by Debra Rienstra
Flourish magazine, Spring 2010
Even to think of them makes her cry,
she told me. Her great-grandfather,
a man of tenderness, grew them well
and gave them away by the armful.
Such gentle surfeit: silken charms heavy
as heartache, drooping on straining stalks;
tight fists holding their generous
splendor like birth. A dissipation of petals.
I walked through green hedges at Penshurst
in Kent, turned a blind corner into an aisle
of peonies, yards of them, thickly pink
on either side, unruly crowds of thousands.
I stood there, open-mouthed, gasping
the fragrant air as the gardener came round,
smiling at my astonishment. Every year
he presides over miracles of excess,
cutting stems down to straws in October,
raking away the litter of yellowed leaves,
knowing what will come, this keeper
of unlikely things, tender of promises
more than fulfilled.
So first thing after they moved in
the neighbors dug up Ruth’s old garden,
a front-yard oddity that had appeared —
shaggy, extravagant, sprawling — wherever
her springtime sweat cast its charms.
The new people pulled out
her spindly jungle of asparagus; tore up
the nasturtium border whose sensuous petals,
like mangoes, you could pluck and eat;
they hacked down six-foot sunflowers;
mowed over silky native grasses that flowed
on breezy days like a woman’s hair.
The little paw-paw tree they decided to keep.
They mowed around it.
Grinning and waving at us as we strolled by,
they spent a hot September weekend
digging and seeding, laying straw,
staking off squares of flat, potential decency.
The straw muddied, winds came,
snow fell then melted, the weather warmed,
and Ruth’s earth took its revenge:
A hundred tulips shot up
in the feeble spring lawn,
raising first their cocked leaves,
then their green, defiant heads.
Debra Rienstra teaches literature and writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is the author of Great with Child: On Becoming a Mother and So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality. “Resilience” was originally published in Ruminate magazine. “Peonies” was originally published in Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought.