There’s Just Something About Peonies

Leah Klevar looks back on her love for these special flowers—and the woman who shared them with her
something about peonies

They’ll always remind me of this little house on College Street, I think. It’s the place where my husband and I first moved in together—where we celebrated our wedding and brought our daughter to life. Where we fought and cried and laughed with each other. It has a big old maple tree in the front yard that fills our living room with watery green sunlight in the summertime. And the small backyard offers up a riot of peony blossoms each spring—white, raspberry red, and the palest of pinks. I’d cut them by the armfuls and shake the ants off in our kitchen sink, saturating the house with the delicate scent of new beginnings.

They’re Laura’s peonies, actually, but I like to think of them as her gift to me. Her connection to this house. Her life, still blooming forth somehow.

Laura Memler and her husband, Lloyd, built this 1,000-square-foot bungalow in 1927 and moved in after their wedding. They raised two boys in this home, hosting a houseful of bridge partners each Saturday evening and parking their Model T in the driveway. Laura cooked at the old, white Roper stove, and Lloyd sat on the front porch, smoking and sipping the homemade wine he brewed. They had a dog. They planted flowers. They lived a life together, until Lloyd died in the 1960s, and their boys grew up and moved out.

Laura stayed on, driving herself to the store and mowing her lawn. She was, after all, a strong, proud Czech woman with family living nearby. She survived on her own just splendidly. Each year, her maple changed color and dropped its leaves. The peonies bloomed and died. And Laura grew older.

Then, one day, she fell down in her house.

And then she fell again, the firefighters breaking in to rescue her. And her sons, who loved her very much, decided it was time for her to leave this little house. She was in her 90s, and it wasn’t safe for her to stay anymore. But it hurt her so much to go. She didn’t want to leave the place that held all her memories and secrets. All her love and hope and sorrow and fear.

After she relinquished her house to me, a stranger, in 2003, I began to visit Laura in the nursing home, going every month or so until she died, in January 2006, at nearly 102 years of age. I’d sit in her room, and listen to her fantastic stories about our home.

She told me how a local bootlegger sent men into the house while she and Lloyd were at work, allowing the bootlegger to copy its exact design and build an identical one next door. She told me about going into labor in the living room and rushing to the hospital. She told me about the landscape of our neighborhood in the 1930s and 1940s—and she gossiped about her former neighbors. Sitting in her tiny, hot room at the nursing home, listening to her words rushing past me, I thought, This is my future. She had such a full, rich life, filled with children and stories and gossip, and it passed so quickly . . . it passed so quickly.

We’re moving out this weekend, bound for a new home just up the street. This house will still be here, but it won’t be ours anymore. I won’t be able to run through the front door, letting the screen bang shut behind me. I’ll have to close my eyes to remember the way the early-morning light brightened our kitchen, with its tiny vintage fridge tucked neatly into the wall. To remember the familiar pattern of scratch marks that Laura’s dog left on our doorframe. To recollect the dark embrace of our living room, as I nursed our daughter deep in the night—feeling the milky fullness of grace and fear and promise.

Recently, I noticed that one of Laura’s peony bushes had bloomed already. It’s the one by the garage, with the raspberry blossoms, the one that she told me always blooms by Memorial Day. She was right. Tonight, I plan to cut those blossoms again. I will shake off the ants in our sink and arrange them in a vase, so that I can smell spring in this house one last time. And so that Laura can, too.

Leah Klevar has a master’s degree from the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication and works as a senior writer and editor for a large nonprofit organization in Iowa City, Iowa. An occasional freelance writer, she published the first version of this essay on her personal blog in May of 2007.

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