The Art of Arranging Flowers
An Excerpt From
The Art of Arranging Flowers
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
 
Copyright © 2014 by Lynne Branard

Prologue

 

 

            Daisy was not crazy. At least not like they said. She wasn’t unstable or paranoid. She wasn’t dissociative, delusional nor did she ever display homicidal tendencies. She didn’t impose some means of self-mutilation or harbor a border line personality. She did not require restraints or group therapy and she never intended harm. She took her meds and she was fine. She was not crazy.

            The day she died, that cold gray day when I withdrew into myself, that day I cleaned the house from top to bottom, wiped down every wall, emptied every trash can and discarded most of my clothes, that day when I scrubbed and mopped and threw away the things of no matter, closed the curtains in the front room, unplugged all the clocks and disconnected my phone, put on my grandmother’s only black suit, changed the sheets, and lay down on the bed, I was the one who was crazy. I was the one that should have caused everyone worry. I was the one who should have been locked up and tended to. I was the one who should have been restrained and drugged and analyzed because unlike my beautiful and gentle sister, I meant harm to everything alive and breathing.

            I meant harm to my colleagues and to my neighbors, to the doctor who could not bring himself to say she was dead but rather mumbled to me about some deleterious psychosis and charted in his notes the date and time that she “expired.” I meant harm to the chaplain who spoke of death as if it were merely waking up from a troublesome night of sleep, the librarian who wanted to fill my arms with books about grief and loss, the church lady who left loaves of bread and tins of cookies at my door, the mailman who kept bringing bills and cards and form letters from magazines for trial subscriptions, the children laughing as they passed by on the street, the birds that would not stop singing, the nurse who called to tell me I left my coat in the waiting room, and all the people watching as I entered and exited her room without saying a single word, shedding a single tear, asking a single question. I hated them all and I meant harm to every one of them.

            But of course, they never knew they were in danger. They never perceived that I could manage such evil, was capable of such heinous, horrible desires. They never asked. And if they had, they would have discovered that the harm I meant for everyone else was secondary to the harm I meant for myself. Mostly, I just wanted to die with Daisy. And for a long time I did. It was just no one knew. I took a leave of absence from law school, stayed in bed, ate only what I was left in kitchen cabinets and at the door of my apartment.

 I was crazy. I was broken. I was dead.

And then, one day I wasn’t. It took months and it took grace and it took some unexpected slight shift of sadness that slipped just enough, just barely enough to make room for beauty. And once it happened, once I saw it happen, I got up from bed and I went out to the corner market for milk and chocolate bars and I decided to live.

I am alive and breathing and I am mostly back together, damaged but still “strong in the broken places,” Hemingway would say.

            When people first asked me about my business venture, about why I do what I do, how I switched from being a student of law to a florist, I used to shake my head, look around at where I was standing, where they were asking, and I would say, “the flowers saved me.”

            Of course, that is never the answer anyone expects to hear. That is not an explanation deemed acceptable.  Most people don’t understand a relationship with plants, a love of stalks and blooms, and most people never heard about my sister’s death and my coming back to life.

            I cannot fully tell the story of being pulled out of bed one dawn in early spring by the sight of sharp verdant leaves of ivy, sharp, verdant leaves alive and somehow creeping out of a small pot, motioning me to the window. I cannot explain the burst of color, the brightest blue of the hydrangea bush, so bright it hurt my eyes, the tip of the tiniest pink crocus shadowed by slender blades of grass. I can’t articulate about the yellow monkeyflower, the sweet pea and the hollyhock or how I was saved by the soft petals of the orange rose, the color so elegant, so masterful, it literally forced breath back into my body.

I used to try and explain about my death and resurrection when I was asked in innocence or passing why I became a florist; but I soon learned it is too much of a story. It is too intimate a portrait of loss and most folks don’t want to hear of deep longings, of grief being soothed by beauty. So I never tell that story even when I’m asked how I survived the death of Daisy. I never say that I owe flowers my life and that I am simply giving back to the source of my salvation. I never say that I grow, select, arrange, and sell flowers because I now belong to them and because it is my way to honor that which snatched me from the jaws of death and set me back on the path of life.

I just mention the community college courses in floral arrangements and the chance meeting of the former owner of the florist shop in the small Washington town near my mother’s home place. I just explain about the little bit of money I had to invest and that flowers are easier to understand than people. I just say that as odd as it sounds, at the age of twenty-five, I discovered, suddenly and miraculously, that I have a gift for creating bouquets.

And of course, with that, they smile and nod and show a measure of appreciation and then ask if the price quoted on-line includes delivery. That’s really all they want to know of a life like mine anyway, and really, that’s all I should be willing to share.

And so, every morning for twenty years, I have risen and taken my place behind a counter, near a large refrigerated storage room known as the cooler, the smells of life and death mingled and waiting in every molecule of space, the deep and bright blooms from gardens near and far flashing all around, and I take in the deepest breath, holding it, closing my eyes, opening them at the moment I exhale, and I think of the magic of it all, the serendipitous magic of how a thing like grief can crack a heart wide open and how color and light, stemmed and covered in leaves, can knit it back together.

That is the real truth of who I am and what I do but most people here in Creekside don’t know anything about that. All they know is that I arrived and occupied Sam Jenkins’ place just before they put in the stoplight at the intersection of Main and Fifth Streets. They know I keep a file on everyone, remembering dates and favorite flowers.

They know my bouquets last longer and are cheaper than the flowers they order off the Internet. They know I have some knowledge of herbs and remedies and that I can take what they tell me and satisfy their desire of expression.

They know I live alone with my dog Clementine, ride my bike or walk to work, have a van for deliveries.

They know my name is Ruby Jewell, that I’m Peaches Johnson Jewell’s oldest child, Claudette and Wynon’s only living granddaughter, and that I own The Flower Shoppe.

 


Two

 

 

            “Ruby, I can’t believe I forgot again! Happy New Year, Clementine.”

The wind chime on the front door sounds, Clementine raises her head, yawns, and then settles back down; she is sleeping beneath the table, and I come around the corner. I am carrying a short clear glass vase filled with a bouquet of roses, yellow ones from Lubbock, six of them surrounded by thin stems of baby’s breath with a few slender reeds of eucalyptus and bear grass.

“They are spectacular,” Stan Marcus says, shaking his head. “Exactly what she likes. You are omnipotent.”

“Stan, I keep a data base. I knew it was your anniversary. It’s not really omnipotence when the computer sends up a flag on the calendar page.” I place the vase of roses next to the cash register. Stan is always one of my first customers of the new year. His anniversary is the fifteenth day of January. It’s typically very slow week after the holidays and I get his bouquet made early.

“I should get one of those things,” he replies.

“You don’t have a calendar page on your computer?” I ask, ringing up the sale.

“No, I don’t have a computer.” He reaches in his back pocket for his wallet.

“Oh.” I punch in the buttons, medium bouquet, no delivery, store pick-up. “Stan, you’re an accountant, how is possible for you not to have a computer?”

He hands me his credit card. “I have Marcy. She does all the data entry, prints up those fancy forms. I keep up to date on the laws from journals and sort through boxes of receipts. I didn’t start with a computer in 1962 and I just never found I needed one.” He puts his wallet on the counter. “Yellow pads,” he adds, “a carton of those and a calculator is all the computing I need.”

“It’s $37.00,” I say, running his card on the machine. “Well, maybe if you had one you’d remember your anniversary every year.” I smile.

Stan Marcus was my very first customer in Creekside. I have made a floral arrangement for every anniversary, Valentine’s, and his wife’s birthday. Lucky for Stan and for me, Viola likes flowers. He rarely modifies his gift purchases.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replies. “I guess I like finding out it’s my anniversary with a phone call. Sort of gives me a rush, like it did forty-five years ago when I asked Viola to be my wife and she said yes. When you call to remind me, it just feels like the same surprise all over again, to remember I got to meet and marry the love of my life. I like hearing it from you. It’s better than a flag on a screen.”

“Okay,” I say. “But one day Viola might like to know you went shopping for her, you know, ahead of time.” I hand him back his card and the receipt.

“Viola likes flowers. She buys herself whatever she wants but flowers, she says, should come from love.”

“And it’s a marvelous thing that you know that. It may be the reason you’re still married after forty-five years,” I note, smiling.

“Well, that and I take her over to Seattle a couple of times a year to stay at the Four Seasons. She does love a day at Nordstrom’s, a massage in the evening, and a glass of wine on the wharf at sunset.”

“Yes, I can see why she loves you. She’s a lucky woman, Stan.”

“Always and forever, I am the lucky one.” He winks at me and puts the Visa and receipt in his wallet and sticks it in his pocket. “And that is something I never forget.”

“Do you need a card?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“That has been purchased and signed.”

I know that Stan picks out Viola’s cards months in advance. He has a folder of them at his office. He told me of a particular stationery shop he visits when he goes to Post Falls to visit his mother in the nursing home. He often buys her flowers too, although she likes the dish gardens, African Violets, succulents. I always pick her out something that lasts. She doesn’t have a garden any more so she likes to take care of house plants. Stan says that it gives her a sense of responsibility.

“Thank you, Ruby.” He reaches for the vase. He lowers his face into the clump of flowers, takes in a deep breath, and grins. “Yellow roses for my girl from Texas. Some things never change.”

“Viola has always made it clear what she likes.” I close the register and rest my hands on my hips.

“See you in a couple of weeks,” he says, remembering the date of her birthday.

I nod too. I know it well.

“She’ll be sixty-five this year, you know? Doesn’t look a day over forty,” he adds.

“Then I’ll order something special from the warehouse,” I say.

He turns for the door. “You’ll find just the right thing,” he replies, “You always do. Good-bye Ruby, good-bye Clem.” He speaks again to my dog who is still sleeping soundly beneath the table behind me and does not reply.

 I watch the sway of the chime as the breeze slides in through the door when he leaves. I turn to Clementine, my yellow lab and she winks. I glance back to the street and notice the boy peeking in the window only after Stan has stepped away from the sidewalk and moved across the street.

 


 

Three

 

 

“The Flower Shoppe,” I say, answering the phone on the second ring, tugging my sweater around me. It’s a bit chilly today.

“Ruby, it’s Madeline from over at the Church.”

She doesn’t have to tell me which church because I know Madeline and I know she’s been the secretary at the Creekside Lutheran Congregation for as long as I’ve been the florist just up the street from where she works.

Ruth Jane is the secretary at St. Bedes Catholic and Miss Bertie is over at Harbor Light Baptist. There’s a Foursquare Gospel and a Free Methodist Church in Creekside as well as few other Christian meeting groups but they don’t have secretaries to order their flowers. Mostly I hear from pastors’ wives and presidents of the women councils of the other congregations; but Madeline and Ruth Jane and Miss Bertie are my best church contacts.

“Palms,” I say, noting the date on the calendar. Madeline always calls in January, a few weeks before Ash Wednesday, to order fronds for the Palm Sunday church service. A small group of women on the altar guild dry and fold them into crosses to hand out the Sunday before Easter. It takes them at least a month to do all the work.

The Catholics just give out the stems so Ruth Jane doesn’t call and order until a week before the event and the Baptists don’t order any flowers for the spring season except the lilies. They don’t care a thing about pomp and liturgy but they do want their Easter lilies to line the stage and fill the window sills at the sunrise service and they do want them full and blooming when they pick them up after the eleven o’clock hour to take them home.

“We’ll have the usual,” she says, meaning she’s ordering the stripped double palms with the split leaf fronds that I get from Plant City, Florida.

About five years ago Madeline saw a special offer listed in some church supplies catalogue for palm fronds and just ordered direct when she was getting bulletins and communion wafers and qualified for free shipping. When the palms arrived, date palm fronds, stems of short, curved, green tender blades, the palm frond cross committee called an emergency meeting with the pastor and Madeline almost lost her job.

Stripped double palms are what the members of the altar guild want and stripped double palms are all I order. Madeline doesn’t try to pinch a penny when it comes to Palm Sunday any more. She just tells me how many stems to order and who will be picking them up. She doesn’t even ask me if the price went up; she just confirms the number and name of which altar guild member will be stopping by when they arrive and stays out of it.

“Sixty?” I ask, flipping through the Lutheran Church notebook that I pulled off the shelf from beneath the register.

I use the computer calendar but I also like to keep handwritten notes on my customers. All the regular customers have their own notebook, small spiral bound notebooks, red, yellow, and blue ones that I buy in bulk, and keep for five years before moving them to boxes in a back closet and starting over.

“Sounds right,” she answers. “We never have more than forty in worship but you know how the altar guild feels about running out of palm crosses. I tried to tell them one time that we could collect the crosses we didn’t use, keep them in a good dry storage place, and save them for the next year but you would have thought I suggested that we give the organist a raise.”

I hear her take a breath.

“That is not how we do things, Madeline Margaret Marks.”

And I know she’s imitating Clarise Witherspoon. Her voice is high and pinched.

She sighs. “And that was the last time I made a suggestion to the altar guild.”

“Probably for the best,” I say.

“Daphne will pick them up,” she adds, knowing I have her number. “I also need to order two arrangements for Sunday’s service. It’s Lila’s birthday.” That is all the information I need.

Lila Masterson was the matriarch of Creekside Lutheran Church and died about six years ago. Every spring her daughter from California calls, asking to have two vases of flowers placed in the sanctuary on the Sunday closest to her mother’s birthday. She also asks that after the service Madeline takes one arrangement and places it on Lila’s grave and that the other one gets delivered to the nursing home where Lila died.

It’s a lot of work for a church secretary who only makes eight dollars an hour and lives thirty miles out of town. I started delivering the flowers on Saturday evening and picking them up after church and fulfilling the requests of the bereaved daughter three years ago when Madeline had a break down placing the order. She cried and explained that if she had one more thing to do for that church that she was pretty sure that she would be putting on the flowers on her own grave. That’s when I stepped in.

“Has it already been a year?” I ask. I glance over at my calendar. My Sunday was empty but I knew I had been considering a drive to Waits Lake this weekend. I like to see it in the winter, the thin sheets of ice forming along the shore.

“I hate to ask you to do this again,” Madeline apologizes when I don’t say anything else.

“It’s fine,” I reply. “I don’t mind.”

“Put something tropical in the arrangement,” she says. “That costs more, doesn’t it? Birds of Paradise, aren’t they expensive? Or better yet, Ruby, charge extra for your services since you have to make more than one delivery. She won’t miss the money. Lila left her a fortune.”

I smile. “I need to go to the nursing home anyway,” I say. “They have a box of vases ready for me to pick up.”

“Then charge her at least for the stop at the cemetery.”

“I will, Madeline,” I reply, knowing I won’t. The cemetery is just behind the church. I can’t really justify adding charges even if it is another stop and even if it means I can’t get to the lake. “But just to ask, how come nobody in the church won’t just pick it up and take the arrangement to her grave after the service?”

“Phhhhh…” she makes a noise as if she’s waving the thought away. “Everybody in this church is too old to walk out to the cemetery with a vase of flowers. There ain’t room on anybody’s walker for a floral arrangement. It would take the entire ladies Sunday School class to get out there and put it on the grave and even then somebody would fall and twist an ankle or break a hip. I tell you, Ruby, this place is nothing but a funeral parlor just marking one death after another.”

I shake my head. She’s been saying the same thing for ten years. Still, it’s true. Lila was eighty when she died and they all said she was the youngest soprano in the choir.

“I’ll order the palms and I’ll make sure the flowers are on the altar table Saturday evening. I’ll stop by before supper on Sunday and take them out.”

“You’re a good egg, Ruby Jewell, everybody says so.”

“You’re one of my best customers, Madeline. Got to keep those Lutherans happy even if everybody has to stick their noses in the arrangement to be able to tell what flowers I actually put in there.”

I hear a laugh.

“I’ll leave you a little something on your desk.”

“Oh, Ruby, I must say I do like that part of Lila’s birthday week.”

I smile. She knows that I always take a small vase and make an arrangement for her before delivering the flowers to the cemetery and the nursing home. I figure that’s the least I can do for a woman who takes care of so many and who always makes sure the church treasurer pays my bill first. “Tell Reverend Frederic I said hello.”

“If I see him, I’ll tell him. He hasn’t been in all week. He was off Monday and Tuesday for his sister’s surgery in Colville, had a golf game on Wednesday, a pastor’s meeting in Spokane Thursday. I had to do the bulletin without any help. I just hope he likes the hymns I picked and the opening prayer I wrote for him. If he hadn’t called this morning, I was going to make him up a sermon title.”

I laugh. “I’ll see you Madeline,” I say.

“See you too.”
            And we hang up.

I glance out the window and the boy I saw before the phone rang is gone.

The Art of Arranging Flowers

The Art of Arranging Flowers