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The Shipwreck Rose: Build Me Up, Buttercup

Wed, 02/24/2021 - 17:51

True confession: I am a flower thief. I know it’s wrong.

I have no moral compass when it comes to flowers.

I’m not so low that I’d stroll into someone’s yard and start clipping dahlias, obviously — no — but if, say, I’m on a road trip and pass an abandoned farmhouse with an abundance of June lilacs, I will screech the car to a halt and, to the eternal shame of my children, help myself to an armloadful. Or: Does anyone remember an unoccupied lot that used to bloom like a mad magic carpet of daffodils each spring in the vicinity of Middle Lane or Hither Lane, here in the village? It wasn’t clear whose field of flowers that was — but, yes, I did it. I confess, I did it! I used to creep in, in broad daylight, and carry home fistfuls.

One gloomy afternoon last spring, at the start of the pandemic, I was out walking Sweetpea on Dayton Lane and made a joke about this rather ludicrous character flaw to a pair of neighbors who had stopped to kiki (that is, gossip, in the slang popularized on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) on the sidewalk. This was after the start of lockdown but before we all started wearing masks; we could still see the lower half of one another’s faces. Along a picket fence on Dayton, there is an annual display of many varieties of daffodil so lovely, I said, that I was tempted to take a pair of snips on my next dog walk and flower-snatch them all, harvesting them like Edward Scissorhands.

My joke went over badly. The neighbors recoiled in horror, gasping out something along the lines of “Don’t you dare, Bess Rattray!”

“Just kidding,” I said, lamely, easing the dog away from the scene of the non-crime, our tails between our legs.

The fact is, daffodils are not my favorite flower, anyway. Indeed, for a long time I harbored a deep dislike of them. I disliked the big, loud, primary yellow. I disliked the way they never seem to stop fake-smiling.

You are familiar with the Wordsworth poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”? That high-school English teachers’ favorite about daffodils “tossing their heads in a sprightly dance”? I consider that an abominable poem. I loathe it. But it does tidily encapsulate what used to irk me about daffodils: their vapid cheerfulness.


“A host of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing

in the breeze. . . .”


Gawd, Wordsworth, you cornball.

As regular readers of this column have already heard, I have a lifelong overinvestment in flowers, a desire to always have a bouquet in view, and when I was a cynical and brooding teenager, I judged the daffodil to be the dumbest one, coming back, as they do, every spring at the first thaw to nod their gaudy heads in the chilly April breeze, bobbing there inanely, as if unaware that they’ll soon wither and die, and then have to do it all again.

They are called “narcissus” for a reason: They are the “have a nice day!” flower, the most airheaded bloom in the bunch.

But with age comes, if not a softening of the hard-boiled judgements of youth, an appreciation of mercy, optimism, and sunshine, and I’ve done a total about-face in my attitude toward daffodils. I love a few dozen on my coffee table on a dark night, and I think the bold, kindergarten yellow looks great in a blue vase.

Who hasn’t, by middle age, like a daffodil been rocked and buffeted by life’s chill April winds? Being of good cheer, like a daffodil, isn’t inanity, it’s a service and courtesy to those around you (especially when you are cooped up inside the house during an ongoing global catastrophe, getting on one another’s nerves). You get older and you realize there’s no good excuse for standing in corners pouting and drooping ostentatiously, like some sort of self-indulgent fuschia or amaranth.

(And at this juncture, I apologize for letting my flora metaphors go completely over the top.)

Anyway, this last year — the plague year of 2020-21 — my usual desire to always have flowers around the house was ratcheted up to eleven, as I mounted a domestic campaign to keep our household spirits from flagging. In November, I plugged in a string of white LED Christmas lights, in the kitchen, vowing not to turn them off before St. Patrick’s Day, and, anticipating a grim season, planned out a winter-long procession of flowers with anxious care.

First, paperwhites that bloomed around Thanksgiving. Then, nine mail-ordered amaryllis bulbs, which I forced on a radiator in my bedroom (giving away four as holiday gifts and hoarding the rest, glutton that I am). In January, we had store-bought tulips, not the best. This month, I have a big green clay pot of pastel-colored parrot tulips that are taking for-freaking-ever to grow, and a smaller pot of peachy double daffodils that I bought as bulbs on Etsy and have not yet killed with my inexpert tending. Next, hyacinths.

On Dayton Lane, the dog-walk daffodil-watch will begin again in March. It took eons for them to rise and bloom last year, but when they finally did, they persisted in a blaze of butter-yellow, cream, and coral for weeks and weeks and weeks. It was an endless spring. An endless spring. The daffodils were stoic in their good cheer. They persevered.


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