When I was 5, my mother and I planted a vegetable garden in our backyard. Then I broke my arm, leaving her to do most of the weeding.
When she tells this story, she acts like I let her down. She’s joking (I think), but it’s also true that the tale’s intermingling of gardening and disappointment is apt in my case. Without exception, my attempts to grow green things have ended in failure.
You can’t blame genetics. In addition to cultivating and successfully harvesting those vegetables back in 1984, my mother has engineered impressive yearly displays from her tulips, hydrangeas, and Christmas cacti.
I can’t recall at the moment any examples of my father demonstrating a green thumb. But his mother—my grandmother—always had irises and lilies and tomatoes growing, and her eldest sister, who looked like one of the ancient Mystics from The Dark Crystal, had a spectacular flower garden that she maintained even though, when I knew her, she was approximately 150 years old. (Visiting her house was terrifying; there were always wasps and bees flying around inside and out.)
Unfortunately, I did not inherit these matriarchs’ skills with vegetation. Since becoming an adult, I have had, by my count, four houseplants—Vivian, Blanche, Stephanie, and Kim, Jr.—and only one of them is still with me.
That would be Kim, Jr., but then, she’s a new addition, having been given to me by my friend Kim when she moved to Tampa in July. Kim, Sr., assures me that Kim, Jr., is low-maintenance, requiring only a little sunlight and watering once a week. My husband, Frank, and I have managed to keep her alive so far, but, like I say, it’s only been three months. And to tell you the truth, Frank has done most of the watering.
As it happens, all of my houseplants have been gifts. Unless of course you count Christmas trees. Frank and I put up a real one of those each December. I’ve read that the environmental impact is minimal so long as you buy a tree that was locally grown and you recycle it when the holiday merriment is over.
When I was a kid, we were an artificial-tree family. My mother couldn’t abide pine needles littering the living room and, besides, genuine boughs weren’t strong enough to hold up her collection of Hallmark ornaments, which are a lot heavier than your standard glass balls and popcorn strings.
For a lot of the Christmases in my childhood, those sturdy Hallmark doodads decorated a fake tree frosted with fake, asbestos-y snow. As I mentioned above, I was a child in the 1980s.
Kim, Jr.’s predecessors all suffered varying degrees of neglect.
I acquired Vivian, an ivy of some sort, from a friend who stayed with me for a bit after he was evicted. The plant was among the belongings he brought to my apartment, and when he moved on, Viv stayed behind. Her tendrils dangling from my mantel weren’t the only loose ends left hanging in that friendship, let me tell you.
I don’t even remember what eventually became of Vivian. Did I throw her out? Unload her on someone else? Either way, she’s gone.
The same goes for Blanche, a potted jade that I received as a birthday gift. She was in sorry shape by the time Frank came into my life. He tried to nurse her back to health, but it was too late. Frank had trouble accepting this truth, however, so she remained in a state of grotesque near-death long after we had any reason to keep her around. Now that I think of it, she bore a remarkable resemblance to the United States Senate.
Finally, there was Stephanie, a 5-foot-tall dracaena that my mother bought as a housewarming gift for Frank and me when we got a place in Chicago.
I keep mentioning my mother, but I suppose that’s natural in this context. After all, we’re discussing efforts to make things grow, and mothers are engaged in a similar enterprise—nurturing and caring for a living being who can thrive and bloom or end up in the dirt.
Then again, if we’re comparing plant care to parenting, somebody should probably call the Office of Children and Family Services, because I dumped Stephanie when I moved to New York.
Things aren’t looking good for Kim, Jr.