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The Shipwreck Rose: My Valentine

Wed, 01/25/2023 - 15:41

Somewhere on a bookshelf in this house — I’m not sure, but either among the dusty and ancient books in the shelves on either side of the living-room fireplace, or on the little built-in case, never visited these days, in my poky childhood bedroom upstairs — are three or four snowdrop stems, paper thin and paper dry, that I pressed and preserved the February when I was 12.

That was my “Anne of Green Gables” year. I was a wildly romantic girl, enraptured by flowers, flowering trees, and the beauty of an unfolding spring. Flowers, in my adolescent mind, were associated very strongly with romantic love, and the intensity with which I daydreamed over a fistful of violets should probably have alarmed the adults in my life, if anyone had been paying attention, which — for better or worse — they were not. It was the end of the 1970s.

Flowers, also, had already been recognized by me — as by better poets in better centuries — as the ultimate symbol of ephemerality and mortality: They came on, green and strong, in spring, bloomed in the hot breezes of summer, only to die before school started again in the fall.

I was a gloomy child.

I’m in danger of boring you, reader, by revealing too many self-indulgent details about me, me, me — these are the perils of writing a column of personal essays that needs to find a subject once a week! — but, to continue with my unwonted revelations: I’d been unhealthily aware of the, you know, inexorable passing of time, a melancholy knowledge, since I was 6. By the time I was in seventh grade — the peak year for mood swings — this knowledge had fermented into a dark existential brooding. I would read my old-fashioned novels in bed at night and turn to gaze out the window of my chilly bedroom, over the trees, at the stars in the still-black night sky, hear the lonesome train whistle blow as the train passed westward along Railroad Avenue, disappearing into the pine woods, and understand, horribly, tragically, that youth and bloom would pass and the flowers and leaves would wither and we’d all grow old.

If there was no such thing as the internet, and I consumed books today at the voracious velocity that was my norm at the age of 12 and 13, I’d have found those missing pressed snowdrops from 1979 by now. Every time I pick up a book and open it, which isn’t all that often, I expect the snowdrops to slip out, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Now, if I were really going to self-indulge in a true excess of unsolicited revelation, I could recite for you, in full, a poem I wrote on this topic that year, when I was 12. But I cannot — will not — give you that whole poem because it is still too embarrassing for public consumption. I cringe, even now, at my childish earnestness. I’ll give you the opening two lines, though. The opening lines of my immortal seventh-grade verse on the topic of flowers and impermanence were, “Do not cry, my pretty one / Because spring is ended and summer is done . . . “ Oy vey. The tone was maudlin and it did not cheer up from there.

I was a tomboy. I don’t think we have tomboys anymore, do we? It’s a category of nonconformity that has been modernized — formalized, psychologized, and medicalized — out of existence, it seems. What being a tomboy meant in the 1970s was that I had older brothers, and felt I was as daring and adventurous as they or any other boys of my acquaintance were; that Seventeen magazine was for morons; that I looked awkward in a dress (but what girls didn’t, in that era of corduroy pants, feminism, and Wranglers?), and that I knew I was as physically and intellectual capable as any boy in the seventh grade. Being a tomboy in no way clashed with my propensity for being positively rhapsodic, idiotic, a dreamy fool, about roses, snowdrops, and especially lilacs.

I’d been introduced to poetry in earnest the year before, in Mrs. Webb’s sixth-grade class at the East Hampton Middle School, and indeed had already memorized and recited — by choice, my own maudlin choice — the opening stanzas of the great Walt Whitman poem on the death of Lincoln: “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, / And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, / I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”

It is now nearly February, which means I am back on snowdrop-watch again. My backyard is littered with sticks and branches that fell in the high winds of December. Ivy has invaded the peony bed. I’ve just gone out there in my cushy, foam-soled bedroom slippers to see if the snowdrops will be early or late, and did find a few, not ready yet, only about an inch and a half high, around the border where the Buell Lane neighbors’ huge tree came crashing down a year ago, in another storm, crushing a rose bush dating from my grandmother’s time that may or may not have been the titular Shipwreck Rose.

Although I’m still much more obsessive about keeping flowers around the house than the average American mom, I’m not so rhapsodic about it. I’m no longer 12. You get older and you have to steel yourself. You can’t go around mooning over the inevitable loss of youth once you’ve lost it; you have to get over yourself.

I do find it necessary to have amaryllis to get our household through January and February in fairly good cheer. And then we get to the hyacinths. I do love the intimate, somewhat underarm-y smell of green-and-white paperwhite narcissus and purple hyacinths. But I’m less judgmental about what constitutes a decent flower and what doesn’t. I’m more tolerant. I’ve even learned to love tulips.

The North Main Street I.G.A. used to sell — until last year, when they annoyingly shifted to a different flower wholesaler, whose goods are more expensive and less fresh — a very nice bundle of simple tulips for $6; they were fresh and young, so young that they’d continue to grow after being trimmed and left in the vase. I’d hurry them home and stick them in a vintage ceramic vessel, and they’d reach for the windows, reach for the sun, the green stems doubling and tripling until they were as long as your arm.

The sweetest and most heartwarming thing my daughter, Nettie, ever said to me was when she was about 5, and said that when she grew up she was going to throw a birthday party for me, and it would have a theme, like the many themed birthday parties I mounted for her (“the candy party,” “the big-cat party,” “the Harry Potter party”) and her brother (“the knights and castles party,” “the fire-truck party,” “the baseball party”).

“Mammoo,” she said, “when I am older, I am going to throw you a Rose birthday.” She drew out the word “rose,” adorably: Ro-o-oh-se.

What I didn’t know at the age of 12 was that having children of my own would be the consolation for the spring-is-ended-and-summer-is-done existential anxiety of adolescence. The flowers now represent familial love, not romantic love.

Nettie would, she said, put a tablecloth with red and pink roses on the table, and set out china with red and pink roses on it, and decorate the cake with frosting roses in red and pink.

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