Brand building through storytelling

Paper Flowers

This story, written when I was 15, was published in Ladies’ Home Journal in October, 1965, where it kept company with “What Americans Expect from Robert Kennedy” and “Coeds in Rebellion.” A mortifying sidebar identified me as a “prodigy” who “sang in seven languages at a year and a half and, at three, composed what her mother…calls ‘shapely little narratives.’ The story was later cited in the annual Best Short Stories anthology edited by Martha Foley.

Guitar TeenageWe were fifteen when we rebelled against society. That summer we gave up loafers and walked barefoot. We put away our madras shorts and wore faded dungarees. Our hair hung halfway to our waists. And we were always together—Judy in her turtleneck sweater and me in pink-and-orange beads. I remember the way we used to sit on Judy’s front porch, barefoot, our guitars across our knees, and sing, “Come mothers and fathers all over this land and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command—”

“Oh, forget it!” Judy would shove the guitar aside. “You’re always too high for me!” And then we’d sip our sodas and laugh.

“Had any good insults lately?” I twisted my beads around my finger.

“Oh, sure. Guess what Kenny Peterson said the other day! He walks up to me and he gives me this real funny look and then he says—” she tried to keep from laughing—“he says, ‘Are you a beatnik?'”

“Typical clod remark. He couldn’t think of anything better to say!”

“Then guess what brainy crack he makes next! He says, ‘How’s your friend Joanie in the burlap bag?’ Meaning Joan Baez!

I bit into my chocolate bar. “Clod! That’s sacrilege!”

“They’re all like that.” Judy leaned over on her elbows. “They just don’t care. Not about the bomb or civil rights or anything! Well, it looks like we’d better stick together. We’ve got the whole world to fight!”

But most of the time we stayed far away from Judy’s house. “Nothing but normals around here,” she said. “Happy, normal people that drive Fords and eat hamburgers and live in little white houses.” I knew she was right. Lincoln Street was awfully dull, and besides, the captain of the cheerleading squad lived just around the corner. That was why we used to escape to Harvard Square.

“I don’t like you girls going down there so much,” my mother said. “It’s not safe. Can’t tell who you might run into.” But we didn’t care. We loved the shop windows hung with Arabian bells and deep-fringed scarlet shawls and the magazine stand where you could buy Elle and Film Quarterly. We loved the Miro prints in the window of Schoenhof’s and the rusty bicycles outside the Coop, baskets laden with books. And all around us motorcycles streaked by and girls in Guatemalan skirts rushed past with book bags slung over their shoulders.

“Look at that guy!” Judy squinted though her sunglasses. “God, he’s beautiful. I love beards!”

“You and your beatniks! Come one, let’s go for Cokes.”

That was how we finished all the afternoons in Harvard Square. We would sit in the cafeteria on the corner, a small one with fading pink walls. From our table by the window, we could see the tall, cool elms in Harvard Yard. In hushed, eager voices we talked about all the things we would do when were grown up and there was nobody to tell us not to walk barefoot in the subway. That year, I remember, we were always going to be artists or folk singers or civil rights workers. And we would live in Harvard Square.

“When I have my pad on Brattle Street, will you move in across the hall?” Judy smiled at me through her hair.

“Mm-hm. This is our place. We belong here.”

And we really did belong there. Design Research, the Coop, that little shop where you could get sandals made to order-we loved them all. But our favourite place was the Ploughshare.

It was small, I remember, and dark, smelling of cigarettes. Tin lanterns hung from the ceiling; on the wall, faded posters urged us to give generously to the SNCC. (Judy never had much money, but she gave up half her allowance anyway.) A glass case stood in the corner, its shelves littered with Mexican silver and dangling jade earrings. There were ivory letter openers shaped like an Arab’s sword and strings of clinking beads and tasselled ponchos that itched when you tried them on.

“Look!” Judy pulled at my sleeve. “Aren’t those wild?”

They were flowers, dozens and dozens of them, strange flowers with gold leaves and curled paper petals.

“Oh, they’re beautiful! Judy, they’re insane.”

She picked up a flame-coloured rose by the stiff gold stem. In her hand the fire petals nodded and shook. “It’s almost as tall as me. Just a few more of these and I’ll have the craziest-looking room this side of the Village!”

I stared at her. “But they’re two dollars each!”

“Who cares?” Judy tugged at a yellow flower, and a pink one. “Only my mother, and she doesn’t count!”

I giggled. “Now I know you’re insane!”

She stood there, her arms loaded with the bright, bobbing flowers. “Sure I am! I could’ve told you that ages ago.”

Laughing, we ran into the street. The sunlight flashed on Judy’s hair, and the wind rustled the petals of the flowers.

And then it was over. Just like that. We were moving to New Hampshire, my mother told me, and everything would be so much nicer there. “Now, Ellen, it can’t be as bad as all that.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “Just think–a better job for your daddy, a good school for you—and only three miles from the ocean!” Three miles from the ocean. How far was that from Harvard Square and the only friend I had? I sprawled across the bed, sobbing.

After that, I hardly ever saw Judy. “Look at all the packing we have to do!” said my mother. “You don’t have time to go running around with that girl!” I swept floors, washed windows, piled all my books into cardboard boxes. When Judy came to say good-bye, I wasn’t even home.

“I don’t know where your friend gets her ideas.” My mother shrugged. “You’ll never guess what she brought!” There on the dining-room table lay three paper flowers—pink, yellow and flame-red.

All the next year the flowers nodded in my window. The leaves began to crumple and wilt; the petals faded at the corners. I found other friends, and I never heard from Judy. Then in the spring she wrote to me on the pink-and-orange stationery she’d bought last summer at the Ploughshare. She was sick of school, she was cracking up, she had so much to tell me. Would I meet her in Harvard Square? But of course I would. Even after all those months, Judy was still my best friend. And I remembered how we used to sit in the little cafeteria, watching for interesting types.

It was a miserably rainy day when I went back. Under the ice-gray sky, the Square was smaller than I remembered, and dirtier. Someone with a beard hurried by, his shoulders hunched under the weight of his books. I passed the girls in Mexican skirts, but they wore crumpled trench coats now; their scarves clung damply to their hair. A motorcycle whizzed by, spattering mud. I shivered.

Through the gray curtain of the rain I saw figures pass, distant and shadow-like. The magazine stand was almost deserted, and wet pages flapped in the wind.

I pulled my coat closer around me. Nothing, really, only the weather. Last year it had been so much fun. I remembered Judy in the Ploughshare. Her hair in her eyes and the paper flowers warm and bright in her arms. When she came it would be different.

I glanced at my watch. Twelve o’clock. How could she be late? In Harvard Yard the elms stood stark against the sky; their bare-bone branches quivered. Twelve-fifteen…twelve-thirty. I stared into the drizzling rain.

“Ellen!” It was Judy, breathless and dishevelled.

“Judy! Where’ve you been?”

“Oh—around.” She laughed. “Come on, let’s go have lunch. I’m starved!”

Together we ran through the rain, chattering and laughing. It was just like last summer.

At our regular table by the cafeteria window, I bit into my hot dog. “I’ve got so much to tell you! You’ll never guess where I’ve been! To Greenwich Village!”

“Really?” Judy squirmed delightedly. “Oh, you lucky clod! I bet it was just the wildest place—”

“And I bought this insane Christmas card. It folds into a box. I was going to send it to you, but—”

“Send it anyway!”

“In April?

“Sure, why not? What do you think we are, conformists?” Suddenly I noticed her dungarees. Rips everywhere, and they were spattered with mud. And her hair! It was dirty—just plain dirty. She needed a good shampoo.

I poked my French fries with my fork. “How’s life on Lincoln Street?”

“Horrible! No kidding, I just can’t stand it.” She jabbed fiercely at her chicken. “My mother really kills me. She’s making me wear shoes!” I stared out at the dark, humped figures on the street. Judy spoke faster now, twisting her beads as she talked. “Every time I pick up my guitar, she makes me shut up. Just so she can watch Ed Sullivan or something! I’ve got a new one now. Steel strings.”

“That’s great.” But I didn’t really hear her–only the muted rushing of the rain.

“Hey, what’s wrong? I mean, are you mad at me or something?”

“No, I’m okay.”

Judy was smiling again. “See, I’ve got this wild idea. Want to go to the Newport Folk Festival? We can hitchhike down and sleep on the beach-”

“Hitchhike?” I dropped my fork with a clatter. “You can’t do that!”

“Who says? Anyway, I want to see our friends.”

“Friends?” Judy didn’t have any friends but me.

“You know.” She stared at me, her eyes dark and intense. “Our friends. Bob and Joan.”

That would be Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, of course. But last summer we never called them that. “After all, they’re on our side,” Judy always said. “Sort of like friends.” I turned toward her and saw the loops of purple beads, the tangled, streaming hair. Last summer seemed strangely far away.

“Look, I don’t have much time,” I said. “My bus leaves in half an hour.”

“You can’t go to Newport with me?”

“Judy, you know I can’t. My parents would never let me.”

“Your parents?”

“Yes-and I don’t want to go that much, anyway. I’m sorry-really I am.” I picked up my purse.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Judy’s voice was soft and urgent. “I just wanted to ask you—do you still have the flowers?”

Outside the wind blew colder, and the rain slicked my hair against my face. The dampness chilled me. I remembered Judy’s face among the flowers; then I thought of the drooping leaves, the ragged paper petals. I ran, faster and faster, with the puddles splashing my legs. And I didn’t look back.

Copyright by Rona Maynard. Do not reproduce or adapt without permission of the author. 

Click here to watch Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing “With God on Our Side” at Newport in 1963 (painfully earnest, but how typical of those times and that scene). For more about “Paper Flowers,” see this post.



Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

Dayle Dickinson
October 08, 2009 at 2:02PM

As I read “Paper Flowers” tonight, it all came back to me, and I remembered why this story meant so much to me when I was a teenager living in a small town and yearning to be in Harvard Square, or the Village, or anywhere but where I was. Like Ellen, I had just one friend, and although she was not moving away, I was afraid of losing her to the popular “clods.” We were the only hippie wannabes in our high school and listened to Dylan & Baez and wrote really bad poetry to each other. “Paper Flowers” showed me that there were other girls out there like me, girls who were constrained by convention and their parents, yet yearned to be living exciting lives when we’d be “grown up and there was nobody to tell us not to walk barefoot in the subway.” I clipped the story and my friend Marie and I passed it back and forth, spending long hours on the phone speculating about whether or not Ellen sold out and what happened to Judy. We vowed it would never happen to us.

Rona Maynard
October 08, 2009 at 3:03 PM

Dayle, what a delight to see your comments here. Knowing that my story has stayed with you all these years, after fuelling such lively discussions between you and your friend Marie, is the highest of compliments. By the way, Ellen did sell out. At least that’s what I think. But readers often find truths that escape us writers.

October 09, 2009 at 5:05AM

I’m not sure how I would have reacted had I not read the other post about writing this story first, but as things stand, I did. Filtering in your description of how the “about the author” sidebar was actually your Mother’s version of you, your discussion of how the “dirty hair” observation was in the story at the insistence of your parent/editors though it felt off tone to you at the time, I have to say I don’t think Ellen so much sold out as she began to adapt her own Mother’s version of herself a little more.

With an adult daughter of my own, I see in our struggles to support each other most of the troubled territory existing in those spaces that lie somewhere in between our versions of ourselves as exists in our own imagination, as opposed to that version imagined by the other.

I doubt I see my daughter more clearly than she sees herself, or she I, but I believe there are things about her I see clearly that she can not. And vice versa.rnrnI think that is it with all of us, all our lives, there are all these versions of ourselves. Some are presented, some are perceived, some are shared, and in there somewhere deep is the blended schema where they all overlap. Who sees that version? Maybe nobody.

I’d like to think Ellen didn’t sell out any more than Judy totally dropped out. They were both fluidly trying on varying personas to see how they fit, where they pinched or tugged or appealed. What else are 15 year olds supposed to do?

Rona Maynard
October 11, 2009 at 6:06 AM

I like your observation about the two girls “fluidly trying on varying personas to see how they fit, where they pinched or tugged or appealed.” Yes, that’s exactly what 15-year-olds do in the all-important process of discovering their true selves. In Ellen’s case, the process gets subverted as she bows to her mother’s notion of who she ought to be. Of course, my interpretation is filtered (to use your word) through my own experience as the daughter of a dynamic but controlling mother. Ellen is not “me” in the literal sense, yet she enacts the conflict I was feeling (and that later drove my memoir, My Mother’s Daughter). All of this was overlaid by my knowledge that my mother would edit the story, which now reads to me like a message in code. I was telling her what she wanted to hear, yet also expressing admiration for Judy’s passion and daring. But just because I read the story this way does not mean other readings can’t be equally valid. The writer can’t see everything her work contains. I once made a comment to a writer friend about a motif in her novel. To me it seemed obvious. To her it was a revelation.

Ruth Pennebaker
October 13, 2009 at 12:12PM

What a fascinating story, Rona — both the published one and the back story to it.

Donna Champion
December 27, 2009 at 7:07PM

I first read “Paper Flowers” in an anthology of teen writers, published by Scholastic Books. In so many ways, this was my story, too.

It was 1969. I was fifteen and my family was going through a particulary difficult time. I wanted to break away from the craziness and identified competely with Judy. Deep down, however, I knew that my overprotective family expected me to be Ellen. I loved the freedom of their friendship and their need to be individuals, despite comments from their peers. I admired the strength that they drew from their nonconformity (“We’ve got the whole world to fight!”).

Did Ellen “sell out”? Maybe. But she didn’t let the memory of the experience of her friendship with Judy die. I think it was still part of her psyche–part of what formed her consciousness. She may have run to catch the bus in the rain, to get away from Judy, but the memory of that special summer was still with her.

More than forty years later, I’ve discovered that I am both Judy and Ellen, and that’s okay. I am still a rebel inside, and it’s the part of me that I love–the woman who is not afraid to dare, to take chances. I look back on my teen years and see how much of my own psyche was formed during that time.

Many, many thanks for this story, Rona. I still have my copy of the book (which I “liberated” from my high school’s English Department). You never know whose life you will touch when you set pen to paper. Thanks for touching mine.

Rona Maynard
December 28, 2009 at 3:03 AM

Donna, as we said back then, “Oh, wow!” I read your heart-lifting comment just before hopping into the car for a three-day drive and know it will sustain me on the trip. It’s so good to know there are some readers who still remember Ellen and Judy. Together, you’ve made it possible for me to remember them, too, with heightened appreciation for their story

October 27, 2010 at 4:04PM


November 03, 2010 at 2:02PM

Ah, you write such beautiful stories. I want to savor them, like I like to with a good book, but with your stories I just want to know what happens next. Good job, keep writing, and keep your pen and paper close at hand in a case of spontaneous ideas. Thanks, by the way, for the reply on the fan club. I’d found this while I was searching your site and really enjoyed it, before you’d made the recommendation to read it. Keep up the good work.
-Alex, 8th Grade

Rona Maynard
November 03, 2010 at 3:03 PM

And keep reading, Alex. It will stretch your mind, open your heart and maybe even get you writing yourself.

November 05, 2010 at 2:02PM

Ah, I love to write, but I absolutely despise it when I get an idea and totally forget before I get it down. I normally keep a notepad to jot down notes with me at all times, but I’m unorganized and tend to misplace or just totally forget it.

(I like the word verification below, Gaiety. Sounds fun.)

Rona Maynard
November 20, 2010 at 7:07 AM

And you sound to me like a budding writer.

August 22, 2012 at 3:03PM

Hi there Rona. I just wanted to say that I adored paper flowers. I cried at the end when Ellen runs away from Judy even after Judy screams out to her asking about the paper flowers. Its a story that im reading for a class in the National University of Cuyo in Argentina,Mendoza.

From my point of view sometimes we have to let go of the things that could possibly drag us in the future. And thats what I think Ellen figured out, that maybe Judy was never going to change. Its hard for best friends to leave each other even when one of them isnt ready. Thats kind of what happened to me a few years back. But thats life and you got to accept and challenge yourself for the future.

Summing up I never thought I would find this website and actually be writing to you. I also saw your interview with Sharron Skinner on youtube for my class too. Im only 19 years old and I dont have that sort of combative feeling you had with your mother yet but when I do I?ll keep in mind your advice. If you?re ever in Mendoza, Argentina come to the faculty of “Filosofia y Letras” ( philosophy) that inside the university and all the teachers will greet you warmly and so will hundred more students. Tell us more about your life and stories.
Thank you Rona!!! Best of luck!!!!!!

Rona Maynard
November 10, 2012 at 4:04 PM

Thanks so much, Paula! I love Mendoza (visited there a few years ago with my husband and remember the beautiful university campus). I’m glad to know that students in Mendoza are reading and enjoying my story.

September 29, 2012 at 3:03PM

Is this for real? did this happen to you or did you think of it? I know its a stupid question but i love this story and want to know your inspiration! And i also love writing but am not very good at it have any tips?

Rona Maynard
October 18, 2012 at 6:06 AM

The story’s not exactly true, but I did base it loosely on a real friendship. As for writing tips, get yourself a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve yet to find a more useful guide for writers.

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