I bought four peonies last weekend. I had forgotten how they smelled: rich, aromatic, but not as cloying as a rose.
When my mother was in her 90s, I brought her outside one day. We were headed to the doctor’s. Before she would get in the car she thrust her head into the lilac bush and breathed deeply.
She couldn’t really see those lavender blooms, but she could smell them, and they must have carried for her the rich association of all the springs she had lived before.
Peonies, of course, remind me of her, because she grew them – pink and white – in the perennial garden outside the kitchen windows. Peonies bloomed first, then the phlox. I loved all of her flowers, the day lilies next to the clothesline, the borders of jonquils and tulips, the garden full of dahlias, gladiolus, and zinnias.
There were few weeks in the spring and summer when we didn’t have flowers for cutting.
The forsythia came first, clipped and brought inside to force into bloom. Then the daffodils bobbing their happy faces. May was lilac time, which always carried with it a twinge of melancholy, because they always flowered the weekend we visited the graves for Memorial Day.
By June, the stone wall was covered in rambling red roses, ready for one of my mother’s milk glass vases. She had a container for every bouquet: Small brown baked-bean jars for the short stems of marigolds; a tall glass covered in a wheat design for taller stalks like pussywillows or the leggy glads; narrow bud vases for a single rose.
Not all of her flowers were for picking. ‘Heavenly blue’ morning glories climbed the trellis on the side porch. Petunias, bought as seedlings, filled out the corner by the propane gas tank. The ubiquitous yucca – that native Western flower that dug into our sandy soil and refused to let go – sent up white spikes that would prick you if you weren’t careful.
By late summer her cutting garden would be a riot of oranges, reds, and yellows. I loved the zinnias best, and kept a vase of them on the desk in my bedroom. On the years when she grew dahlias, we enjoyed them through September, their floppy stems tied to stakes by strips of old pantyhose.
Each season is stamped with the memories of the years that came before. Not matter how old you are, there is really only one spring, one summer, one winter, and one fall. Each time a season returns, we experience our memories of what it means. This is what T.S. Eliot meant when he called April the “cruelest month.”
When my mother inhaled the lilac’s scent, what associations did it evoke for her? Did she remember growing up on the Crandall Homestead, where lilacs abundant with blooms can be seen in old snapshots? Or did she inhale the same melancholy memories as I did?
Few of my mother’s flowers have survived. The yard of the Shannock house is overgrown with Japanese knotweed, briars, and wildflowers. Only the stubborn yucca continues to send up its white spikes, impervious to the construction around it.
But the landscape survives in my memory. I know where the peonies once bloomed, the roses rambled, the morning glories climbed. I can still see the shapes of my mother’s gardens – the circle of phlox, the hill where the lilies lived, the rectangular plot that held annuals and vegetables.
When I take in all those scents again, it will be memory I’m breathing in, memory of the seasons that came before.