In principle, I’m against artificial anything. In my late thirties and early forties — long before public sensitivity and outcry about the cruelty of killing animals for their fur — I did have an artificial fur coat. I made an exception for that coat because:
(1) I couldn’t have afforded a fur coat of any kind;
(2) it was much warmer than my old cloth coat in the frosty New York winter (and down coats were about eight years into the fashion future);
(3) it mimicked the fur of some mysterious long-and-curly-haired silver grey animal nobody had ever heard of and thus did not seem to be artificial anything; it was simply itself. For a few years, I felt quite striking and — if I do say so — cutting edge whenever I wore it. People would come up to me and ask, “What kind of fur is that?” The bold even ventured to touch, although not without a preliminary “May I?” When feeling thin I wore it with a stretch leather belt that gave it shape, of sorts. When not, not. It looked good both ways.
Flowers, however, have always been another story. I know Mimi in La Boheme made artificial flowers to pay for her single-candle-lit garret, and I adored La Boheme, especially when young. [Although I did prefer Musetta, the bawdy if tender-hearted mezzo, to pure consumptive Mimi, the soprano lead.] But as the child of a mother who snipped off artificial flowers attached to dresses because they looked “cheap” and who even rejected nylon and dacron clothing when it arrived in department stores after World War II because it wasn’t “the real thing,” [i.e., cotton or silk] — I began early on to take a dim view of flower fakery.
On the other hand, real flowers are for me always tinged with sadness, unless viewed from afar on green hills carpeted with them — usually in a movie about Edwardian England — so you can hardly tell they’re flowers at all. Seen up close in their individual fragile beauty, and even when rooted in nourishing earth, they droop and die so quickly.
Do I love receiving a dozen red roses? As much as any woman alive. I snip the stems, and add the powder, and change the water in their glass vase. But I also know my efforts are doomed. As soon as tomorrow the first stem may suddenly bend down its head, the edges of the afflicted rose turn dark and curl, and I must then tenderly remove it from the others and bury it in the trash.
Am I making too much of this? Am I yielding to the pathetic fallacy? I think not. When I look at the roses, it’s all of life, but my own in particular, I see.
[Timor mortis conturbat me.]
It’s even more difficult to enjoy fresh flowers — for everyone, not just me — where the climate is extreme. The desert is too hot, New England in winter (and other places like it) too cold. Just getting fresh flowers unharmed from the store to the car, and from the car into the house is a challenge. Tuck them inside your coat, you crush them; hurry them through the frigid air from one door to the next and they suffer frostbite.
It was therefore not much of a surprise that my mother, who unlike me loved flowers without thought for tomorrow, abandoned her rigid principles about artificial ones when confronted with the realities of my father’s retirement to Palm Springs, California — where only the cactus does well unaided.
In the apartment my parents rented there, which in the end was my mother’s last apartment, she kept a large bouquet of artificial yellow chrysanthemums on a single green-wrapped stem that looked quite real. You could wash the dust off under the kitchen tap so that they seemed forever fresh and blooming. I took them back with me to Massachusetts after her death, when I dismantled the apartment and surrendered the keys to her landlord. My own principles could yield, too; the artificial chrysanthemums were part of my mother.
But they looked wrong in my classically New England condo so I brought them to the office, where I spent most of my life anyway, and stuck them in a rounded Chianti wine bottle that sat on my window sill there. A woman colleague wondered how I kept my beautiful flowers alive so long. When I told her they were fake, she said I could have fooled her and would I leave them to her in my will. She was joking, of course. I had recently mentioned that it was probably time for me to be thinking about preparing testamentary documents, which must have been what put her in mind of wills.
Sure enough, when I subsequently closed my practice eight years ago, she only wanted my clients, not the flowers. The last time I saw my mother’s chrysanthemums, during a final goodbye visit to the law firm, they were stem up in a wastebasket by the coffee machine, with the yellow blossoms crushed down among chunks of stale doughnut and discarded styrofoam cups. Really crushed. I know because I checked. Otherwise I might have rescued them again, at the last minute.
Well, what could I do? Keep all her possessions? So that my children – her grandchildren – would eventually have to deal with them?
My mother’s ashes are interred in a cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the street from the back windows of the condo apartment in which I used to live. Now I live a six-to-seven-hour drive away. However, the cemetery is very good about reminding me when it’s time to order from their shop. Every Christmas, Easter and Memorial Day I get a notice and order form for the appropriate tribute of the season. I can buy an evergreen basket, with pine cones and little red berries, at Christmastime. And white, red, pink or yellow tulips at Easter and Memorial Day. They take away the evergreen basket at the end of January, I think. And the tulips bloom and die on their own, after which their pots are removed as well. [The cemetery grounds are neatly kept.]
But sometimes I now wish they would also offer artificial flowers. Then I would order my mother a big bunch of artificial yellow chrysanthemums that would survive snow and ice and the blazing heat of summer [with a little help from the cemetery staff] and fool everyone who passed that way into thinking my mother’s flowers were real. Real forever.