“Peonies” by Debbie Millman

(The Phoenicia Pharmacy window, an eclectic gallery that ranges from a Three Stooges photo to a forgotten film developing sign, displays a chalkboard filled with hand-chalked print that begins, “When I was a little girl, visiting my father’s pharmacy was one of my favorite pastimes.” Curious, I asked Georganna Millman, who brought me inside to her husband Marty, the pharmacist, who handed me a book by his daughter, who turns out to be a prominent designer in Manhattan. Look Both Ways is her affecting collection of essays about growing up in tough circumstances after her parents divorced and finding her way into a rewarding career. Rather than appearing in conventional book type, however, each essay has its own eye-catching design, such as being written on chalkboards reproduced on the page. You feel as if you’re reading her personal journals. I enjoyed the book in part because she has stuck with the life I turned away from by leaving the City for a Phoenicia log cabin before I turned forty. What if I’d stayed? Here’s an essay I found especially touching.)

As a native New Yorker I’ve spent countless stretches of time roaming the streets of Manhattan. Over the years, I’ve developed a relationship with places, monuments, landmarks, and street signs. I realize that certain of my favorite pilgrimage sites, and the feelings they evoke in me, are cliched; nevertheless, I can’t help but admire the sadness and fury of the Manhattan skyline or bask in the glow of the brilliant lights enveloping the Empire State Building. I also get enormous pleasure seeing and savoring things I think of as “mine”–a ’70s style decal in the window of a townhouse that shows a rainbow leading to a pot of gold; a wooden owl on the awning of a building on East 29th Street; a miniature windmill on Hudson Street I used to think was a helicopter on its side; and the old Economy Foam sign on Allen Street in the Lower East Side. These things, of course, are not really mine, but somehow I imagine I have a secret relationship with them. In my mind, they are not really “things.” They have an existential gravitas that is real, and they all have private lives and little souls.

My favorite thing to behold in all of Manhattan used to be a big bush of white peonies on the street where I live. The plant lived in a small messy garden in front of an apartment building that was rumored to have once been a crack house. Every year, in the middle of march, little buds would poke up through the thawing earth. Once they did, I would watch the daily drama of these peonies as they unfurled. First came the fringy black stems, next the leaves would turn green, then the stems would spurt forth tiny, perfectly round buds, and then, seemingly overnight, the buds would turn white and voila! They would burst open into the most fantastically glamorous resplendence. It was magical and mysterious, and it made me very, very happy. Watching it year after year, I often wondered how the bush got there. Who planted it? Did it self-sow? I desperately wanted to know.

One day some years ago, while walking my dogs, I bumped into my neighbor Kathy, who has lived on our block for 40 years. Kathy was out with her dog, and as our pups frolicked together on the sidewalk, I realized that we were in front of the house with the peonies. I asked her, “Do you know who planted these flowers?” She told me she did, and related a story about a little girl from the neighborhood who was selling seeds to raise money for her grade school. Someone in the building bought a package of seeds and planted the entire pack in front of the house. The little girl wasn’t so little any more, and she had moved away some time ago, as did the person who planted the seeds. Together we nodded, admiring the long-lasting handiwork, and then we went our separate ways.

Late one summer, walking home from work in a pink and purple August twilight, I realized that the peony bush was no longer there. It was gone. There wasn’t a hole where the plant had been; there wasn’t a splattering of dirt or debris. The bush simply disappeared. It was as if it had never been there at all, as if it hadn’t been real. I was devastated.

The nature of “what is real” is a confounding concept. Philosophers and scientists alike have attempted to define this, and to understand the nature of the consciousness that apprehends what it is real.

Plato maintained that two distinct levels of reality exist: the visible world of sights and sounds that we live in, and the archetypal world populated by what he referred to as “Forms” that stands above the visible universe and gives it meaning. Plato asserted that the “Forms of things” constitute the only essential existence, and that things as we experience them are only an appearance of reality. He believed that in our everyday perception, we suffer from the illusion that the things and objects around us constitute the ultimate reality. Furthermore, he argued that our ideas not only reveal our subjective inner states, but the true nature of reality itself.

So I had to wonder: Where were the peonies? How could they have disappeared without a trace? Could someone have been so cruel as to steal the bush and clean up after the theft? My mind raced. Could I put up a “Missing Peonies” poster? Were other people lamenting the loss of the flowers?

And I couldn’t help but ponder in sadness: Were the peonies ever real?

On a subsequent Sunday, I was coming home from a last-minute holiday-shopping foray, my arms loaded with big bags of presents and wrapping paper. As I was making my way down the street, I passed the spot where my beloved peonies once resided. I stopped short. In a patch of dirt close to where the peonies had grown was a new bush of blooming white peonies. I couldn’t believe it. I approached the plant with delicacy, and once again, I was skeptical. This couldn’t be happening, this couldn’t possibly be real! I put down my bags and took off my gloves. I reached out to touch the peonies and suddenly realized: They weren’t real. Someone had put a plastic peony plant close to where the real bush had been. One imaginative neighbor was commemorating the missing peonies, and this was the memorial. I smiled and suddenly felt hopeful that a fake peony bush could indeed be a very real testament to what is most real in our hearts.

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