Falling Petals in Our Time of Pandemic
Of all the things to captivate me at this moment, the tulips dying on my kitchen counter get to me. Bright yellow tulips, they are a gift from my friend Luann in honor of our recent Mother’s Day. Luann and I have two children each, live in the same block, are both married to people on the University of Minnesota faculty. Our sons, mine several years older than hers, both struggled to pay attention in high school. Luann and I have taken turns being relieved they made it through. Our daughters, close in age, were friends for much of their time in school. While they grew apart as they grew up, Luann and I deepened our friendship. Our husbands are friendly, but not friends in the way Luann and I are. When these tulips showed up on my front porch in the middle of a pandemic that prevents me from hugging my adult kids, I cried.
Cut tulips, unlike friendship or motherhood, don’t last all that long. They are shooting stars: they explode in an arc of beauty, then piffle downward and away. At over a week old, the flowers languish over the edge of the vase, their petals tinged with the faintest brown, petal edges curling up. The leaves have moldered; I pulled many of them off during the course of the week, then gave the stems the tiniest trim. Their ongoing decay fascinates me.
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. - Wikipedia
I keep thinking of wabi-sabi - the idea of imperfect and impermanent beauty. The decaying petals are beautiful, graceful, elegant. I’ve taken dozens of photos that I’m not sure what I’m going to do with. The shift in their daily appearance is irresistible. I’ll leave them on the kitchen counter until their petals fall off, the sorrow of naked stems laid bare. Kind of like the way my heart feels without my kids at home.
My partner Mick gave me flowers for Mother’s Day, too; an enormous bouquet of all kinds of blooms. There were yellow roses, yellow stargazer lilies, pinkish-red canna lilies, green mums, pink carnations, deep red freesias. Purple blazing star. Some red things that look like tiny roses but aren’t. I’ve been photographing all of these flowers, too, as they open up in succession. There were three Gerber daisies, big flaming orange ones, but they wilted within the first two days. When I pulled them from the bouquet, their stems held upright by little plastic tubes, I wondered why they exited from this riot of color so quickly. They had a glorious pop of presence for a moment or two, then they were done. Back to that shooting star analogy, or maybe the sun setting given their sunset sort of color. One of the yellow roses dried up more quickly than expected, but I saved it by snipping its head, plopping it into a tiny bowl of water. It plumped back up, shined its small sun near the kitchen window. I can’t think of another once-living thing that could be rejuvenated by snipping off its head.
I hadn’t expected such a stunning bunch of flowers from Mick. On the other hand, he’s given me huge, glorious bouquets before. The one when our daughter graduated from college on Mother’s Day 2017 comes to mind. That same day was also our granddaughter’s birthday. Mother’s Day was pretty much last in line because those kids were - are - important. Those kids thrust me into the group of people who celebrate being a mother in the first place. And that’s what I’ve thought about off and on as I’ve tended to this year’s cut flowers. How much I care about my kids is the current that runs under everything else and through the foundation of my marriage to Mick. I suspect it is the same for him. He worries and thinks about them every bit as much as I do, just not out loud like I do.
Maybe it’s my worrying that helped nudge him to choose some nice Redbreast whiskey to accompany those flowers. He knows I love to sip whiskey for a lot of reasons, two of which are to assuage whatever raw feelings are impossible to shut off and to celebrate whatever is wonderful. Motherhood clearly encompasses both.
The riot of blooms from Mick will decay differently than the tulips. I already know I won’t photograph that decay as much. I’ve taken many, many photos of the lilies as they’ve opened, focused on the roses and canna lilies in different light. At the end of the day, the light through our patio door illuminates the dining room table, filters through different petals, changes every day as this spring of pandemic crawls toward a summer spent at home. It’s the light that I watch most intently, its magic and its mood. These flowers, with floral preservative mixed into the water in the vase, will hang around for perhaps two weeks. Not all of them, of course. After the Gerber daisies gave it up, the other blooms have mostly held steady. But the yellow roses are tinged with a bit of brown, their leaves drying and curling like old claws. I can see that the leaves on the mums are a bit raggedy; they might be next after the roses. The bouquet will get a little smaller as the days go on. I’ll have to trim the stems again, maybe change vases. Honor impermanence.
Once the bouquets are both spent, remains of each resting in our compost pile, it will be nearly summer here in Minnesota. Our own gardens are pushing plants upward right now, sometimes with visible progress within each day. There are fat, hairy buds on my Oriental poppies; the crabapple is bursting with white blossoms that bees love; violas have been blooming for a couple of weeks. The lawn, which we are loathe to put weedkiller on, has offered up an abundance of white and purple violets. Deep purple violas have self-seeded all over the garden right in front of our door. These are the days when I like to stand under the crabapple and listen to the hum of all those little bees, watch the sky as thunderstorms approach, linger outside at the end of the day. This year, all those activities will be the bulk of our existence; the travels that, in past years, competed with the seasonal work of the garden will not happen. We are staying home for all of it, the growth, the bloom, the decay, the dropping of seed. We are staying home in the hope that we are graced with longer lives, with health, our family intact.
This summer, we will make a point of appreciating the rich soil that we’ve amended year after year, the very soil that encourages us to bloom from these strong stalks, these deep roots, this nourishing love. And it will be exactly right.
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