I’m not a particularly good gardener because I always over-plant, I’m over-zealous, never trusting that what I plant will actually show up months later. Perhaps for this reason, my favorite plant is the peony.
It’s so excessive, all those multi-layered petals. They are so extravagantly beautiful! Their beauty grows disheveled and wanton within days, as their over-packed petals drop to the ground. Peonies are to be cherished all the more for their brief moments of magnificence. And their fragrance! It’s elusive, like pulling at a memory from your past. You cannot bottle it – the fragrance is just too fleeting.
Speaking of peony memories, back in 1993, Sue Grafton invited my husband and me to a Kentucky Derby weekend. I’ve been her literary agent for the full length of her alphabet-mystery career but this invitation was a first.
What to wear? Derby is quite formal. There are boxed seats, picnic baskets prepared by professional chefs, formal dinners—it’s all very elaborate and, well, the essence of famed Southern hospitality.
I ransacked the more promising closets of my girlfriends until I’d gathered several appropriate outfits complete with matching shoes and purses. My instincts on such formality turned out to be right: Sue had an entire room in her estate devoted to Derby hats she’d worn in the past; it was right out of central casting from “My Fair Lady.”
Next up, what to bring for a two-day visit?
A five-pound hunk of aged Parmesan? Two dozen New York bagels? Over-priced lavender soaps from Caswell-Massey?
Nothing seemed quite right. The etiquette on bringing flowers is sketchy: the hostess doesn’t want to be rooting around for the perfect vase as she’s taking the beef Wellington out of the oven. Nevertheless, I settled upon six Sarah Bernhardt Peony tubers, nestled in peat moss, swearing to Sue that I’d plant them myself over the weekend. I just knew those peonies would thrive in that temperate Kentucky climate.
Sue died last year, unable to make it to the end of the alphabet. Every obit in the country quoted her daughter, “The alphabet ends with “Y” as far as I’m concerned.” A couple of weeks ago, Sue’s husband sent me this photo of those peonies, still thriving in all their glory, having been divided several times, twenty-seven years later…a lasting tribute to a great writer and a great friend.