Utne Reader Article Jan-Feb (KM)

greenspun.com : LUSENET : M.Ed./International Falls : One Thread

"My Grandmother's Peonies", by Michael Fox, Utne Reader, January - February 1999, pp.32-34. (KM)

A late night phone call. I tentatively answer it, "Hello?" I question the caller. A quaking voice on the other end says hello back. "What's wrong?" I question my father. I knew something awful had happened. I struggled to hold back the tears, to be strong for him. "It's your grandma" he trailed off. "She had a seizure and apparently she aspiratedand now she is in a coma" He started to cry. Be strong I keep telling myself, be strong for your father. I will never forget that phone call. As I began to read the essay "My Grandmother's Peonies", the memories I have of my grandmother began to jump from my heart as though a spring robin was plucking them from within me like it plucks a worm from the ground after a strong rain in my garden. Memories of my grandmother are all I have left now. She passed away four days later.

As I wander through life's bountiful garden I do expect to not only encounter beautiful blossoms, fruits and vegetables but also thorns and biting insects, cracks in the dry earth and decaying great trees giving way to new life. With each turn in the path a new memory is created or an old one recalled. The path through the garden is like a maze, the directions are many the choices are endless. We can meander slowly through like a tiny mountain stream content to stay high in the mountains dependent upon snow and rain to give it strength. Or we can be an avalanche crashing down over other life forms.

Reviewing Michael Fox's reflective and moving essay, "My Grandmother's Peonies", adapted from the collection found within the book, My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants they Love, edited by Jamaica Kincaid was like stepping off the boundary of the confining path and resting for a spell. Fox's strategy of comparing various memories of stages in his grandmother's life, along with his lure and subsequent wanderings to new surroundings like a "kennel dog" (as his grandmother used to say), to rich and luscious descriptions of the life cycle of a peony are well developed and beautifully cultivated.

Fox offers miniscule glimpses into his earliest memories of life with his grandmother through her death and beyond while equating each stage of reflection to a special Festiva Maxima Peony's existence. He clearly recalls her life through the transplantation of this Peony into his mother's yard. His story often wanders to places off the path in the garden, not unlike a child unrestricted by the clearly laid out pebble path making a new discovery, a discovery that someone reluctant to leave the path or uncharted territory might miss. His story may seem to wander as he begins to make new discoveries about himself and ponders about the life of his grandmother.

By describing the circumstance of this peony, Fox provides a window into his grandmother's life in her Vermont yard. Fox not only effectively utilizes the peony as a recollection tool as he writes, "When my mother dug up the 'eyes' of these the autumn my grandmother's house was sold." but also as a tool for transition in writing and in the new journey he and his own mother face.

The essay's seeds are sewn efficiently as Fox describes the growth and determination of both he and his mother through their efforts to transplant their newly acquired keepsake, the peony, from her grandmother's garden into their own barren yard. He describes their almost desperate efforts to create surroundings suitable for this peony.

Through his development Fox allows the reader to capture a glimpse into his grandmother's lifestyle and economic standing. The reader's mind is led down a winding path, through a discovery garden, as though viewing grandmother's life as a garden with many interesting places to visit. Focal points in the garden equating memories that Fox has and wants to share of his life with and without grandmother. His only description of grandmother's home and suggested lifestyle were briefly introduced and then left to the reader's imagination. He writes, "She left behind an opulent house. But of the opulence left behind when she was gone, her peonies were not least." He plainly tells his readers about her home management, a style quite unlike most mid-westerners of today. He writes, "Her diminished, overstaffed domestic life is illustrated to me in the memory of her doing these things - the movements of her hands, her delight - as though nothing in her life was as simple and pleasurable. It was as though these few manual tasks had been sanctified, raised or compressed to poetry, by the removal of any and all labor from her life." Fox begins to paint a picture of the role his grandmother played in life while leading the reader to believe that grandmother's greatest desire was to have control over everything in her life without getting her hands dirty. His suggestions inspire one to think that she preferred order and perfection and clearly had the funds to achieve her aspirations without physically completing the work herself, she merely orchestrated the staff. Fox's portrayal of his grandmother's life is like a picture of a painted garden, a place that appears to be an object of desire visually, but most likely not as pleasurable as it might seem. I equate this to my own desire, long ago, to live in the mountains in Montana. Driving through the mountains I would envision having my own home with thousands of acres in the middle of nowhere, to enjoy the beauty of nature. Realistically to live in such a place would be less than pleasurable. I know that now. I have learned that to covet what appears to be something wonderful is pleasurable, but to get the coveted item is often quite painful.

He plants a tiny seed in the readers mind denoting a brief view of her emotional being, while cleverly embedding into the reader's mind grandmother's desire to be socially active without ever going into great detail. Subtly while touring grandmother's life Fox is able to gently fertilize the tiny seeds of personal reflection so carefully implanted into the readers mind that the reader forgets that he or she is no longer reading but reminiscing and reflecting upon personal experiences and values.

The essay immediately caught my eye. As I read the essay I found my mind wandering and reminiscing about my own grandmother, her garden and the other people I wouldn't have known as well if it wouldn't have been for their desire to share special plants and gardening suggestions and tips. Sometimes on the path of memories we enter a beautiful place, caught up in thought we brush against the thorn of the beauty. For a brief moment the memories beheld draw tears and pain. The thorn is but a small part of the experience on the path. We move on. Or we stay and cry. The wanderer must choose which path to follow. To continue the journey or to stay in one beautiful place for eternity.

I believe that truly great pieces of writing often naturally lead to self-reflection and reminiscing. This piece most certainly evokes emotion and mental wandering. Fox's path of his grandmother's life can be viewed and interpreted from many angles. His development of the essay is not unlike the viewing of a garden. One person may take a certain path of discovery while another person might wander in a different direction. To enter into a garden one might discover a little more or trip over something that was missed on the last visit. While reading and then rereading this essay I too felt it was like discovering and rediscovering new places in a secret garden. Interpretations change as one looks at the flower first from afar and then moves in closer to discover something of interest or disdain.

The garden is to me like sports must be for many men and women, an easy place for conversation to grow, an opportunity for lighthearted conversations and for sharing. The peony and a North Dakota rose bush are two that I have had the honor to transplant into my own garden, both of which are more than one hundred years old and provide rich conversation. Adding not only a little history but also a starting point for new relationships and conversation. They became connections in my life that I am truly grateful to have made. Not only are they simple connections of new friends but a sharing of roots. The North Dakota rose bush I transplanted from my neighbors here in International Falls also happened to be neighbors with my stepfather's parent's garden in Cavelier, North Dakota over forty years ago!

In conclusion, the discovery of this essay in the UTNE Reader introduced me to a collection of works that I look forward to reading. I definitely will read the entire book. I believe I will share it with my mother and her grandmother and a few special gardeners I know.

-- Anonymous, May 10, 1999


Hi Kim, Karen, Beth,and Dawn, The meeting on Friday with Terri Shannon produced some helpful suggestions for all cohort members. The particular suggestion for your group is that you need to do a broader review of the literature to formulate your question. (You may come up with a similar question, but need to review more of the literature in the field.) This is all part of the learning process to write the best research paper possible. We will be in touch. Thank you, Mary Ann

-- Anonymous, June 06, 1999

Moderation questions? read the FAQ