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The Peonies for Her
Nearly everyone has a tendency to judge another’s personality or circumstances based upon first glance. They are overcome with emotions, be it anger or even excitement, and any sort of explanation of the situation falls upon deaf ears. I had always subconsciously known this, yet I had pushed it to the back of my mind. However, this habit was brought to light by an old woman who had caught me at a low point in my life.
The peonies were a subtle pastel pink. I was crouched behind the fence, glancing over my shoulder every minute or so. My thumb and forefinger grasped the delicate stem of each flower before plucking it up from the ground. I had about five or so gathered up in my hand. It was the middle of June and the morning sky was bright. The air around me was warm and moist from the rain we had had the night before. Every once in awhile the tips of my fingers would brush across a damp petal or stem. I tried to pick the flowers quickly. My eyes wandered over the sea of pink, looking for the plant with the most perfect petals. Once I found it I would carefully snap the stem using one hand and add it to my growing collection in the other.
I had been doing this every week for the past two months. I felt slightly remorseful about it as I didn’t even know who’s yard I was in. I didn’t want to get caught and get into an argument, but I needed these flowers. I didn’t have enough money to buy my own. The flowers that grew here were some of the prettiest I had ever seen, and it was relatively easy for me to get them. Every Sunday morning at around 9:00 I would begin my walk across town to the cemetery. The street with the house with the flowers marked the halfway point between where I was staying and my destination. I would turn onto a street that ran parallel to the one the flower house was on. I then would keep walking until I was in front of the fence that encased the backyard. I would hop the fence, gather a dozen or so peonies, and then get back onto the road leading to the cemetery all in 10 minutes.
I was clutching the thin stem of my seventh flower in my right hand when I heard a screen door slam from behind me. It was loud and almost seemed to echo through the yard. Whoever was behind me was angry.
“Who do you think you are? This is private property! You can’t just come here and ruin my garden! This has been going on for weeks and I’m putting a stop to it right now!”
I quickly stood up from my crouched position, my legs sore from being bent for so long. I whipped around to see the owner of the yard. It was an old woman, her back hunched over from age and labor. Her hair was short and dyed a reddish-orange with her gray roots beginning to show. The wrinkles on her face were abundant and crinkled in anger. She stepped down from her porch, using her wooden cane for support. She kept shouting at me as she made her way across the grass.
“I’ve worked so hard out here and you think you can just come destroy all my work! Who’s so special that you’re stealing flowers from a poor old woman for them? Why can’t you just buy her flowers? Wouldn’t that be easier? No! Instead, you come and destroy all of my hard work! You’re only thinking of yourself!”
She was a few feet away from me by now and she kept slowly moving forward. Her voice was shrill and full of rage. I hadn’t said anything yet, trying to think up an excuse as to why I was doing this. I shifted the last peonie I had picked from my right hand to the bundle in my left. I wouldn’t dare let them go. I had gotten eight before she came and interrupted me. It wasn’t my usual twelve, but if she kicked me out or I had to run they would have to do. I was lost in my thoughts when she finally paused. I had stopped listening so I didn’t know what she wanted.
She took a breath and said, “Well?”
I was confused. What did I miss?
I could feel my heart pounding and my voice came out shaky, “What do you mean?”
“Were you even listening? Who are you going to meet? I want to meet them. Then I can tell them what a nuisance you are!”
She was still shouting, only about two feet in front of me now. She stopped and was seething. I had no clue who this lady was, and now she wanted to come with me.
I really didn’t want her to come, but this lady was not about to be reasoned with.
The woman turned on her heel and began to walk towards the gate leading to the front yard. I followed silently behind her. The gate creaked open and I saw the front lawn. We walked to the sidewalk silently, a large bundle of pink in my hand. I was wondering why she hadn’t taken them away from me yet.
“Well, which way are we going?” The woman had spoken up in a harsh tone. She was clearly still very angry.
“We have to go to the main road, from there it’s about a half of a mile.” This was the first time I had actually spoken to her. I felt myself shaking and my voice echoed with nervousness. She had paused and was waiting to follow behind me.
I stepped forward and led the way. One foot in led front of the other until we reached the end of her street. I turned to the right, not even checking to see if she was behind me.
The walk seemed to drone on and on for the longest time. The woman radiated anger and I could feel her eyes drilling holes into my back. My uneasiness grew and my palms began to sweat. My grip on the flowers was causing an indent in the stems. I switched the peonies from my left hand to my right. What would the old lady think once she saw where we were really going? Would she be more understanding? I hoped so.
The cars raced by in a blur and I distracted myself from the situation at hand by watching them. There was a flurry of colors ranging from cherry red to a deep purple passing by. Each had a different person with their own life. They had their own stories and somewhere they needed to be. Most appeared to be listening to music, some looked as if they were angry. Though, every once in awhile someone would pass by and they would be texting or holding a phone to their ear. I counted how many were distracted by their phones and the numbers racked up. One, two, three, four… I stopped counting at six. I didn’t understand why people couldn’t just put their phone down. Was it really that important that you had to put not only your life but another person’s life in danger? I couldn’t look anymore.
I could see the cemetery by now. The granite stones rose above the dirt and grass in even rows. The fence around the area was a dark metal and glimmered with dew drops from the night before. I kept my pace even until we reached the gate. Then I paused.
I tilted my head to the side to look at the old woman. My eyes locked with hers. Her gaze was no longer one of anger, but rather a more comforting and remorseful one. I let out a sigh and turned back to the gate.
I pushed open the gate and started down the path I had memorized. My right hand that held the flowers began to shake. I turned my head up to the sky as I walked on. The weeping willows that were planted alongside the path rose high above my head. The branches hung low with the ends brushing against the dirt and grass. The air was peaceful and the only sounds that broke the silence were the chirps of birds flying about. I turned to my right and walked down a row of headstones until I reached the one I was looking for. The woman behind me was quiet. Her footsteps were slow and gentle, unlike how harsh they were earlier.
The stone was silver and speckled with spots of black and white. There were small spots that sparkled in the morning sun and the engraving was done in gold. I kneeled down in front of the stone and picked up the week-old peonies that were there. In their place I put the eight pink healthy flowers down on the lot. I stayed kneeling and the woman came to sit down next to me.
The old lady read off what was written, “‘In loving memory of Charlotte Rose Atchison. December 14, 1990 - March 17, 2016.’”
The air was tense and I knew she was curious. I began to recount what had happened, “She was on her way to work. She worked as a hostess at a restaurant nearby, but she was an aspiring writer and was in the midsts of writing her debut novel. She always walked to work as we didn’t own a car and we lived with a friend of ours. It wasn’t a far walk but she needed to cross main roads and intersections. As she was crossing the intersection down by the lake she was hit by a car. The restaurant was so close, she was nearly there and suddenly fate decided to take away her life. The driver was a man in his early thirties. He was an idiot, texting his wife while driving. He didn’t even notice that the light had turned red. Charlie didn’t even see it coming. The doctors said she was killed on impact; that the collision slammed her head so hard that it caused a cessation in brain activity. That was just three months ago. It’s been so hard without her here with me. I never got to speak to her again, or see her beautiful face in front of me except at her funeral. I love her so much.”
It was silent for a bit after that. We sat there in front of the grave of my wonderful fiancé for a while, just thinking. Then the woman, whom I still didn’t know her name, shattered the atmosphere.
The old lady had realized her mistake. She had been blinded by her rage and had not given me any chance to explain myself before demanding to speak with a person that, had she let me speak, she would have known was dead. It was that day that I realized just how quick to judge people truly are. The fact of the matter is, though most of us know that it’s wrong, it is human nature, and old habits die hard.