There’s a rambunctious riot of peonies happening on my porch right now. Deep fuchsia petals in smooth satin, they flare up from a green calyx bodice. Carefully ruched and pinked, they are harbingers of late spring.
I knew WHAT a peony was as a child, thanks to the Japanese card game hanafuda, which my grandmother taught me. I called them “botan” first, before learning their English name, peony.
I can see my grandmother now, in her simple wooden house by the sea, sitting at the counter with my grandfather, tossing card after card down in an endless cycle of hanafuda games, a mug of instant coffee sitting at the ready.
My cousins taught me the rudiments of the game, which suits belonged together, which cards trumped another.
Matsu, fuji, botan, sakura, and ume.…pine, wisteria, peony, cherry, and plum respectively. These suits were the my first (and only) Japanese language flashcards.
We played the game at dusk, after fishing at sunset in the nearby tide pool. When the light grew too faint for us to see, we left the fish in peace and made our way up over the lawn by flashlight towards the beaming lights of Grandma’s house.
Safely ensconced in a screened-in veranda, with mosquito punks burning in slow coils on their metal spindles for extra protection, we would hear geckos chirp and caw at each other from the rafters and nearby coconut trees. It was a steady chip chip chip beat set to the faint murmur of the ocean three houses away. On a rare occasion, a hoot from a Hawaiian pueo would break the monotony of the geckos’ chanting.
Grape Nehi and orange Fanta were the drinks of choice, accompanied by dried ika, arare, and potato chips as we sat and played round after round of hanafuda. Huddled around low tables on zabuton, in our ubiquitous uniforms of tee shirts, shorts and bare feet, we whiled the time away as the adults sat with their beers and serious conversations.
Being the youngest of the cousins, I rarely won. But somehow, losing didn’t feel quite so bad when playing with such beautifully decorated cards. Familiar, yet foreign, these cards were a link to the plantations villages of my great-grandparents and a line across the Pacific to Japan. Not that I realized any of this back then; it’s only now that I am older that I realize a simple game interlinked us all.
Eventually, the night would grow darker, and we would head home. Yellow headlights would cut through the dust or rain, illuminating potholes, trees and the occasional owl looming out of the night along the empty country road. In the cocoon of the back seat, we would fall asleep, tucked under quilts my grandmother had sewn.
These memories come back to me each spring, when the peonies on my porch burst into bloom. An impulse purchase at a grocery store a few years ago, the plant has survived and thrived. Even the fragrance reminds me of Hawaii, of the plumeria flowers that grow everywhere in the islands.
I don’t know if my grandmother ever saw peonies in real life. They were not a flower found commonly in gardens or at florists when I was growing up. And if they were to be had, I imagine the cost alone would have prevented my grandmother from buying them. Growing up in a sugarcane plantation and raising a family during the Great Depression did not cultivate flower-buying habits in her. She was a woman of necessity, not luxury.
So now, in spite of my rush out the door, or as I return home after a frazzled day of deadlines, traffic and noise, I stop and admire the peonies. I inhale their delicate perfume, and brush their shiny petals. I drink in the vibrant pink, try to sear it deeply enough into my brain to last for another twelve months before their next appearance.
And I think of my grandmother, and hanafuda, and of a childhood by the ocean. Rosemary may be for remembrance, but botan are for my grandmother.