by Garine Isassi
My mother had many talents.
She could do algebra in her sleep. (She was a chemical engineer.) She could cram about 6000 plates and cups into one dishwasher load. She could fake her way through any church song on the piano, pretending she knew it.
And she could make almost any houseplant grow.
For years, our home was a botanical garden. There were cacti in the kitchen window, ferns in the bathrooms, African violets in den, all perfectly coifed, healthy and inexplicably dust free.
She’d stick toothpicks in avocado pits and submerge them in jars of water, trying to make them root. She filled the bedrooms with ivies that wound their way up and down the bookshelves.
We had hundreds of plant containers in the garage, for when she would re-pot the growing horde. She even raised mums for garden shows when I was a kid and won ribbons for the roundest snowball of a flower.
My grandmother, who lived with us, was Mom’s horticultural sidekick, who would walk around with watering cans and actually act like a pollinating bee, by going from plant to plant, tickling the flowers with a Q-Tip.
One year, my older sister went around the house and counted 122 houseplants!
In the politically correct psycho-babble of today, my father may have referred to their obsession with greenery as “a bit dysfunctional.” But in the disco/punk-era, he called it “absolutely nuts,” and tried several times to ban the entrance of any additional photosynthetic organisms into the house, to no avail.
Heredity-wise, this green thumb gene was only passed on to one of us children, and it was not me!
I’ve killed more plants than I can count. I forget to water. I don’t have the patience.
Each year I buy fall chrysanthemums for my front entrance and within a week they droop. By Halloween the flowers are crusty, brown clots on the ends of greenish sticks. I try to keep up the watering, then I overwater and then I forget. It’s like I have ADD when it comes to plants. I just can’t seem to focus on the care of something that is incapable of reminding me to feed it.
I do well with cats and dogs and children, just not with foliage.
There was one plant in our family room that was the Queen of all house plants. It was a dieffenbachia – a word I never knew how to spell until just this minute after looking it up online – also known as the “dumb cane” for it’s cane like stem.
My mom got this plant probably around 1972. It was a fun looking thing that gave you the combo feeling of pre-historic times and a Las Vegas showgirl. The leaves were big and fanned out at the top. The sectioned stem just got taller and taller as the months went by. I think that every once in a while we were supposed to prune it, but Mom kind of liked the wiry quality of the height.
The stalk held the head of waxy yellow-green leaves upright for a little while. Then, it started to fall over a little. We propped it up with a set of wooden chop sticks, then had to experiment with a variety of larger garden stakes. At one point in the late 70s, it got taller than any member of our family.
That was the point at which we started to refer to the plant as a person. We named it. We called it “Isabel.”
The years went by and she grew. She stood guard in the corner during Christmases and birthdays. She watched as my sisters and I fought over the choices of TV programs and struggled through school projects set up on the family room floor. We took cuttings from Isabel and potted mini-Isabels to give to all the neighbors, and still, she grew.
At 6 feet tall, we moved her to the corner, for the light and space. It took three of us to push the heavy pot. By the time she reached 7 plus feet tall, she seemed to notice that there was a ceiling above her headdress, and she began to bow.
Then, one day, as my mother was in the kitchen, drinking her coffee and reading her New Yorker magazine, which she was not liking anymore because it was getting too “left-wing,” a shocking thing happened. Isabel broke!
Mom reported hearing a crinkle, then a snap, then a thud. When she went in to look, poor Isabel appeared to have been beheaded!
Now, she was just a cane stalk with no leaves.
That afternoon, my mom, grandmother and I stood in a semi-circle around poor Isabel’s parts. We discussed what to do as if we were Dr. Frankenstein’s lab team. We had to decided if it was worth sectioning the stem and regrowing her! We had to inform certain people of the event. What would we do with the leafy section that fell off the top?
We finally had to accept it. There was nothing we could really do to save her. Even if we salvaged the remains, she would never be the same.
We each sighed heavily and walked away with our heads hanging.
Later that night, my father quietly came in and took away the pot, the stem, and the leafy headdress, tied it all up in a black trash bag and dragged out with garbage.
It was like losing a friend. It was like burying a pet. It was just sad.
And now, whenever I am in public garden and look around at all of the different, crazy plants, I think of my mom and my grandmother, and of Isabel.
Note: Garine’s mother passed away two years ago this month. This week’s column is dedicated to her and her plants.
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