Raising Phoenix: Flower Deficit

Amy SilvermanJune 24, 2020
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Illustration by Annabelle Stern
Illustration by Annabelle Stern

A disruption in the decorative-plant supply chain launches our columnist into COVID-19 self-analysis. 

I was holding it together until the peonies. After weeks of leaving the house only when absolutely necessary, I went to Trader Joe’s the day before Mother’s Day, looking for peonies. Don’t get me wrong, I had no problem filling a cart with whole-wheat pasta, yogurt, wine and hand sanitizer. But my pantry was already packed with essentials. I wanted peonies.

Even if it’s possible to grow them in the desert, which I sort of doubt, raising peonies is way beyond my capabilities as a gardener. Still, I must say that things have gotten very Little House on the Prairie around here since we started our quarantine in mid-March. I’m writing this in mid-May and the tomato plants in my garden are exploding with fruit. I haven’t killed the zucchini yet. We harvested bags of peaches last week and I made marmalade for the first time, much more successful than my many attempts at a sourdough starter.

I tossed a loaf of sandwich bread into the grocery cart. Trader Joe’s had everything that day, even toilet paper. Everything except peonies.

More than two months in, my little family of four is healthy (knock on wood) and so are my parents (knock some more) and we still have jobs (keep knocking). An old Joe Walsh song plays on repeat in my head:

I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.

Life’s been good to me so far.

If my biggest problem is that I can’t put my hands on some peonies, I’m doing OK, right?

Most nights, I stay up way too late with my older daughter, Annabelle, yanked home from her freshman year in college. We watch The Office and talk about how we can’t fall asleep. Last year at this time we were planning graduation parties and lamenting a series of lasts. It was emotionally draining in a way that this is not. This is suspended animation.

“It’s like we’re in A Wrinkle in Time,” Annabelle says.

“It is,” I reply, stopping myself from wondering aloud just how big the wrinkle is, how long this will go on.

In the morning, everyone else sleeps in and I crawl out of bed to water the garden because it’s getting hot and if I miss even one day, all the cucumber plants will shrivel up, and what if soon there’s no more produce at the store? I listen to a song on Annabelle’s latest playlist, a cover of “Moon River.” I don’t think I’ve ever really heard the lyrics, and it’s so exquisitely painful in this moment that I keep it on repeat as I refill the watering can several times:

Two drifters, off to see the world.

There’s such a lot of world to see.

It’s not the trips you take that you’ll regret, someone smart once said. It’s the trips you didn’t take. I’m grateful to have traveled, to have had adventures, to have lived so hard for so long. I want that desperately for my daughters, both still in their teens. It’s hard to admit that things might never be the same.

If I have to stay put for a while, I’ll be OK. Funny, Phoenix isn’t such a bad place to do that, even in the summer, though I do wish like mad that we had a pool. I used to think the city’s best features were a convenient airport and lowish cost of living, making it easy to get out of town. But now I think about the things that I always hated about this place – how isolating it can be, how we stay in our cars and keep our garage doors closed and don’t really need other people – and I realize that these are the things keeping us safe.

I also think about how finally, before COVID-19, Phoenix had started to grow up instead of out, to become a real city in so many ways. There is no way this crisis won’t stunt our growth. We are still in our infancy. The cultural scene here is like my tomato plants – sprouted from seeds, delicate, destined to wither without constant attention. Not everything translates to Zoom.

Like everyone, I’m working to adjust my expectations, to find that new normal. I came home from Trader Joe’s, ripped off my mask and unpacked the groceries, wiping everything down with disinfectant and washing my hands for what felt like 10 minutes. I was hot, defeated and mad at myself for going out when I didn’t really have to.

The next morning, on Mother’s Day, my husband presented me with a bunch of pink and white peonies. I have no idea where he found them, and as I accepted the gift, I resisted the urge to ask if he’d Lysoled the plastic wrapping the flowers.

Some things are worth the risk.

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