Suddenly, peonies are blooming everywhere. In our yard, our neighbors' yards, yards all along the walking route, next to heavy-headed purple and yellow irises and orange poppies, filling the air with their sweet delicate fragrance.
Some people put them in cages, to keep them tall and high, but I like them when they cascade in disheveled heaps, like the full, crumpled skirt of a discarded ball gown.
The peonies in our yard are a very pale pink--I bought the bush many years ago for a song, because the label had fallen off and nobody knew what kind or color they were.
But all of them, from white to deep magenta, are gorgeous and fragrant. Our mock orange is in bloom right now, too, and so is the deep blue baptisia, and together the three make a vibrant bouquet.
Years ago, when I was a kid in Duluth, our next-door-neighbors, the Grindys, had a row of magenta and white peony bushes that ran straight down one edge of their front yard, from the house to the street. These were beautiful peonies, prize-winning, and Mr. Grindy was proud of them.
On the other side of the row was the yard of the Lemon family. Mary Lemon was my friend, and she persuaded me that the peonies that hung on the Lemon side of the row actually belonged to her family. Those peonies, she said, were theirs and they could do with them what they wanted.
This sounded right to me, in a way--the peonies did encroach on the Lemon yard--but it also sounded somehow wrong. But we were both overcome with avarice--the peonies were so big and so glowing and so fragrant that we needed to possess them. So one June afternoon we sneaked into the yard and picked every bloom off the Lemon half of the bushes.
Our arms were filled with blossoms, heavy, intoxicatingly sweet blossoms that we immediately realized we had no business separating from the bush. We panicked. We needed to conceal our booty. But how? Where? We could not fill vases and set them around the Lemon house; we would be found out.
I had a formal box--a huge cardboard carton with a fitted lid that had contained one of my mother's fancy beaded dresses from her early years with my dad. (I had never seen her wear such a dress, myself, though I had seen glamorous pictures.) I ran into the house, pelted up the stairs, pulled the dress out of the box, stuffed it in the back of the closet, and dragged the box back down the stairs. Mary Lemon and I went around the back of the garage and tried to stuff the peonies into the box.
They would not fit.
In panic, we decided to separate the flowers from the stems. We ended up sitting in the gravel of the driveway, shredding those giant glowing blossoms until they were nothing more than petals. We crammed that box with petals. And then we put the lid on tight.
"You can keep it," Mary Lemon said, and I knew she was not being generous.
It made sense at the time; I remember the deep need to both conceal our crime and to retain possession of our booty. We had to destroy the flowers in order to keep them, and so destroy them we did.
Of course we were found out, and of course we got into trouble, and of course the minute my mother told me that the peonies were Mr. Grindy's, and not the Lemons', I knew she was right. And when I opened the formal box to show her the flowers, I could not explain those withered, dying petals to her. Nor could I explain them to Mr. Grindy, to whom I was made to apologize; his face was disappointed and baffled, and I knew that this year his flowers would win no prizes, and that would be my fault.
The peonies in these pictures are in a glass vase on the table on our porch. They are not from our yard; they are a deeper pink than the ones growing by our chimney. They are from the yard across the alley, the yard of a woman I know only as Joan. She used to have an ancient dog named Bogle, who died; Joan used to walk down the alley in her housecoat in the early mornings carrying a cracked coffee cup, which she would covertly fill with raspberries from the bushes of her next-door-neighbors. The raspberries grow behind their garage, and they could not see her as she scooted back to her house with her little harvest.
She moved out years ago, and her house sits--not empty; it is crammed with stuff (Joan was a bit of a hoarder), but empty of people. Her children, or perhaps her grandchildren, come and mow the lawn every few weeks, and sometimes you see them working over there for an afternoon and then driving off with a car full of stuff. So no, the house is not empty, but no one has lived there for quite some time.
Sometimes, on the morning walks, when Boscoe's legs are particularly trembly, we cut through Joan's yard to make the walk shorter. She has a long row of glowing peony bushes that run the length of her side yard, and right now they are in full bloom.
Yesterday, I slipped over and picked three of them. I chose three that had been beaten down by rain and were lying bent on the grass. But still, there is no denying: Once again, I am a peony thief.