I’m 10 years old and seated at the dining table, listlessly trying to memorize South American capitals for a geography test the next day. As I contemplate why “Lima” in Peru isn’t pronounced like the “lima” of beans, my gaze lands upon our table centerpiece—a footed bowl of faded faux fruit. Within it, a bunch of rubbery green grapes reveals six exposed prongs, a reminder that during a recent party, an unsuspecting soul had plucked and eaten them. (One or two I can imagine, but six?)
I thought about the party’s guest of honor: my cousin, Lee Bailey, author of some two dozen books on food and entertaining. While visiting our home shortly before the occasion, Lee immediately zeroed in on the bowl of “fruit” and decided it had to go. Instead, he enlisted my help to find readily available flora and appropriate vases.
We snipped camellias from bushes out front, and placed the blooms and their leaves, interspersed with sprigs of fresh pine needles, on shallow plates of water on a tiered dessert stand. “Et voilà! Our new centerpiece,” Lee said, banishing the fruit bowl to the den.
We broke off tall branches from unruly shrubs at the side of our house and set them in an umbrella stand near the front door. Pansies deemed “leggy” joined other bits of greenery in Blue Willow egg cups to line our mantelpiece. He also fashioned a single gardenia for my mother to wear as a corsage, which halfway through the party found its way into her hair.
Recalling how lovely the house had been that evening, I eschewed my homework, and set out to replace our forlorn fruit bowl once again.
My mother would be home from work within the hour, so I headed out the back porch and down an alley to collect some pretty flowers I’d recently seen, ones I now know as daffodils. Alas, they were gone. Farther down the way, some azalea bushes were in bloom but too fiercely guarded by bees for my liking.
I soon came to a wooded path leading to the back of an antebellum manse where tourists were milling about for the annual Spring Pilgrimage in Natchez. (The home shall be unnamed because, well, I’m still living — and so are its inhabitants.) As I drew closer to the place, I spied rows of yellow flowers, standing stalwart, their buds half open like eyes adjusting to the sun. I didn’t know the name of the flowers, but I was certain Lee would approve, noting how “marvelous” they would look on the table.
With so many of them in sight, surely a few wouldn’t be missed. And besides, as Lee had said, “Why leave all of nature’s beauty outside? Bring some indoors whenever you can.”
After ensuring no one was around, I tugged on one of the flowers to see how easily it could be obtained. The stem broke instantly, leaving the bloom best suited for a Bama jelly jar. I’d need to clutch closer to the base. On my next try, out came the entire plant, roots, dirt, and all. The third time, I snapped the flower beneath where its leaves gathered. Perfect! I repeated this act at least six times until I had what I thought would fill one of our vases. At about that point, a couple with cameras and a brochure stopped their walk around the grounds and looked my way — perhaps to marvel at the flowers I’d amassed? Whatever the case, I had a hunch that my flower picking needed to end.
Back in our kitchen I rinsed the dirt from the leaves and used scissors to cut the stems to lengths right for the vase, plugging holes here and there with leaves. I made sure to wipe the vase and let the bottom completely dry before placing the vase on our table. (Water rings were wont to send my mother into orbit.) I moved the flower bowl back to the den, cleaned the sink to remove all evidence of my flower arranging work, and eyed my masterpiece of gleaming yellow from all angles of the room to ensure it was just right.
After hearing my mother’s car pulling up our steep gravel driveway, I raced back to my chair and geography studies. I couldn’t wait to see how delighted she would be. Not wanting to gloat, I buried my head in my textbook.
The front door opened as usual, and her purse dropped into a nearby chair as usual, but after a few steps into the living room, which faced the dining room, she stopped in her tracks.
“Deedee?” she asked.
“Yes?” I said, not looking up.
“Where did those tulips come from?”
Oh, that’s what they’re called, tulips!
“Um . . . from out back,” I replied. “Aren’t they pretty?”
“From where out back?”
“Near the woods.”
“They were just growing wild back there.”
“Would you mind showing me where you found them growing wild?” she asked.
What is the matter with her? They’re beautiful flowers. Why focus on irrelevant details?
“Um … they’re not there anymore. These are the ones I found.”
“Honey, someone planted those,” she said. “Tulips don’t grow wild.”
Silence. Then more silence. Then glaring.
“Let’s go outside. Show me where they were growing.”
Reluctantly, I led her through the woods to the garden of the sprawling house. The remaining tulips came into view.
“See?” I said. “Look how many there are.”
It didn’t take her long to home in on where I’d done my dirty work.
“Oh, how awful!” she said with a grimace, walking right to a spot I thought I’d cleverly concealed. “What if someone saw you?”
“Nobody saw me,” I assured her.
Except for those tourists.
Sighing deeply, Mama turned to walk home. I trailed behind her in embarrassment, hoping the matter finished.
Once back in the dining room, she picked up the vase, inspected it, and muttered, “I guess we can let this go.”
Oh, thank goodness. I’m in the clear!
“Take these flowers to Mrs. SuchAndSuch right this minute,” she said, referring to the owner of the Home-Not-Named-Because-I’m-Still-Alive. “I’ll go with you and wait while you give her the flowers and apologize for what you did.”
What? How could flower arranging be so punishing?
Flustered but eager to appease, I complied with her demand. Together, we walked back through the wooded area. Mama stopped at the edge of the woods as I continued toward the house, where a lady was sweeping the back porch. She smiled as I approached.
“Could you please give these to Mrs. SuchAndSuch?” I asked. “They’re a gift.”
“Well, how nice,” the lady replied, curiously eyeing the vase of haphazard tulips. “Who should I say they’re from?”
Hmm. Mrs. SuchAndSuch doesn’t know me from Eve. But she does know my mother.
“Freddie Lee Gee,” I said. “We live just down the way.”
“Oh, OK then,” the lady said. “I’ll . . . be sure to tell her.”
Whew! Done and done.
I rejoined my mother and back to the house we went.
“Do you realize that someone got down on their hands and knees and planted all the bulbs that made those flowers? Probably many, many years ago? And that tulips only grow once a year, for about a week? Those are precious, precious flowers,” Mama said.
At that point, she stopped to face me. “Look at me and promise that you will never, ever take anyone else’s flowers.”
Noting her seriousness, I replied in kind.
“I promise,” I said. And it would be a promise I’d keep.
Mama and I didn’t speak much the rest of the evening. Her fruit bowl was put in its rightful place — and so was I.
Text by Denise Gee
In our 2022 essay series, author Denise Gee shares memories and personal tales that celebrate the inimitable joys and escapades of Southern life. A Natchez, Mississippi, native, she is the author of six acclaimed books on Southern entertaining and design. Denise has worked for decades as a writer, editor, and stylist for magazines including Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens and Coastal Living—and now, Southern Lady. She and her photographer-husband, Robert Peacock, make their home in McKinney, Texas. For more, visit denisegee.com.
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