Resurrection of the Beauty of Carnations

Sometimes, when things spring without warning from one’s long-buried subconscious, inexplicable biases become instantly transparent. So it was this morning as I glanced at a vase on the kitchen island. Almost all the flowers in the vase, full of carnations, remain attractive and alive after more than a week. The stem of one carnation, though, had given up. The flower, still pretty, hung upside down from the point at which the bent stem had failed to carry the load.

I should mention that, until many years into my adulthood, I had considered carnations rather unattractive. They struck me as weeds, dressed up in a failed attempt to look attractive. I never quite understood why I found the flowers visually offensive; for some reason I just thought they looked artificial and cheap.

Back to the vase full of attractive carnations, with the one flower dangling upside down in defeat. That vanquished flower triggered a memory from deep, deep in my childhood. It was a memory of leche quemada, a Mexican treat that (in my experience) uses Carnation Sweetened Condensed Milk. I loved the stuff, but I think I remember cans of the sweet milk looking worn and tired after being heated in boiling water during the process of making leche quemada. The woman who made the stuff was Petra, a Mexican housekeeper my parents engaged to look after me and clean house while my folks were away at work.

This took place in Brownsville, Texas, so I would have been five years old or younger (we moved away before I turned six). My mother was a schoolteacher and my father was lumber wholesaler, so they had to have someone look after me while they were away at work. Petra lived in Matamoros, I think, a city just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. She crossed the border every day, I believe, to come care for me. And she made leche quemada as a sweet treat. I loved the stuff. For years afterword, I longed for Petra to come back and make it for me. But, as I mentioned, the cans of Carnation Sweetened Condensed Milk looked ragged and pretty shabby after Petra finished with them. I am relatively sure the image of the ragged carnation flower on the can is how I came to view the real flowers as unattractive, artificial imitations of “real” flowers. And that bias, I believe, is what made me find carnations unappealing for years and years afterward. In fact, I think it was when we lived in Dallas (during or after 1997, it would have been), that my wife’s purchase of vases full of carnations that I finally overcame my bias against them. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate their beauty and their tenacity; they last far longer than many other flowers one finds in the typical floral arrangement.

All of these recollections poured from my subconscious this morning before I put away the dishes from the dishwasher and before I made coffee. The speed of memory, often slow and torturous, can be blazingly fast on occasion. And now, I must remember to go to Walmart to buy trash bags and fruits and, if I can find it, low sugar butterscotch pudding. The pudding is for my wife, to aid in swallowing too damn many pills and to make that unpleasant process a little sweeter, a little more tolerable. While I’m there, I’ll try to buy a watermelon (very late for them, but my wife loves the flavor and I think Walmart must have a source for off-season watermelons), some blueberries and strawberries, and maybe a 3-way bulb for a lamp that is, for the moment, dark.

Off I go.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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