I have always had a general reluctance towards flowers. Not so much an aversion as a mistrust. Very possibly it comes from the fact that they purport to send one message, but oftentimes end up sending another. I mean, there are books on flowers and their meanings. A black locust, for example, means platonic love. A buttercup; wealth, a daisy; innocence; a rose; love, desire, passion. But do you think people are capable of sending the same message as the flowers they choose to send? Highly difficult task, if you ask me. In all likelihood it’s not so much that I dislike flowers as that I have always poorly understood human nature to the point of knowing that someone may say one thing but mean another. Seriously. I’ve learned through the years that a flower isn’t just a flower, but rather, a symbol with some message attached. And that that message isn’t always the cute, flowery one that Hallmark and FTD would have you believe. Couple that with some pretty traumatizing associations to flowers and you have a recipe for doubt and dismay.
For starters, my grandmother died when I was 14. She was obsessed with flowers and so, prior to her death, she arranged to have a gazillion flowers at her funeral. There were daisies and tiger lilies and begonias and whatever else, and the whole funeral parlor was popping with yellow. I loved my grandmother dearly, but the smell of all those flowers paired with the smell of embalming fluid ruined it for me. For years every time I walked into a florist’s shop it reminded me of death.
Then there was high school. Every February there was a carnation sale. And depending on how much money your parents gave you, whom you were dating at the time and how many friends you had, you could buy carnations for your sweetheart or your friends till you were blue in the face. Then, on Valentine’s day, the teachers during homeroom would call out your name and you’d go up to the front desk, where everyone would see you, and you’d collect your carnation. Most of us received one, maybe two carnations with a little note attached that generally said something like “BFF,” and that would be the end of it. But then, there were the popular people. The cheerleaders. The football players. The jocks. The preps. They’d get some ridiculous amount of carnations, somewhere upward of twenty or so. And you’d have to watch them all day, carrying these carnations around, struggling down the hallway, fidgeting with them in class. Of course, they never put the damn things in their lockers. No. It wasn’t that easy. These people rubbed your nose in it. Literally. You didn’t just brush elbows with classmates in a crammed hallway on V-day. You had carnations smashed into your face. “Oops. Sorry my forty-seven carnations whacking you in the head. My bad.” All this, to the point where you found yourself sneaking around the gym locker room or looking in trashcans for discarded carnations to claim as your own. It was sickening to say the least. And I never quite got over it. To this day, any time I see someone giving out carnations, like Moonies or Christians on the side of the road or something, in the city, I want to ram my vehicle into that damn plastic bucket and be done with it.
Thankfully, I was able to recover from my botanical complex, if only for a short while. But, it was only a matter of time before I too, hater of anything with a stem or a bud, fell victim to that ancient and perennial commercialism of love, which states that if you do not receive a flower from a man, you have no worth. My life changed at this point. I suddenly adored flowers. Not so much for their beauty as their ability to define me. And most likely because I’d never received any. And by the time I hit my twenties I felt I was something of a freak. If society validated a woman by the flowers she received, I must have been an alien.
I was 22 and dating this Air Force police officer named S when I lived in Greenland. We had fallen in love, and despite my leaving to return home, we remained in touch. For my birthday he sent a dozen yellow roses. They were stunning. Everything I had imaged they’d be. It was the first time I’d ever received flowers. And I probably have every petal saved in a box somewhere up in my attic, that’s how amazed I was at the idea of flowers.
He drifted into the past, of course, but his flowers were possibly the last I’d ever really appreciate for a very long time. It was all downhill from there.
Throughout my marriage I only received one bouquet of roses from my ex-husband. He never bought me flowers for anything. Not Christmas. Not Mother’s day. Not any holiday whatsoever. Not even on the days I gave birth to either son, or the day I graduated with high honors from Rutgers University, after 16 years of trying. I don’t believe he even gave me flowers when my father died. Like I said, I only received one bouquet from him. Back in 1999, when I was about four months pregnant with my second child, I found out quite to my dismay, that he had sent some girl down in Georgia a dozen white roses. It would be the first of many more indiscretions on his part and the onset of the most miserable years of my life. Aside from frothing at the mouth with anger that he was cheating on me, I was possibly more incensed over the fact that he had sent some strange woman flowers (roses, no less) and had never given me so much as a dandelion. Anyway, shortly after this betrayal, I came home one day to my own bouquet. Out of guilt for what he had done, or possibly as a buffer for what he was about to do, he had sent me the clichéd dozen red roses that I still affectionately refer to as the “I just fucked around on you and sent my girlfriend flowers but now that you caught me, I’ll send you flowers too” bouquet. I can still remember throwing those things out long before they died on their own.
After the dissolution of my marriage, flowers sent to me never much improved. In fact, they became downright insulting. There were the occasional carnations wrapped in plastic from Wawa that my boyfriend G would pick up out of obligation on days like Valentine’s day. No card attached. There was the “I’ve been neglecting you to go party with friends” flower from S. It was a lily (isn’t that the flower of DEATH?). I planted it in my front yard and the squirrels ate it. And finally, there was the “we just started fucking and I want to move out of my parents house and in with you” roses from M, which, admittedly, were quite beautiful. Yet, they came with such onus that every time I looked at them I couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t being tricked.
The truth is, my history with flowers has been grim, at the very least. But, despite my seeming ingratitude and suspicion I do have hope.
Yesterday, in fact, was Valentine’s day, a holiday I typically downplay and try to ignore. So, I went into the city by myself and walked and walked and walked down Pine and Spruce and then over to Walnut to revisit a few of my favorite antique shops. I bought a little vintage tin sign for the bathroom. I had tabouli at Sarhara’s. And I strolled around looking at windows and doors, which I love to do. I thought of virtually nothing all day except maybe the temperature and how cold it got after a few days of unseasonably warm weather. When I got home though, sitting on my front porch step, there were flowers.
They were the prettiest flowers I’d ever received. There were twelve red roses, encircling a spray of extraordinarily green tiny buds, which rested upon the lip of a cylindrical glass vase with stones at the bottom. I brought them inside and sat them on my countertop and I breathed them in. I stared at them for what seemed a very long time. I made peace with them.
I actually found them to be quite beautiful.
I opened the notecard. They were from D. And he had scribbled—in his own handwriting—this little “xo” on the card. Just that. Nothing more. No “I’m sorry,” or “last night was great,” or “I’m giving these to you because if I don’t, you’ll think I’m lazy and cheap.” Just “xo.” Possibly the purest, plainest, most direct language of affection I’ve ever received from a flower, in a very, very, very long time. A bouquet that actually came with the message it intended.
I can’t say me and flowers will ever have the kind of relationship that say, Georgia O’Keeffe has with flowers, but I can say, I’m no longer opposed to them. They’re growing on me. I don’t love them or hate them. I don’t see symbolism in them. But I am not averse to them. Umberto Eco once said that, “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.” And I suppose that’s true. But what’s more, is what’s behind the rose; what’s behind the flower; both in the giver and the receiver. It is this that speaks more loudly than anything. It is the underlying current of love, or lack thereof that can make or break a daisy, a lily, or even a rose.