In search of cherry blossoms but finding something else


Capt. Amanda Bartow, U.S. Army Nurse, celebrates her 28th birthday with a visit to the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin on Monday. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist March 25, 2013

by John Kelly

“Take me to the cherry blossoms,” I instructed the cabdriver on Monday’s snowy morning.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“You know the cherry blossoms aren’t out yet, sir,” he said as he put his cab in gear and merged into downtown traffic.

I knew they weren’t at peak bloom, but I figured there must be some blush of color around the Tidal Basin, some rosy hint of the intense pinkness to come. What’s more, it was snowing. That’s a rare combination, beloved for centuries by Japanese artists and poets.

If the cherry blossoms are fleeting and fragile — symbols of our finite human lives — how much more meaningful are they when blooming against a backdrop of fluffy white snowflakes?

I asked the cabdriver if anyone had asked him to take them to the cherry blossoms yet this year.

“No. You are the first, sir. I’m going to take your picture and put it here on my dashboard.”

I think he was joking.

“Well,” I said, “when the blossoms are out, do a lot of tourists ask you to take them there?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “I tell them, ‘Why do you want to drive to the blossoms? It’s better to walk.’ Those 10 days, I like to avoid the area completely.”

The driver made a left onto Maine Avenue and dropped me off at the tents near the Tidal Basin’s pedal-boat dock. A uniformed Park Service ranger was leaning on a bollard, her hands in her pockets against the cold.

“Can you open up a few of the blossoms for me?” I asked as I walked by.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll get right on it.”

It was a gray day. The snow had turned to something more like drizzle. The precipitation that in the suburbs had frosted tree branches and fence posts in picturesque icing sugar, here had just made everything . . . wet.

It was not a scene from Currier & Ives. There were no Japanese tourists contemplating their fleeting and fragile existence. But there was Capt. Amanda Bartow, walking alone in a light gray cloche and coat.

“They’re in bloom at NIH,” she said after I’d introduced myself. “I guess I came thinking I’d be able to see them in bloom here.”

Capt. Bartow is an Army nurse in the ICU at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She comes to see the blossoms every spring. March 25 is her birthday and as she put together her work schedule — those successions of 12-hour days that nurses toil — she made certain to have Monday off.

“It’s something for me,” said Capt. Bartow, a newly minted 28-year-old.

Like I did, she’d hoped to see some pink petals and to see them against a wintry backdrop.

“It’s sort of like the fight between winter and spring,” she explained. “Last year, there was an early peak bloom for my birthday. It was perfect. It was one of my best memories of D.C.”

Capt. Bartow is collecting Washington memories before she leaves the Army in June. Except for a nine-month deployment to Iraq, she’s spent her entire five-year Army career here. Before she leaves, she wants to do a bike ride to Mount Vernon with a friend and take a midnight walk among the monuments on the Mall. She was planning to spend Monday afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery.

When she returns to civilian life, she’ll move back to Columbus, Ohio, and work in a hospital there. She liked the Army, she said, and over the past five years had patients who will stay with her for the rest of her life. But if she remained in the Army she’d have to move into an administrative role, and the bedside is what she likes best.

“I was a nurse for the most significant thing that’s happened for the last 10 years,” Capt. Bartow said. “Our traumas are very unique traumas. The closest thing would be if you took a speeding car, crashed it against a wall and shot it full of bullets. And then maybe set it on fire. What our guys see — the fragments, the dirt and sand, the compression — you can’t repeat on the civilian side.”

I asked Capt. Bartow what the blossoms meant.

“New beginnings,” she said. “I guess for me, a new year. I associate it with my birthday. A new chance. Renewal.”

I thanked her for her service and bade her farewell. When I stopped to look more closely at a few branches, I realized I could see blossoms . . . well, buds. They were tightly furled and looked like pomegranate seeds clutched in pistachio shells.

Soon they will be out in all their glory, a reminder of new beginnings, a reminder that life goes on.

kellyj@washpost.com

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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