Pink Peonies – Short Story Fiction
Annie Patterson, adorned with knit hat, work gloves, winter coat, and garden rake, walked from the back of the house to her sprawling front lawn. She rounded the corner and beheld a magnificent view. Blanketed across the yard, in a haphazard pattern, were varying shades of yellow, orange, brown, green, and vivid reds. This time of year her maple, sycamore, and elm trees collaborated in weaving an elaborately colored quilt covering the ground, as if to protect it from the frost that started a couple of weeks ago. The palette was intense and vibrant in its sheer randomness, and she loved how the crisp leaves made a muffled crunching sound beneath her feet. With the weatherman’s predicted forecast for the first snow of the year, her morning project was the daunting task of removing the leaves. She started to rake the ground and gather the leaves into huge piles of jumbled color.
Annie glanced across the street and spotted Ms. Lottie Jamison sitting in the rocker on her huge, wrap-around porch. It was a chilly day, at least 35 degrees, and Ms. Lottie was bundled snugly in a heavy quilt, vigorously pumping her rocker back and forth. On her thinning, gray hair, she proudly wore her purple cap with an oversized yellow and green yarn tassel. One of her granddaughters had crocheted it for her several years ago, and Miss Lottie wore it faithfully, despite the fact that it was fraying and had more than a few small holes. She was a tiny, fragile woman, and Annie thought she looked swallowed up in all the layers, but at least she was staying warm and protected from the brisk morning air.
Annie decided to pay the elderly woman a visit, something she did at least three or four times a week, just to see if she needed anything. She walked across the quiet neighborhood street that separated their yards and could hear Lottie loudly singing, She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes. The older woman loved to sing or hum at the top of her lungs, and she didn’t care a bit that she seldom hit the right notes or was always a half-beat off.
“Good morning, Ms. Lottie.” Annie hugged the elderly woman and kissed her wrinkled cheek.
“Good mornin’, sweet Annie. Looks like you’re rakin’ up all those purty leaves.”
“Yes. I hate doing it. They’ve been so pretty this year. But I got to keep the grass healthy so it doesn’t die off. They’re predicting the first snow tonight.”
“I know it’s gonna snow. There aint no predictin’ ‘bout it. I can feel it in these ol’ bones. You got such a purty lawn, Annie, and you care for it like I did mine back in my earlier days. My great grandson came out Saturday and raked up the last of the russet leaves from my red maple. They were so bright this year!”
Lottie would tell anyone who listened that she had five children, twenty-two grandchildren, sixteen great grandchildren, and six great, great grandchildren. Annie thought it was wonderful the way they came to visit her in hordes on the weekends. Lottie’s family was faithful in bringing her groceries, doing cleaning and yard work for her, and just loving on her and giving her attention. The spry old girl was adamant about living on her own. She was determined to stay where she was while her mind was still intact and her body hadn’t completely given out. She threatened a long time ago that if anyone tried to move her, it would be with her kicking, screaming, and causing a hullabaloo that the neighborhood would never forget. At 98 years old, she had earned that right, in Annie’s opinion.
“Why are you sitting out here in the cold?”
“Aw, Annie, I get restless sittin’ in the house watchin’ that stupid TV. A mind can only take so much of newscaster’s fake smilin’ and talk show yakkin’ before it starts turnin’ ta mush. My old eyes can’t read well no more, and my rheumatism doesn’t allow for doin’ much. ‘Sides, I have Jackie on my mind. We always spent our time here on the front porch, holdin’ hands, and discussin’ things, no matter the weather. To be honest, I guess I’m feelin’ a little blue.”
Having been neighbors for the last 45 years, Annie remembered Lottie’s husband, Jack. They were the quintessential example of lasting love and a happy relationship, and more than once Annie took tidbits of wisdom from them to apply to her own marriage. Even in their elderly years, Annie admired the way Lottie and Jack doted on each other and had such an easy rapport. Jack died ten years earlier, and although Lottie never lost her spunk, she did have bouts of blue times when she dearly missed him.
“Would you like to come over for lunch today? I made some of that chicken salad with the walnuts and grapes that you like so much. I also have a spice cake that my daughter brought over yesterday.”
“No, thanks, sweet Annie. I brought out my ol’ photo album and think I’m just goin’ to enjoy the cool air and spend some time reminiscin’.”
Annie knew this was a peculiarity of Lottie’s. When she was like this, she wanted to be left alone to look at the album that contained her memories of Jack. Annie respected the hint and turned to go.
“If you change your mind, I’ll bring it right on over, Miss Lottie.”
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Lottie watched Annie as she crossed the street and resumed raking her leaves. Annie was a sweet girl, always checking up on her and bringing her treats.
The chilly air started seeping through the quilt, and Lottie tightened it around her. She pulled her hat closer to her head, trying to adjust it so none of the holes let air in around her ears. She opened the faded blue album and saw Jack’s big brown eyes looking out at her from their 70th anniversary photograph. She knew Jack wasn’t handsome like a magazine or catalog model, but he was beautiful to her. His eyes were expressive and always told her exactly what he was feeling. She remembered what it felt like to look into those eyes and see nothing but pure love reflected in them. Jack was not just a part of her soul; he was the blood pumping through every one of her veins, the marrow deep in her bones, and the fibers of her muscle. He was through her, in her, and around her, and she missed him so much it was a physical hurt deep in her chest that took her breath away.
“Jackie, I miss you,” she said out loud, tears welling in her eyes.
Lottie sighed heavily and looked out from her front porch view and watched Annie raking up her leaves. Lottie knew she’d be out there a long while, because her neighbor had a huge front yard full of all kinds of trees.
She remembered the day that Jack planted the red maple tree in her own front yard. It was the same day that she planted the pink peonies along the front fence line. They were both dirty and grimy from working in the sun and soil, and Jack asked her, “Whatcha plantin’ those peonies for, Lott? You know they only bloom for a short time.”
“’Cause I like the smell of ‘em. They’re fresh and they remind me of new beginnins’.” She smiled as she remembered the tiny bouquet of the fragrant blooms she held at their wedding just a few weeks before.
“Well, I guess a fella can’t argue with that.” He came up behind her, slid his strong arms around her tiny waist, and kissed the nape of her neck. Lottie remembered that day well, because nine months later Jack Junior came along.
With the birth of their first baby, Jack came into their bedroom carrying a big bouquet of pink peonies. He handed them to his wife and told her, “This is for another new beginnin’, Lott.” With each of their five children and on every single anniversary, Jack brought her a bouquet of pink peonies, each time with the sentiment of another new beginning. Lottie sighed at the sweet memory.
She started to feel overly warm wrapped up in the quilt, so she took her purple crocheted cap off and set it on the table beside her rocker. She turned the pages of the worn album, cherishing the pictures of her children and their children. She started to get downright hot and let the quilt fall from her shoulders. She felt a sweat break out on her brow. As she looked up from her precious pictures, she saw that the overcast fall sky was gone and the sun was shining as brightly as any spring day. She looked across the street, and Annie was still laboring with her leaves. Lottie thought Annie might be getting overheated in the heavy winter jacket and knit cap she wore, but her neighbor just kept on working as if the sudden heat wasn’t bothering her at all.
Lottie noticed that something extraordinary was happening in her own yard. The red maple, the same one had just shed its leaves for the winter, had sprouted green buds on its branches. The grass was starting to turn that fresh green that is only seen as it starts coming out of a long winter slumber. She blinked her eyes rapidly, and rubbed them with her fists. She panicked. Is this what it’s like to have the beginnins’ of that old timer’s disease? She closed her eyes and counted to ten. When she opened them, the red maple tree was full with green leaves and her peonies along the fence line were in full bloom.
Lottie sat back in her rocker, and tears filled her eyes. This will be the end of my independence. My kids will surely make me stay with one of them if I tell them I saw my yard suddenly bloom into spring on a cold November day. She rose slightly in her chair as she saw a familiar man walking up the street toward her front sidewalk, and suddenly she didn’t care if she was losing her mind. There he was, his easygoing swagger minus the limp he used to have from his sore hips and aching knees, and those brown eyes radiated the warmth and love that she had been missing so badly. Her Jackie was coming toward her, and she rose to meet him. Before she snuggled in his embrace, he handed her a bouquet of the most vibrant pink peonies she had ever seen.
“It’s time for another new beginnin’, Lott. Are ya ready?”
“As if you had to ask, Jackie Jamison! I’m ready.” She took his hand and together they walked down the front lawn amid the fresh springtime that was theirs alone.
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When Annie was finally finished raking her leaves and had them in bags lined neatly on the walk by the street, she glanced over at Miss Lottie still sitting in her rocker. Annie decided to head back over to see if she had changed her mind about the chicken salad. As she got closer, she realized something was terribly wrong. The album was lying on the porch floor, and there was no loud humming or off-key singing. The frail woman was uncharacteristically still and seemed to be fast asleep. She knelt down and felt for a pulse. When she felt none, she stroked the dear woman’s icy cheek. Annie swallowed the lump in her throat at the realization that her wise friend had passed away. She gathered the quilt around Lottie to protect her from the cold, biting weather. As she did so, a bouquet of the most beautiful, bright pink peonies fell out of the still woman’s arms and scattered on the floor about her feet. As their sweet fragrance filled the chilly air, Annie wondered where in the world Lottie could have gotten such lush, beautiful pink peonies this time of year.
By Dawn Gondeck.