You’ve all heard the stories of my beloved old, farmhouse in Ohio. The place where my heart still resides rejoicing in the sprinkle of snowy apple blossoms from the ancient trees. The place where my souls joy lived in the grace of countless lilacs and daffodils and peonies planted everywhere on the property.
The peony field sat atop a gentle slope above the old spring. Two gnarled old apple trees stood sentry above the clear cool gush of water from the pipe in the hillside. The tin cup hanging on the stub of a branch there was always ready to help with a drink of cold refreshment no matter how hot the day.
The peony field was not always there but the peonies came from old, old garden stock rescued from the cold, steel blades of a tractors plow.
Lori, a woman I had become “baseball Mom” friends with purchased a decrepit brick farmhouse with her husband. The home sat on a little, flat piece of land and had always been intriquing to me with it’s Federal architecture and overgrown surroundings.
Nothing invokes mystery and history for me like farm buildings and homes in disrepair and overgrowth. I feel if you take a moment and lay your hand or your cheek against the weathered old wood you can feel the history of the place. You can feel the moments and the magic and the memories from some other farm wife who laid her hand or cheek in that exact spot. Gazing at a carefully placed rock edge in a now-weed filled garden it is easy to imagine that same farm wife carefully snipping blossoms to fill a glass jar in the center of her scrub-worn kitchen table.
Lori’s farm was no different. Fields surrounded her house with chest-high weeds and I never ventured into them on my visits there. We rummaged in some of the old buildings planning restorations and we sat at the edge of her crumbling front porch talking about having the simple joys of grass you could walk through without worrying about snakes and tripping over abandoned farm equipment.
One early, early spring day I got a frantic call from my friend. Her husband had endured the overgrown fields long enough. He had purchased a brush hog and plow for the old tractor that came with the property. Unknown to Lori, over the period of several weeks he had been hauling all the rusted old farm equipment and fallen down fence posts out of the area. Lori had decided to venture into the wasteland provoking the urgent call. “Jenny,” she exclaimed, “there are all kinds of things planted in that field! I don’t know what they are but there are all kinds of tags and markers but no actual plants!” Well, hey, the kids were at school and I can never resist a plant mystery so I jumped in my car and ran right over. She lived fairly close but it felt like the drive took forever. I was so intriqued and so excited.
She met me in the driveway and we ran out to the field and started looking at all the tags. There were hundreds of tags – all with different names on them: Schaffe, White Japanese, Boule de Neige, Mons Jules Elie. We looked and deciphered and read fading painted signs for quite awhile until it finally dawned on me that these were peonies. Scraping away some of the leaves and dead plant growth on the ground you could barely see the crowns starting to show growth. Oh, I was excited until Lori said that Doug was plowing that field in two days and he could care less what the plants were in there. Then I was panicked! He had told Lori to dig up anything she wanted for the house but the rest were going to be plowed under!
What! No! Oh no, no, no! I told Lori I would try to get them all moved and she said she would help.
As soon as I got home I called our neighbor who plowed my gardens and asked him to come over right away to cultivate a new field for me. He came that same evening and worked up the rich, black earth into what seemed like a huge bed.
As soon as the kids left for school the next day I took a bunch of boxes to the farm and started digging, being careful to keep each tag with each tuber. About ten minutes into the digging Doug came home and said he had the day off work and he was going to start plowing right away! Oh no! Lori and I dug and dug and piled peony tubers into the truck helter-skelter. We were covered in dirt and mud but no matter how fast we dug the rows still stretched on.
We heard the tractor starting up and realized we were never going to get finished but we grabbed two more plants and then watched as that shiny metal started ripping out years and years of beauty and history. Did I mention I never did like Doug?
It made me sad to watch so I left to drive carefully home. Careful of the blisters on my hands, careful of my precious cargo.
The kids filled buckets of water from the spring and we spent hours and hours planting the 27 plants that had been rescued. Five had tags. The rest were a mystery.
They all grew. Each one into magnificent plants laden with blossoms of every color from the palest yellow frills to almost black single blossoms. Most of the varieties I could never identify. I found out later that the man who had lived on that farm for fifty some years was a peony breeder and had varities from all over the world.
Each year I lived in that old house the peonies took my breath away. I could feel the history in the blossoms. Feel the mystery in the unnamed varieties.
Several years ago when I was back in Ohio I asked the people who now live in my home if I could walk around the yard. The peonies were gone. The old apple trees were gone. The perennial beds were gone. So much was gone. All of that was in the way of mowing they told me.
I left that day feeling so sad. So much lost beauty for the sake of an hour or two saved on a lawn mower.
I realize that the blossoms are still inside my heart and with no effort at all I can still feel the dirt under my hands as I cultivated around them. My memory still sees their glorious colors illuminated in the late afternoon sunshine.
But sometimes no matter how vivid the memory my heart still grieves for the passage of time and the loss of something wonderful. Tend your peony beds carefully, my friend. They may never come again.
The Theater of Crows
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