Living in the Moment: Life Lessons From Flowers

My mother never allowed herself to fully enjoy fresh flowers. She did not encourage them as gifts. But smiled and thanked my father for his holiday offerings before Rosh Hashanah or the Passover Seder — the only times he brought flowers home.

He usually chose long gladiola stems with only the lower buds beginning to bloom. I learned it was a way to pace their beauty. A wise strategy when something was not long for this world.

She made a pleasant fuss arranging them in a large, water-filled crystal vase. And placed them center stage, on the credenza in the living room. I remember her ruefully shaking her head when she tossed the spent flowers some days later. As though they had delivered only disappointment – their beauty forgotten.

She never brought flowers to sick friends. Maybe a plant. But if it was a flowering plant, she needed to know it would thrive even after it stopped blooming.

My parents were holocaust survivors. They had lost everything — home and family and youth to the war. And started their lives again fueled by hope and the life force that had miraculously survived with them.

Now, a lifetime later and 10 years since they have been gone, I realize that expense was only a small part of what rendered flowers such an elusive pleasure. To enjoy something that might last for only a few days, required an easy acceptance of its inevitable end. But with a history punctuated by tragic endings, embracing short-lived beauty may have been impossibly ambitious. At least for my mother.

For her, it wasn’t only flowers. It was anything that would, with normal use, show signs of wear. Upholstered furniture. Shoes or purses or clothes. Items that even hinted at a luxurious pedigree warranted vigilance. The simple solution: to hardly use them at all. Preserve them for that “state occasion” that almost never materialized.

The couch in our living room was always covered in a brown sheet. Except when company came on holidays. And even then, no one was encouraged to sit for more a few minutes. Nothing edible was ever offered to guests in that room.

I don’t remember my mother ever sitting on that couch or any of the living room furniture. Apron on, she would bustle between the kitchen and living room, counting down to when she could hustle the guests into the dining room.

I was always surprised to see what lay beneath that brown sheet: cut velvet fabric with a leafy green pattern she loved. Yet I never questioned the decision to cover it. We didn’t really use the living room. Why not leave it uncovered and enjoy the view.

I remember returning to empty my mother’s closets a few months after she died. I saw the suit she wore to my high school graduation. And other familiar, now “vintage” clothes. Cloaked in protective garment bags, they seemed preserved in amber. I found purses and cashmere sweaters I had given her, their fashion moment long gone. I knew they had hardly been worn.

I am fortunate to come from a different time and place. But living in the moment did not come easily to me. I resisted indulging myself in things with a limited shelf life. Like my mother, it was hard to woo me with flowers. But years ago-- in an effort to defy destiny --I tried to nudge the apple a little farther from the tree.

I started with the least expensive flowers from the farmer’s market. And made the most of the moment by engaging at every esthetic juncture. Over the years, I had assembled a collection of vases -- an impulse that mysteriously preceded putting them to full use. I took great care selecting a vase and creating arrangements that elevated them beyond their humble pedigree. I did freshen the water every day for a few more days of life. But felt no disappointment when they came to their end.

I still don’t long for flowers as a special gift. But I have learned to take pleasure in their short-lived loveliness. Even during the winter, I make frequent trips to Trader Joe’s for colorful blooms to brighten the cold grey days.

More recently -- perhaps inspired by Marie Kondo and her tidying-up treatise – I am trying to edit. To keep only what I love. But having stuff that “sparks joy” is not enough. Maximizing the joy quotient means using it before it achieves vintage status.

I am no slave to fashion. But I am a women of a certain age. When I am dressed in a way that is more of the moment, I feel less invisible. More relevant. Yet my best new things – even those most casual – were often left to languish.

Now, haunted by my mother’s closet, I feared my things might outlive me. I could feel it in my gut: it made no sense to save them for another day. The emotional calculus in which preservation trumped pleasure vanished. I could wear what I love. No guilt required.

Happily, my daughter’s love of flowers is instinctive and joyful. There is always a vase of beautiful blooms on her table. They are mostly from the farmer’s market. Hers is in San Francisco with gorgeous flowers almost all year long. She also delights in the beautiful arrangements her husband sends as gifts for birthdays and anniversaries. She never seems to mourn their ending. When they are “done”, she happily files their beauty as a warm memory.

My 3-year old granddaughter helps her choose flowers on their weekly trip to the farmer’s market. Recently, she proudly showed me a vase overflowing with pink and orange flowers she loved. Smiling, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least some of my emotional baggage had not journeyed to new generations.

I wonder about my father. And what freed him to enjoy flowers. I know he loved nature. Perhaps that enabled an innate comfort with its perennial endings and renewals.

Long before I knew it might be a cliché, he taught me to stop and smell the lilacs when they bloomed in the spring. And how to inhale the fresh scent of pine trees. He would hold up pine cones inviting me to marvel at their mysterious symmetry.

In the fall, when the maple trees were ablaze and shedding their leaves, we rescued the most fiery ones from the ground. At home, they were pressed between the pages of his heaviest books to preserve them. I don’t remember ever retrieving them. Did he find it reassuring to know they were there? Something beautiful, safely hidden away that could be enjoyed at will.

On my frequent visits to San Francisco, my daughter and I take long walks in a beautiful park near her home. Old, graceful eucalyptus trees perfume the air. The scent is intoxicating. We talk as my new grandson naps in his stroller. It is a peaceful place where I like to take deep breaths and count my blessings.

I used to wish there was a way to bottle this air and take it back to Chicago. But not anymore. It is the simple gift of a moment in time. I gratefully inhale its magic when I am there. And dream of returning to do it again.