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October 22, 2003
I understand that when they finally opened all the nested coffins of gorgeous painted wood and gold leaf and gold gold that contained the mortal reminas of King Tutankhamen -- I think he had seven coffins -- and peeled away his linen wrapping, they found a necklace of flowers around his neck. and I understand that the desert dryness had preserved them, so that their colors were still visible, after all those thousands of years.

I thought of that last week while visiting Long Island. At lunch, I talked with Kay. "I've got some time this afternoon, after my last appontment," I said. "What if I came over and looked at your flowers? "

I've been wanting to see her garden ever sine I heard about it. She is famous in her area -- in fact, she's nationally known -- for her genius with drying flowers. She grows them and dries them. She does flowers for Williamsburg, where I imagine they know a thing or two about what they want in dried flowers. She has a little room in her big old house, in which that's all she does.

The dahlias were visible from far away -- great, bright blooms, beautifully staked upright -- not like mine, which sprawl all over the place because I staked them too late. Many rosebushes with many roses. Many sedums, their flowers turned blood red by the nip in the air. Still some cosmos, seeming to float above the foliage of the rest of the garden. Hydrangea, turning their fall colors on their bushes. Bushy basil plants, three feet high. I've never seen it that tall, or that bushy. Mine are bonsai by comparison. She said that the Italian man who helps her with some heavy things arrived one day last year with a load of manure. They dumped it on a plot and let it sit all winter. You wouldn't believe what grows in there now, or how big it grows.

Inside, the house is cool and spacious. It used to be a house for the workmen on the estate of which it is a part: a dozen or more single men, living together. But that was long ago. When she and her husband bought it, it was a perfect place for their four daughters to grow and play. Over the fireplace hangs a painting of the girls, a conversation piece: each girl busy with her hobby of the moment -- a dancer in a tutu, a pianist, a young artist, lying on her tummy drawing in her sketchbook, a scholar with her books -- preserved forever in the pursuits of their childhood. Those little girls are grown women now. Middle aged. Mostly not doing the things they did when they were little. But remembered forever by their mother. There is a painting of her, too, when she was young. Beautiful, but not more beautiful than she is today. Just a different beautiful.

Upstairs the flowers are also remembered forever. They are entombed in a powdery substance called "silica gel," which sucks the right out of them over a period of weeks, and then they emerge, perfectly shaped and perfectly colored, just the slightest sepia tone to all their brightness. For they are no longer living. It is just their bodies we see. And their bodies are beautiful. But just a little sepia, like an old photograph. Just a little sad. Here we are, they say. Yes, it's us. But we no longer live.

She reinforces their stems with wire and wraps them in tape, so the stems can be bent to a proper shape for the arrangement in which they will dwell. Tulips, frozen in time, delphinia still almost their original brilliant blue. Complicated dahlias, arranged by color, caught at their peak and stopped forever. Roses in their tight swirls of buds. "I cheat a little on the leaves sometimes," she says. "I paint them just a bit here and there."

To see life arrested in the midst of its greatest beauty -- a portrait, a dried flower -- is a curious delight. A delight tinged with sadness. The gentle touch of a fingertip on a petal reveals all: it is dry, crisp, not soft and yielding, as it was when it was alive. That was a long time ago.

Some of us will look pretty good after the undertaker finishes with us. Better than we looked when we were alive, some of us. So natural, people will think we should get up, will be unable to believe we're not alive. And they will touch our crossed hands, wanting to feel our soft skin again. But we will not be soft. We will be very hard. And cool.

"Oh, I see," they will say to themselves, pulling back their hands from our hardness. "I see." Our softness is elsewhere now, our physical softness and warmth alive only in memory, our pliable souls gone home, far away from the flower-like beauty that lies so still as people pass by and whisper.

It was wonderful to see this, I tell my hostess. She beams. She is the custodian of the memory of flowers, the midwife of their ongoing song of the brief life they had in the summer sun. Come back any time, she says. I can come back. I can see the memory of summer flowers in the winter there in that little room in that big house. And then I can step out into the cold air of winter, suck it into my lungs and feel my eyes tear with the shock of it, hear my living feet crunch snow, see diamonds of ice on bare branches, catch the pinking sky as the winter sun slants toward evening.
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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