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Peonies, lilacs, and the Indy 500

Editor’s note: I wrote the following for The Polk Street Review, Noblesville, Indiana’s best (and only) literary review.  The book was divided into monthly sections this year, and because of my love for the Indy 500, I was asked to write about the month of May.  It touches on a little more than just the race.  If you grew up in small-town Indiana in the 1960’s, you will understand.

Early each spring, my neighbors look out their windows and see me standing by my garage staring at the ground.  The grass is not yet green, and the leaves on the trees are still buds.  My neighbors don’t know it, but I’m waiting for my old friend the peony bush to push its way out of the mulch and thus begin my countdown to the month of May.

I’m a perennial guy.  You can keep your petunias, begonias, and marigolds.  An annual just doesn’t have the heart of a perennial.  They may last longer and have prettier blooms, but annuals are just so transitory.  Give me reliability over flash anytime.  Perennials are something you can trust.  The perennials I trust bloom three times in the month of May: once with the peony, once with the lilac, and once with the Indianapolis 500.

The peony bush requires some explanation.  I remember being taught that the peony, pronounced with three syllables and a long “e” sound, was our state flower. I never connected that flower with the peony bush, pronounced with two syllables that sound like  pine with a “y” at the end: piney.  That’s how it was pronounced in the Shirley, Indiana of my youth.  I was stunned to find out that they were the same flower.  The peony is one of the hoi polloi of flowers, a blue collar bloom if there ever was one.  It’s deep green leaves and stalks grow quickly and sport massive buds that bloom into large, heavy, ant covered flowers that explode and fade in the month of May.  After that riot of color, it resumes a plebeian life of ugliness and lives out the year on the borders of properties, waiting again for its fleeting moment of glory.

Small town people understand the peony.  They appreciate its toughness and resiliency.  They admire the springtime beauty that requires no extra attention, no extra cultivation, no extra love.  That is how small town people have lived their lives in Indiana for over a century.  The peony is a paean to Hoosier life.  So every year I stand by my garage and stare at the ground, waiting for my favorite flower to announce once again that spring is here.  And every year it brings memories of the end of school, dewy mornings, and the month of May.

As the peony flowers sag to the ground under their own weight or become victims of the baseball bats of boys, the lilac’s purple flowers remind us that beauty can be both seen and smelled.  Our yard had only two beautiful things: the peonies in front of the house and the lilac bush out by the alley.  Growing up in a house where making a living took most of their time, my parents never added beauty to the property.  I am sure that both the peonies and the lilacs were planted long before we ever moved into the house on the corner of White and Shirley Streets.  Even so, we took time out to walk around the lilac every year, basking in the fragrance of its purple flowers.  That such a beautiful and wonderful thing existed in our yard always amazed us, although we never spoke about it.  Beauty was never spoken of in our house.  We acknowledged its existence silently, internally.  It was as if beauty was reserved for others, for special people who somehow deserved it.  The lilac was our beauty.

Today, the scent of the lilac sends me back to the innocent wonder of beauty in our backyard.  I cannot explain where that sweet purple smell takes me.  It is not a certain place, time, or event.  It is not one achingly beautiful or sad moment, nor is it one game of catch in the backyard with my dad.  It is all of those things.  The lilac whispers to me in a voice I can’t quite hear, describing things I can’t quite see, about a moment I can’t quite remember.  The lilac makes me cry.  It is the essence of May.

But all is not rural dialect and maudlin reminisces.  Even though the natural beauty of flowers and shrubs are touchstones for the month of May to me, a man-made event culminates the month and has dominated my interest since I can remember.  The Indianapolis 500 makes the month of May the centerpiece of my existence.  Time is measured as before or after the race.  Only in Indiana can you say “I’m going to the race” or “I’m going to the track,” and no one ever asks what race or which track.  There is only one of each.

May was listening to Sid Collins announce “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on the radio.  You were one of two tribes: A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti.  You could not be both.  You read both the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News to make sure you did not miss any stories about the race.  It was almost beyond belief that this event was taking place just down the road.  It was ours.

When I was ten years old, the impossible happened.  My brother told me I could go to the race with him.  On the afternoon before the race, a highly modified 1953 GMC panel truck with the sides cut out and a platform on top pulled into our driveway.  A local tavern owner and his cronies had built it for the sole purpose of going to the 500.  It was the most exotic thing I had ever seen.  As my mother frowned powerfully, we headed to Speedway to spend the night on 16th Street.  In the morning we rode our bright blue chariot into the track and up to the fence in the second turn.  I have been going ever since.  Just like the peonies and the lilacs, the Indy 500 is one of my May perennials.

I have five peonies next to my garage, two lilacs in my backyard, and ten tickets to the Indianapolis 500.  My children go to the race with me every year.  My son has peonies planted next to his garage, and my daughter cuts lilac blooms from my bushes to put on her kitchen counter.  My perennials have become theirs. Maybe one day they will tell their own children about their first race.  Maybe my daughter will smell lilacs with her grandchildren.  And maybe one day, my son’s neighbors will see him standing next to his garage staring at the ground.



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