Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Granddaddy's Orchids

Today I was honored with a gift: a gorgeous orchid plant in luscious, fertile bloom. The colors are instantly uplifting, especially on as drab a day as today is in New York City, the sky going from black to gray to white and back to gray. In front of me, however, a complex cluster of waxy yellow petals that look as though they've been flecked first with an intense shade of purplish-pink (really, the color you first think of if I say "orchid"), and next with a touch of orange-red, right in the center of each flower. The picture to the left does not do justice to the color saturation; the blossoms are much brighter than they appear here. The orchid is an interesting plant. Its flowers seem fragile; you'd expect them to be like tissue paper. And yet not only are the leaves hearty and thick, the petals (at least on this variety) are sturdy as well. Another seeming contradiction: the blooms are, on the one hand, the epitome of refinement, of elegance . . . and yet, if you look closely at their centers, there is something fierce and almost dangerous looking about them. They remind me of hungry, open, animal mouths—the potentially lethal jaws of a mythological creature that seduces you first with beauty. Not that I am menaced by these flowers, but they do have a complexity about them that makes you question what you know about beauty and strength, poise and passion, superficiality versus something at the source. And this kind of enigma, I suppose, is what makes the orchid a perfect match in memory for my paternal grandfather. I cannot see orchids without thinking of him. I don't remember very many things about him, but I remember that orchids were his favorite flower. I have a picture of my grandfather—one of only a few that I possess—where he is in a greenhouse, wearing high-waisted polyester pants and a short-sleeved button-down cotton shirt; an old man among orchids: two seemingly fragile things, side by side. He did indeed seem fragile to me with his wrinkled skin and thin, gray hair. His back was bent, he used a cane, and his manner in general was effacing. He did not talk much, and when he did it was softly. But I see him standing there among the orchids—a simple man from the American South, surrounded by exotic flowers that hint at distant lands—and I know that he was a person who made things grow, and that a farmer's life is not for the faint of heart. He tended to things, to people. He lived through hard times when there was little more than Saltines and ketchup to eat; butter beans and cornbread. He raised two sons, took a switch to them for discipline but gave them lots of love. The switch part I always had a hard time imagining; I only ever knew him as a very gentle man. He was sweet, moved slowly, talked little. I didn't get to know him as well as I would have liked, but I loved him a great deal. The satisfying thing is how he's stayed with me through the years, on and off with various triggers to memory—but always, immediately, whenever I see these most beautiful of flowering plants, the orchid.

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