Waiting for Peonies - Paula Amsterdam Fung
When my first kid went to college, I thought I would put some of that extra time and energy into my garden. Attention and warmth would go from my heart, through my hands, to the tips of my fingers into the soil. I planned on not even wearing gloves so that all the nourishment would have an easier time becoming embedded.
The plan was to see the results; cheerful, happy blooms, waving at me when I drove up to my house, complementing our Dutch Colonial’s blue paint and white trim.
That was my vision, but the minute we dropped her off five hours away at Georgetown University in Washington DC, my energy sank. The drive home was long, we hit traffic, and the dorm supplies and nervous chatter that filled the car on the way down was gone. Thankfully, we still had two daughters at home, our middle girl, starting 11th grade, the youngest, about to begin 6th grade. I was relieved and grateful that the coming months meant a continuation of packing turkey sandwiches, lacrosse games, and college test prep.
My small garden continued to put up the perennials that I planted when we first moved in, 27 years ago. Our neighbors and our houseguests brought over cuttings; skinny lilac stems, peonies whose roots needed to lay shallow, and parallel to the ground. Although they are known to spread widely, no one near me has poppies, I wasn’t even sure mine were legal. This early successful gardening was pure luck. My husband Drew, and I, came from the city, leaving our few houseplants behind with the woman next door in 2G. My mom always had daffodils and some annuals planted in our south shore, Long Island third of an acre, but I didn’t pay any attention at the time as to how they got there. The few things I stuck in the ground in our new house in Rye did well on my sunny little patch and I rigged an oscillating sprinkler for the flats of annuals I purchased at the nursery at the bottom of my street.
When the kids were little, they would help me lug out a blue plastic pool purchased at Miller’s, the local toy store, and that, alongside the sprinkler, was enough water to keep my garden in good shape. The view of my front yard was a nice complement to my European neighbor right across the street, a corner house whose lush garden enclosed with a split rail fence brought walkers and joggers from all around town to exclaim at the blooms. I would see them point out some of the more spectacular plantings across the street, and then turn their head my way and give a little nod, miming “not bad” at my own efforts. Their gardener was an Omar Sherif look-alike with a full head of shoulder length wavy hair and a heavy Italian accent. His name is Frank. We hired Frank immediately.
However, as the kids grew, we no longer had the sprinkler out and we lost the sight and sounds of skirted duckie bathing suits and squeals of delight at the shooting water. The grass burned a bit in the sun. Passersby couldn’t see this from the street, as our flat patch of grass is elevated by 5 bluestone steps up to the porch door. The garden display is on an angle, pitched to street, easy to see. Here, the poppies continued to pop, and the peonies loved their bit of soil and the full sun, heavy heads reached over the stakes as if clamoring to get out of the confinement of garden jail.
Frank taught me that dividing the plants is good for their longevity, too much togetherness stifles their growth. I dug up some of the peony roots, and carefully relocated them to the southern side of the house. This area was previously home only to the lilac sticks that eventually grew straight and strong, sending their powerful scent out to the street, or onto the porch, depending on the direction of the wind. The spot doesn’t get the full sun, and the relocated peonies spent years learning their new terrain, so much so that I thought they would never take. Every year, I watched as shiny, healthy green leaves emerged on solid stalks in the middle of May. But there were never any buds. Then, for two years in a row, tiny tight buds showed up, never growing more than a half an inch around. I would stare into their centers, willing them to open up to me.
“They’re coming up blind”, said Frank. “No flowers this year.”
By now, Frank has seen my kids grow up, exiting the house carrying everything from soccer balls to prom date corsages over the years. I know he and his first wife divorced, but he found new love with a woman who had some immigration issues that took a long time to resolve, and has given him a toddler son he adores.
“Frank, you’re tired running after that baby?” I asked him.
“Ohh yeah, I’m a little old for all that. But look, look at this face!” he showed me a picture from his phone. I lingered over the photo, smiling, although I had a supermarket run to make.
He points over to my neighbor and says Look, you can’t expect to have what she has”, getting back to the peonies.
“Just you leave it, you’ll see. Flowers will come.” He says as he drove off in his red truck with the big engine.
May, again, one tight ball appeared, but never opened into the delicate layers I was yearning for. The next year, the same appeared, but his time with a little side bud, tight as a tiny, clenched fist. Frank told me to pinch off. This seemed cruel.
“The mama, she needs the food and the sun. It’s not time for a baby, the baby sucks away the nutrients that the mama needs” he said.
I pinched it off.
Still, no flower that year.
The next year, this year, I spotted several small buds with side shooters and I carefully twisted off each little ball that I knew would refuse to open. I am now waiting, just a few days more, maybe only one or two, for the glorious, almost magical, unfolding of the primary buds, the mamas, to open and feel the sun on their faces and sway in the breeze, just to the right of the lilacs, whose blooms departed just in time for the peonies to shine.
Paula Fung lives in Rye, NY and along with her husband, has raised three awesome daughters in a house over a hundred years old in which the upstairs bathtub occasionally leaks into the dining room. She writes personal essays about family life, being a sailing wife and her interest in cooking with spices and baking with "big sugar". She curates a program called "Writes & Bites" in which local authors share their essays on a single topic. It's at the town library, it's free, snacks and wine are served so it's therefore always a success. She's been published by Sailing Anarchy, Her View From Home and several times at Read650.