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 nowadays have any inkling what they are sending? Highly doubtful. 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. Most women know by a certain point in their life that a flower isn’t just a flower, but rather, a symbol with some message attached. And unfortunately, that message isn’t always the cute, flowery one that FTD would have you believe. Couple that with some pretty traumatizing associations to flowers and you have a recipe for 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? Not good. For years every time I walked into a florist’s shop I thought 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 till all three ran out–friends, sweethearts and parent’s money. 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 kids. The cheerleaders. The football players. The jocks. The preps. They’d get some ridiculous number of carnations, somewhere upward of twenty or so. And you’d have to watch them all day, carrying those things around, struggling down the hallway, fidgeting with them in class. Of course, they never put them in their lockers. No. That would be far too humble. These people were evil. 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 just whacked you in the head. Too bad you don’t have your own to protect you. 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. Who can get over that level of trauma? I didn’t. To this day, any time I see someone giving out carnations on the side of the road or something, I want to ram my vehicle into their plastic bucket and drive off.
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 still have every one of those petal stuffed between pages of old books, that’s how amazed I was at the idea of flowers.
He drifted into the past, of course, but his flowers were the last I’d see in a really long time.
Throughout my first 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 our sons, 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, ahem, awkward moments in our marriage. Truth be told, I was most annoyed that he sent a strange woman flowers and had never given me so much as a weed. Anyway, shortly after this, I came home one day to my own bouquet. Out of guilt or embarrassment, who knows, he had sent me the clichéd dozen red roses that I still affectionately refer to as the “I fucked up” 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 took a continued downward spiral. In fact, they became downright insulting. There were the occasional carnations wrapped in plastic from Wawa that my dad or boyfriend G would pick up out of obligation on days like Valentine’s day or my birthday. 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 they were an omen of impending doom.
The truth is, my history with flowers (and men) had been grim. Until D.
I won’t go into detail but I fell in love with D in winter. When I was the most alone I had ever been and yet, strangely, the happiest. A time in my life when, for the first time ever, I wasn’t looking for hidden messages in flowers nor having (unrealistic) expectations about the men giving them. In fact, I very specifically told D a month into our relationship, “Don’t bother with flowers. I don’t like them.” And so, when our first Valentine’s day rolled around, a holiday I now typically try to ignore, I played it off and made other plans. OK, well, it was easy. It was a week day and he was working. At any rate, 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 Sahara’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. And, when I got home, sitting on my front porch step, there were flowers.
I brought them inside. There were twelve red roses cut on a sharp angle, encircling a spray of extraordinarily green tiny buds, which rested upon the lip of a cylindrical glass vase with smooth, black river stones at the bottom. I sat them on my countertop and I stared at them for a good 10 minutes. I breathed them in. I walked around them. I determined that I had never seen in all my life a floral display quite like it.
And then I determined that they were the most stunning flowers I’d ever seen.
I opened the notecard. Of course 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.” It was possibly the purest, plainest, most direct language of affection I had ever received from a flower, or a man, in my lifetime. 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. D and I have been together 10 years this January, and while he doesn’t buy me flowers as much anymore, his steadfast love and the memories of those early bouquets mean far more than the actual flowers of which they were made. Real love, I’ve learned, isn’t complicated. It doesn’t die on the vine or send unintended messages. It just is. Umberto Eco wrote, “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 like I said, it’s 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 wilt a daisy, or make it bloom eternally.