Grandma Dee called friends and family to report that she had twins. We went the very next day to her high-rise Baltimore apartment. Shaded by adjacent buildings, the twins were thriving in the filtered light on the sill of the east-facing window. Grandma Dee, nearly 100, was thriving too.
We oohed and aahed, as people do, at the jubilant faces of the twin blooms on the phalaenopsis orchid. Grandma Dee beamed. I was in awe of her ability to grow such exotic life forms in her living room. Their leaves were deep green and smooth, their stems strong, their roots thick and supple. In addition to the twin blooms, there were others, plump and round, waiting to open, and several keikis, precious infant orchids.
On the same sill were two potted African violets, plants I was familiar with and knew were relatively easy to grow. Despite their brilliant purple faces, pupils sharp and constricted in their yellow, non-blinking eyes, these plants seemed far less exotic than the phalaenopsis.
When Grandma Dee died, her loved ones came to take some tangible object to hold and remember. My daughter, Lydia, her first great-granddaughter, wanted only the African violets.
Her stepmother, new to the family, decided she wanted the same plants, but finally compromised, telling Lydia she could have one of them.
The frantic call to my work. Lydia crying, “Mom, what should I do? I don’t know which plant to take. I know she won’t take care of it and it’ll die.” I attempted to intervene, to ask the grownups to let her have this small thing.
“Lydia’s lost so much already, what if I buy you a new plant?”
The reply: “She’s got to learn she can’t always get what she wants.”
The truth of the matter was, Lydia seldom got what she wanted—or needed.
My daughter brought her plant home and tended it with care. Grandma Dee had told her the plant could be easily propagated. Lydia’s plan was to start a gang of new cuttings from the mother plant. A whole family of sibling plants, to give to other relatives. A quiver full of babies with microchimeric memory of Grandma Dee’s green thumb and a bit of flour dust from baking rugelach, embedded in their DNA.
We had a number of tiny cuttings in all sorts of containers. We marveled at the root hairs, fine and white as Grandma Dee’s tresses, seldom seen, hidden under her neatly styled wig.
Eventually, the cuttings were transferred to paper cups with potting soil, to grow stronger, learn to stand on their own. The cups were gathered together for ease of care but also so that the babies could know one another. Share stories of their common heritage. Remember a time when they were one with the mother plant.
So long ago, so remote, this memory that I cannot recall. What became of those plants? Did my daughter lose interest, forget to water them? Did I fill in as caregiver to save the plants? I only thought of them a few years later, after my daughter had ended her life and the mother plant, like me, was a dry shrunken replica of her former self. Did she long to have her babies close? Did she know they had died?
I whispered to the violet what a friend’s father, in his misguided attempt to offer comfort, had said to me. I laughed at the memory—the shock of those words. “You’re young. You can have more children.”
I gathered the new cuttings together in the filtered light of the kitchen window. As root hairs appeared on their fragile stems, I was glad they had one another. I am envious of large family gatherings with siblings and children, several generations gathered together.
Despite my good intentions, thinking I’d honor my daughter by growing Grandma Dee’s violets and sharing them with her loved ones, I don’t remember ever giving one away. I probably forgot to water them, although I did have one for a few years, often thinking I should resume the challenge that Lydia left me and start propagating.
Eventually, I gave up on that idea. The surviving African violet was attacked by a fungus and I didn’t have the energy to intervene.
Now, these twenty-plus years later, I grow orchids in my kitchen, on my lanai, on the trunks of palms in my backyard. I’m learning to propagate them, to wait till the keiki is strong enough to leave the mother plant, before cutting it loose. I wait, to be sure the mother plant is strong enough to withstand the loss.
Header photograph by Courtney Elizabeth Young.