Some time in January, my 87-year-old grandmother, who has always lived on her own, was hospitalized and underwent major surgery. Eventually she was moved to a nursing home to recover. She has been there ever since. It turns out that recovery does not happen as quickly in an 87-year-old body as it does in a younger one.
This grandma of mine, at less than 5 foot tall, has always been a tough, sometimes gruff, no-nonsense kind of grandma. I spent a lot of time with my uncle and cousin at her and my grandpa’s house growing up. She was a young grandma, still raising her youngest son, and she had a lot of spunk. She played the organ, she danced, and she loved “rock-n-roll” (the 50’s variety). She gardened in poor sandy soil, and although I know she grew many different things, my primary memory is of her growing strawberries, gladiolas and marigolds.
A few years ago, she moved from the home she shared with my grandpa for much of her adult life into an apartment in town. Each spring since then, my mother or I have brought from my garden her favorite fresh-cut flowers, peonies.
Unfortunately, my grandma’s health has continued to decline this spring in the nursing home. A month or two ago, during a visit, she asked if I would bring her lilacs and peonies when they started blooming.
“Of course,” I told her, but wondered to myself if she would make it that long.
My lilacs bloomed a few weeks ago and I brought her a big bouquet. The fragrance filled up her room and in the midst of her confusion that day, the flowers seemed to bring her some pleasure. She continued to ask about the peonies. These magnificent flowers are, after all, her favorite.
After a weekend away at the cabin, we came home to blooming peonies. I cut a big bouquet this morning and brought them into her before driving to work.
She usually sleeps late in the morning, so I poked my head in the door to see that the lights were still out. The television was on and across the room I could see her tiny and frail body lying on the bed. Her eyes were slightly open. I softly asked if she was awake.
After a pause, her eyes opened wide and she quietly said, “Oh, Lynell.”
I walked slowly into the room and she reached out her hands towards me and asked me to, “bring them over here to me.”
I brought the bouquet of flowers to her side and lowered them in front of her face. She took her hands, cupped one of the large blossoms in both hands, closed her eyes, buried her face in the flower, and breathed the fragrance in slowly and deeply.
She exhaled and said quietly to herself, “ohhhh.”
Again, with her eyes still closed and her face buried in the flower, she took another slow and deep breath.
“Oh my God,” she said. “They are just so beautiful.”
She opened her eyes and asked me to turn on the lights in her room and lower the table next to her bed so that the flowers were right at her eye-level. We talked for a while and she told me some stories from her life about peonies.
She said she first saw peonies when she was around 13 and living in the big city, the oldest of several children. The neighbors across the street had three big peony bushes along side their house. Admiring them one day, she mentioned to her younger brother how she really loved those flowers. In the morning, she awoke and found a metal wash tub full of the peony blossoms from across the street, carefully picked by her brother. Her memory is that the neighbors were upset and called the police. She said that her dad did something with the flowers, she was not sure what, so that her brother would not get caught. Her recollection of the event made her smile.
She also told me that someone (I can’t remember the name of who she mentioned) brought her peonies when she was in the hospital (either before or after) giving birth to my mother on June 30th.
“I remember it just as plain as day,” she said, “because I had not seen many peonies before.”
After talking some more, it was time for me to leave and get to work. She said that she would give me a kiss for those flowers, but that she had a slight temperature that morning and it was best “to be safe.” I told her I was not worried and gave her a kiss and told her that I loved her. My tough, no-nonsense grandma replied, “I love you too.”
She thanked me again for the flowers and we discussed a schedule for the delivery of more flowers over the next few weeks of them blooming.
As I left the nursing home, I was surprised by the wave of emotions that washed over me. She said to me during my visit, “this will probably be my last season of peonies.” I felt sad to face that reality, but felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to bring her peonies once more. I was also taken aback at how something so simple, bringing her a bouquet of peonies, brought her such joy. These beautiful flowers, with their enchanting fragrance, transported her to earlier times in her life, while also bringing her genuine pleasure in this present moment.
Peonies will always remind me of this grandma of mine. And perhaps when I am old and frail, someone will bring me a big bouquet of peonies that will transport me back to this very day.
And maybe I will tell the stories of how these flowers have touched my life, starting with, “My grandma, she loved peonies, and I remember this one particular day when….”