Amy Tan on grief, gardenias and first short story

Sydney Mag . Garden at 11 Burrabirra Ave Vaucluse . journo  Paul Urquart . Gardenia . Pics by Tanya Lake 4th November 2004 . SPECIAL 00029736
Sydney Mag . Garden at 11 Burrabirra Ave Vaucluse . journo Paul Urquart . Gardenia . Pics by Tanya Lake 4th November 2004 . SPECIAL 00029736

When I wrote my first short story, I used the image of a gardenia. The story concerned a woman who was struggling to understand the sudden death of her husband. It was heavily influenced by my own emotional experiences with the sequential deaths of my older brother, Peter, and my father.

When my brother died, flowers arrived at our house, offerings of condolences in the form of carnations, chrysanthemums, roses, asters, lilies, and gardenias. My father had been the guest minister of many churches, and their clergy as well as the church members had all prayed for the needed miracle. Their floral outpouring of sympathy lined our kitchen counter and dining room table. Some were set on our coffee table in the living room. A similar variety of flowers arrived at our house when my father died six months later. I recall the colourful array of flowers and their mingled scent.

I remember thinking about the cost of all those flowers. My parents rarely bought flowers. They were an unnecessary extravagance. The condolence flowers wilted within the week, but we kept them until the petals fell off and the stems rotted and smelled like dead flesh. Life is fleeting. You can't hang on to it. That was the meaning of those flowers.

I had once thought gardenias were the best flowers. They had a heavy perfume, creamy white petals, and thick glossy leaves. A wristlet of gardenias was the coveted flower of high school proms. But after my brother's funeral, I no longer liked gardenias. Their beauty and scent belied their purpose as the messenger of grief. When gardenias arrived after my father died, the smell was nauseating.

In my story Gardenias, I used the imagery of a room choked full of gardenias. The dark green leaves were viewed as stiff and sharp enough to cut tender skin. Their heads bowed as they died and the creamy white petals turned brown at the edges and curled like the fingers of corpses.

That was indeed the image I had of them, which was why the smell of them had become as repulsive. They were the same odour of the rotted stems, the odour of dead bodies. Those flowers became the imagery of grief I could not express as a teenager hiding in my room. In the end, my metaphor broke under the burden of meaning so much that I had to abandon the story. But the heart of it - the nature of grief - remains mine.

This is an extract from Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan, published by Fourth Estate, RRP $32.99.

This story Amy Tan on grief, gardenias and first short story first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.