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The week began with peonies. I counted 50 buds on the largest bush in the garden. They seemed to burst from their tight round buds all at once.
“Look at the girls in their ball gowns,” my friend said when she saw them, fluffy and pink. Their sweet scent blanketed the front porch. They looked as light as the flowers we made in elementary school from Kleenex, delicate layers pulled apart, held together on the closed end of a bobby pin. We spritzed them with our mother’s Chanel No. 5 and pinned them above our ears for a touch of glamour.
When I first began caring for this garden, the master gardener next door told me to ignore the peonies. She said they thrived on neglect.
It’s true that they are the most care free of all the flowers in the garden, conveniently dying back in winter all the way to their underground form, their red feathery bud tips emerging each spring whether they have had water or not. This year, they loved the late April and May snows and grew abundantly.
I complimented the neighbor around the corner on her spectacular stand of peonies — white with thin veins of crimson, deep fuchsia, pastel pink, all clumped in the barely attended strip bordering an abandoned driveway.
“I wish they lasted longer,” she said, a common lament. Their full glory unfolds over about one week and is quickly over. But I have heard that well established peonies often live longer than the gardeners who planted them.
This second week of June was also spectacularly hot, and on Tuesday, June 11, walking to the car in the Costco parking lot, the scene was straight from a zombie film — shoppers unloading their carts frozen in motion, standing next to their car doors, mouths hanging open, eyes all pointed northeastward toward the huge plume of billowing smoke, a solid column of it rising in the cloudless turquoise sky.
We knew that sign; had seen it almost exactly a year ago, rising to the west. It was fire and it didn’t look good. For days, afternoon winds buffeted those fires and the toll of burned houses grew — 200, 300, 400, 500 — until finally, on Friday, rain clouds actually produced rain and the fires began to wane.
A friend entered the hospital for surgery that cloudy day, and on a different floor in the same hospital, another friend’s mother’s body began to shut down for good. The family gathered and stood vigil. We offered prayers and anything we could think to give while they prepared for life without her.
Out here in the middle distance, such a week becomes familiar, sickness on one floor and dying on another, amid breathtaking beauty and ever-changing skies. Ashes and smoke, the peonies weighing down their thin stems with their abundant flowers.
As the summer solstice approached, we welcomed the familiar swelling of black clouds in late afternoon, boiling up over the mountains and dispersing to the plains, dropping a few buckets of water as they rushed past the city. In the burning forest, relief. To the west, rising fear that an afternoon downpour would cause floods on last year’s burn scar.
My friend managed her surgery well and went home to recover in her colorful house amid the splendor of her garden and its show of peonies.
The afternoon thunderstorms remained for a few blessed days, cool night skies washed clean. The girls in their ball gowns began to look soiled and limp, as if they had stayed too long at the dance. One errant touch, the accidental swipe of an elbow, a gust of wind too strong and their petals disassembled, cascading to the ground in one last sweet, fragrant breath.
My friend’s mother, still in the hospital, lingered while more family gathered around her. The hugeness of her life grew in memory all over town, rising like a great cumulus cloud. I spent a quiet Sunday reading a book and waiting, and these words from Eduardo Galeano stuck with me: … the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.
This morning in the garden, the cilantro had grown tall and threatened to go to seed. I pulled large swaths of it and washed and bagged it. I left several mature, well-placed clumps standing. Next week they will flower with delicate white blossoms. And by end of summer, hard little brown seed heads will have formed and transformed to coriander. Cracked open, they exude the warm scent of a never seen, faraway place.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.