I’m glad that peonies are Indiana’s state flower. That’s why I had Marilyn Witt paint them for the cover of the new book, one of several nods to Indiana's Bicentennial.
In reality though, unless there is some secret tip or clever remedy that I am yet to learn (do share!), peonies are not a great indoor vase flower. They tend to contain ants. Big black ones!
Nonetheless, I am unfazed in my love for peonies. They are big and beautiful, showy and zero maintenance. They have sturdy stems and they come in pretty shades of pink and white. I don't know of an outdoor flower that's any prettier, nor one as loyal as a perennial.
I’m most familiar with white ones, as we had a couple of white peony bushes at home when I was growing up. I'm sure they are still out there on the farm because these bushes seem to last forever no matter what attention you don’t give them and really, does anyone ever give a peony bush maintenance attention of any kind?
They always bloom, without fail, at one of the happiest, if not THE happiest time of the year, around Memorial Day. It’s when Indiana is at its greenest, things are blooming, school is newly out for the summer and when I was a girl, it also meant that my nieces Lisa and Marlene were staying with us for the weekend while their family went to the Indianapolis 500.
It was always great weekend! We created our own variety shows where we sang tunes such as "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" or "Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man." And since Lisa and Marlene were Dixon Dancers, they reprised their recital programs. We cranked up the music on the record player that was part of our massive TV console in the living room, which served as our "sound system." We also hosted, along with the show, a Miss Lisa-Donna Queen Pageant.
The queen candidates were some combination of Barbara, Patsy and Susan Earl, Marlene and Lisa Jobe. The audience consisted of my mom, along with the younger Earl girls. I wanted to be queen, would have loved to have been queen, but I was too busy producing the spectacle to compete for the tiara, which Lisa and I crafted out of tinfoil.
I associate peonies with those shows and those weekends. I’m sure I created corsages with peonies. I loved corsages about as much as I loved tiaras. And who am I kidding? I still love them both.
I think corsages, the traditional kind, the ones you wear pinned high on your blouse and can smell all day long when you brush your chin up against the delicate petals, are wonderful. Peonies were always blooming, and blooming and blooming, in our yard, and in the cemeteries where we went to decorate graves on Memorial Day. Mom and I would do our decorating after Lisa and Marlene left on Monday.
In my book, the character Joy looks forward to May. She’s going through a hard time when she arrives at Sweetland, and the thought of May cheers her throughout the book because some of her goals will be achieved by then, and there is the potential for life to improve and, improve rapidly once that date hits her calendar.
The book cover is set in the month of May when peonies are in full bloom and summer is on the horizon.
When Marilyn and I discussed cover concepts for That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland, we considered many ideas. At first, I thought maybe it could be a Christmas theme since the book begins and ends at Christmastime. But while Marilyn would have created something beautiful and Christmas-card-like, I thought it might sell the book well around Christmas – but not so much the rest of the year.
Then I thought about a winter cover. Maybe place a whimsical snowman in the foreground and the inn in the background. Reggie could tug on the snowman’s scarf. But the problem with that cover was that it might suddenly look more like a children’s book than one targeted at women.
I kept coming back to a kitchen scene and that resulted in the buttery yellow walls (which Samantha dreamed Roger was painting in the first book) and the checked floor. The sugar cream pie and peonies were added for their strong Hoosier symbolism and both are in the story, as is the dog, Reggie. And from there, Marilyn took the idea and ran with it. I am in awe of how she pulled everything together and painted the scene with such harmony of color and subject. I couldn’t be happier with Marilyn’s cover painting.
And there’s something I don’t have to worry about regarding the cover: There are no ants in those peonies. Blaise's delicious pie is safe.