Red Peonies, White Peonies

It is late spring, summer almost. Our peonies are blooming, white and red bulbs, wholesome, heavy, full of delicate petals that complete and overwhelm each other, in a continuous search for air and sunlight. The green stems bend and sometimes break under the weight of the flowers. There are more blooms than we can harvest. Every evening, my wife picks out the buds that have opened fully, their petals like ball gowns. She collects them in large bouquets, which decorate and perfume our house — red and white bundles of freshness, in beautiful vases arrayed on the kitchen counter, on the dining room table, in the breakfast room. More bouquets go to our neighbors and friends — love messages.

In the morning, invariably, I find fallen petals covering the ground like tears, white, well-defined snowflakes and large, blood red drops. These are the relics of flowers that have bravely opened during the night and collapsed under their own eagerness. The earth doesn’t wait. What goes up must come down and if we missed bringing in a flower ready for her debut, the night wind and the morning dew disrobe it gently.

The peonies have been blooming in our front yard for over a quarter century. Each year, by Mother’s Day, they greet us. Neighbors walking by stop and admire them. For a couple of weeks we are known in our street as the house with the beautiful peonies. There are two beds, a square one at the corner formed by our driveway and sidewalk, and a rectangular one, on the right side of the walkway leading to our main entrance. The red and white clusters are intermingled. From afar, you see splashes of color against a solid green, leafy background.

They bloom all at once and then they all disappear, their stalks and elongated leaves left with no purpose. The hot summer days bake them. The rain pelts them and the wind pushes them in every direction. Towards the end of summer, in some years, the clusters acquire a blue-gray dusting, like a burden. I spray them with an anti-fungal solution from a small canister. In the fall, the stems become soft and spongy, saturated with moisture. Then I cut them down, one inch from the ground, assured that they will be back the following season.

I remember the day we planted our peonies in the early nineties. My mother was still with us and she helped, as did a friend of the family, Nenea Vlad. It was enjoyable working together under a mild spring sun, one Sunday morning. In Romanian, ‘nenea’ means ‘uncle.’ Vlad is short for Vladimir, like Putin. Nenea Vlad was visiting the United States, an unimaginable feat just a few years earlier, prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Romanian Revolution. I had not seen Nenea Vlad since I was a teenager and he played bridge with my parents at our house in Bucharest. He had a long and narrow nose and warm features.

Together, we tilled the soil, spread out the tubers and covered them with black dirt.

Nenea Vlad never saw the results of his labor. He returned to Romania and cherished his short visit to the US until his death — it was the trip of a lifetime. My mother passed in the late nineties. She had admired the peonies in bloom and had had a chance to enjoy them. Like us, she loved decorating her place with the fragrant flowers. Later, when only my father was left, we brought him bouquets of peonies as a cherished tradition.

The peonies always bring back memories of my mother. She was as delicate and vulnerable as the flowers, and she lasted less than she should have. While here, she filled the space around her with her kindness and tenderness. The white peonies are her peaceful face, the red ones her determination. When she smiled, like a flower in bloom, she radiated warmth and generosity.

Spring comes and the peonies tell me of the fertility of the soil and the strength of survival. They fulfill a promise. Nature goes through its cycle. It doesn’t care about coronavirus or police brutality, just as it is indifferent to our aesthetic aspirations or our feelings.

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.