ColumnistsLife After 55

Perennial Love

By Michele Bazan Reed

The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, I settled in to enjoy one of my Christmas gifts: a painting set from my daughter, Katie, and son-in-law, Greg.

For the past few years, I’ve enjoyed learning watercolor painting, taking classes at the art association and practicing on the rooftop terrace of our home in France. Now I wanted to try my hand at acrylic painting.

As I applied the first tentative brushstrokes on the green leaves and fiery red petals of an amaryllis I was attempting to copy, I felt my mood lift, despite the gray skies and frigid temperatures of an Oswego December. What is it, I wondered, that gives flowers the power to transport us, and transform us, with their beauty?

I don’t know about you, but whatever my mood, the mere sight of flowers in bloom can make my spirits soar.

Bill’s grandmother’s peonies still bloom at the old house.
Bill’s grandmother’s peonies still bloom at the old house.

Not only that, but a burst of color from an azalea, a whiff of the rose’s perfume or the touch of a daisy petal brushing my hand as I walk by, can call to mind beloved memories, taking me back years and even decades to happy times.

One of my fondest memories of my late husband, Bill, centers around flowers. For 30 summers, June to September, every morning on his way in from the morning dog walk, he would stop to pick a sprig of the tiny hedge roses that grew with wild abandon along the south side of our house. He’d come in and present them to me with a smile or a kiss (usually both), and I would take a minute to toss yesterday’s wilted blooms and put today’s into the Welch’s jelly jar-juice glass I kept on the windowsill for that purpose. The memory of the juice glass with the tiny blossoms bobbing in their drink of water never fails to make me smile.

In France, we would stroll every Friday along the Allees Paul Riquet in Beziers, enjoying the weekly flower market that takes place rain or shine, from January to December. I’d bring home little plants to put on my windowsill or pick up an impromptu bouquet to brighten the inside of our house, but usually we just took in the sight of pansies bobbing their big purple and gold heads, and the smell of the bougainvillea, as we strolled in the shade of the plane trees.

Whether it’s a prom corsage, pinned with shaky hands by a nervous date, a wedding bouquet tossed toward our best friend or memorial wreaths at the funeral home, flowers seem to mark the important times of our lives. They tie us together as families, friends and lovers. They have a magic all their own.

They unite generations, too.

My father was an avid organic gardener, who kept detailed charts in marble composition notebooks, each year’s plantings plotted out by location, number of plants and eventual yield. I inherited the notebooks, but not the green-thumb gene. When I was younger, I’d greet the arrival of spring by planting annuals, shady plants for under the deck: begonias, impatiens, a little coleus for leafy fill. Then the marigolds and geraniums for full-sun areas, especially nice over the septic tank. To be honest, I never was much of a gardener. If it weren’t for my husband hauling bucketfuls from our pond, the garden would never get watered.

Then a miracle happened. One year, Bill was coaching youth soccer, and at the end of the season, a grateful parent gave him a hosta plant, which we placed in a shady spot. I didn’t even know what it was. Good thing I consulted my gardening books, or I would have pulled that perennial beauty out in October to replace with mums.

Instead, it returned the next year and flourished. Soon we had a colony of hostas taking over the space under the deck. Best of all, the hostas required almost no work. Mulch a bit in spring, put out a dish of beer for the slugs in summer, remove the dried flower stalks in fall, and they were good.

Grandmother’s peonies continue brightening the lives of our family members.
Grandmother’s peonies continue brightening the lives of our family members.

I was bitten by the perennial bug. Soon I began planting bulbs for a beautiful welcome to spring outside our window. Eagerly I’d await the first peek of the crocus and grape hyacinth through late winter snow.

Bill’s grandmother helped, doling out the bounty from 70 seasons of perennials: lily of the valley, hydrangea, still more hostas.

She shared more than her plants. As we worked, she imparted her knowledge and love as generously as she handed out her homemade chili sauce, sweet-and-sour pickles and rhubarb pie.

When Grandmother passed away, the people who bought her house offered us the chance to take whatever plants we wanted before they did their own landscaping.

We hauled wheelbarrows full of lilacs and peonies down the road to our yard. And there we planted a lilac grove in Grandmother’s honor, and a peony patch of a dozen plants lined up in a double colonnade.

For years we greeted spring’s arrival with the sweet aroma of Grandmother’s lilacs and the brilliant magenta and stark white of her peonies.

Our son, Mike, has the house now, and he inherited my lack of a green thumb. But perennials are forever, and those that survive will unite three generations with their beauty.

And, like flowers everywhere, they will warm the souls of all who see them.