him tell it again.

    When I return home next month, the peonies will most certainly no longer be in bloom. I might forget just how beautiful, how pink they are in full bloom; how happy I feel standing at the end of our drive, breathing in their sweet perfume. Next year, when they return, I’ll remember.


    by Mary Oliver

    This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
    to break my heart
    as the sun rises,
    as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

    and they open—
    pools of lace,
    white and pink—
    and all day the black ants climb over them,

    boring their deep and mysterious holes
    into the curls,
    craving the sweet sap,
    taking it away

    to their dark, underground cities—
    and all day
    under the shifty wind,
    as in a dance to the great wedding,

    the flowers bend their bright bodies,
    and tip their fragrance to the air,
    and rise,
    their red stems holding

    all that dampness and recklessness
    gladly and lightly,
    and there it is again—
    beauty the brave, the exemplary,

    blazing open.
    Do you love this world?
    Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
    Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

    Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
    and softly,
    and exclaiming of their dearness,
    fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

    with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
    their eagerness
    to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
    nothing, forever?