Thursday, March 26, 2009

Peonies: Connections

Now that I’ve been blogging a few weeks, I’m finding myself looking forward to what comes together in my mind by evening, and tonight I’ve got a good one.

This evening I stepped outside to walk around the yard a little, and I admired the way the peonies are sprouting up. Only a few weeks ago (remember?) I was in our terrace garden, raking out last year’s foliage, snipping off the dried stalks of the 2008 peonies. At that point, they were just tender pink cones peeking out of the ground. Now some of the stalks are about a foot tall, the leaves beginning to unfurl.

More and more, I see spring as an overwhelming, virile, raw, powerful force. Something, a long time ago, had led me to characterize spring as tender and moist, soft, delicate, but that attitude is changing. When we say “winter’s back is broken,” then I guess we also have to acknowledge that the thing that broke its back was the sheer, wild strength of spring.

But I digress. I was talking about the peonies. See, I’ve already told you we live in what used to be my grandmother’s house, and yes, that presents many situations that, in today’s world, seem remarkable. So tonight I’m going to remark about it. It fills me with an overwhelmingly strong sense of connectedness, and I feel that is incredibly precious, in a world where so few people live where their ancestors did.

So the peonies in our yard have been in this yard since about 1930, when my great-grandparents (paternal grandma’s folks), and my paternal grandparents, moved into this house (from where they had been living next door). (Got it?)

The peonies were moved to this property during the original landscaping my grandma and her folks did back in 1930. And they are basically where they have always been, all these years—some along the driveway, others over the retaining wall facing the street.

Here is something, kind of an aside: The peonies always bloom about the same time the mock orange blooms in the backyard. And that is right about at Memorial Day. And that is how, for years and years, the graves of my ancestors out at Riverview Cemetery have been decorated annually with peonies and sprays of mock orange blossoms.

I called up my dad tonight to ask him where the peonies had “come from.” I suspected they had come from his Aunt Polly, but I was wrong. He gave me the background.

Note: I fully expect to be coming back and editing this post, because I suspect I’ll get some things wrong, or “not-quite-right.” But here is what I know tonight.

See, down at 318 W. Elm, there used to be a house, which was demolished, I guess, about the same time my grandparents were moving here, just a block away. This house at 318 had been “the old Bartlett house.” Old Mr. Bartlett was the previous owner of these peonies, before they were transplanted here. Charles T. Bartlett. That was his name.

Okay, with me so far? The Bartletts were connected to me through marriage. My grandma’s older sister Minnie married Claude Bartlett, the son of Charles and Amelia Bartlett. So Charles Bartlett was the father-in-law of my Great-aunt Minnie. Claude and Minnie were living nearby at that time, and you know how gardening-inspired people can’t stand by and let perfectly good peonies get wasted because a house is being razed.

So the peonies ended up here. And Claude and Minnie soon ended up on Forest Hill, one of Jeff City’s swankier streets, while my grandma, her family, and the peonies stayed here in the ’hood.

Want to hear more? Sure.

So. Charles Bartlett’s wife, Amelia, had been born a Maus: Her dad was none other than Captain Charles B. Maus, the Civil War veteran who built the Union Hotel down at Lohman’s Landing, now part of the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site. Historian Gary Kremer says that Maus named it the Union Hotel “to reflect his loyalty to the U.S. government.” (He warn’t no rebel.)

The Union Hotel contains the Elizabeth Rozier Gallery, named for the woman who, in the sixties and seventies, was so instrumental in saving those historic buildings when government officials wanted to demolish them for parking for State Workers (we capitalize them in this blog, because of their separate, distinct status).

The bottom floor of the old Union Hotel is currently the city’s Amtrak station; that’s where we said goodbye to Paul and Karla and the boys as they were headed back home at Christmas. (Connections . . .)

Just up the street, and also part of the Historic Site, is the Christopher Maus house, built around 1854; Christopher was the brother of Captain Charles B. So Christopher was the uncle of Claude Bartlett’s mother.

Are you getting all this? Do I need to make a flow chart for you?

Now: The Maus brothers were German, and they pronounced their name so that it rhymes with “house.” This is why Sue and I refer to Christopher’s house as “the mouse house.” And we laugh. (We think of little wedges of cheese, wiggly whiskers, big round ears, beady eyes.)

But here is something else my dad explained to me: Amelia Maus had siblings, and one of them was named Wilhelmine, or Wilhelmina (spellings were more shifty back then between German spellings and English ones) . . . and she went by the nickname of “Minnie.”

Um, can you see where this is going? Yes.


Her name was Minnie Maus.

Dad says his Aunt Minnie (Claude’s wife; my grandma’s sister) used to refer to her husband’s aunt as “Aunt Minnie Maus.”

Dad says the Maus family changed the pronunciation to “Moss” in the generation after Amelia and Minnie. Shucks! But in a land of English speakers, I guess it sounded less rodentlike.

. . . So now I swirl my figurative brandy snifter and I wonder: Do you suppose our peonies might have once graced the sideyard of the Maus house or the Union Hotel down there on Jefferson Street? I try to picture how it might have looked in the 1880s.

The dresser we have in the back bedroom, Grandma told us, had belonged to Captain Maus, Claude’s grandfather. There’s a solid wood connection between me and the proprietor of the historic Union Hotel. I keep my socks in the same drawer where he might have kept his drawers!

But somehow, it’s even neater to think that the peonies might possibly serve as a living connection between me and the old captain.

And who owned and cared for the peonies before then, do you suppose? Who trimmed away the winter’s dead foliage each spring and smiled in May at their bright white blossoms flecked with blood red?

A friend recently told me that she and her partner had recently transplanted iris from New Mexico to their home in the Bay Area, iris that had belonged to her partner’s grandmother. And it goes on. And it goes on.

Plants have histories and genealogies just like we do, and our mutual paths merge and diverge and cross back again. Do you know what this feels like? It makes me think of those Hubble Telescope views of distant galaxy clusters—we see just a miniscule fraction of what’s really out there. Just enough to know how very little we know.


JaneL said...

It's interesting how peonies have come in and out of fashion. I was just given a bag full of sprouting peony roots and planted them in various places, with no clue to their color. I know, however, that it may take them years to bloom. The peonies that came with the house, which I transplanted six years ago when we built my potting shed, only started to bloom again two years ago.

Your picture of the stalks is gorgeous. Just 40 or so miles further north, our spring seems to be a week or so behind yours.

Julie said...

In and out of fashion? You mean peonies have ever been out of fashion? Aack! . . . I know what you mean about the recovery time. Last year we moved some that were growing under a tree (among its roots and such), and it was dangerous surgery. I'm relieved to see a few of them are coming up. I'm sure it will be years before they're up to speed again. It will be worth the wait.