Archive for April, 2008

Violet Legacy

April 19, 2008

I started writing this post two months ago and never got around to finishing it. Distractions: Health. Work. Election. Crap. Let’s take this up again…

My mother and I started growing African Violets together about thirty-five years ago. When we lived in North Dakota, she started to take a mail-order catalog with the plants, special pots and soil, fertilizer, and other supplies. By the time we moved back to San Antonio in 1975 she had several plants, and there were more and more to come.

She grew each in a plastic “self-watering” pot, the sort where you can fill up a well and the water is supposed to seep into the soil from below. For each plant, she created a little label on a plastic tab, where she would write out the plant’s name so we could keep track of which was which. The only one I can remember right now was called “Mars.” If I recall correctly, it had a reddish-purple colored flower, hence the name.

We used to propogate them from leaf cuttings, using a clear plastic terrarium. It was shaped like a sphere –very seventies — with a lid comprising the entire top half that you could lift off. Since the bottom half was also clear, you could fill the insides with contrasting color layers of gravel, activated charcoal, vermiculite, and soil: Your own artifical sedimentary rock display. The small plants which resulted from this were nurtured until they were at least a couple inches across, and then transplanted each to its own individual pot. At some point during the year most of these were donated to the church bazaar, and then the process would start over again.

I think I still have the terrarium.

When I started writing this, I had just purchased a new African Violet at Wal-Mart. It was an impulse purchase, since I had dashed into the store through the Garden Center entrance to get quick access to the Drugstore section and the Office Supplies. What was I buying, 8×10″ paper and strore-brand Imodium? I forget. I know, I’d wanted some African Violet Food, too.

I’ve been growing the plants in my own home for years now. When I lived in D.C. I had some, “children” of Mom’s plants, which I took to my office. We had just moved to an office park in suburban Lanham, and our building had ribbons of glass curtain-wall windows from waist height to ceiling. My window faced east, perfect for African Violets. I had two or three of them there, and they grew into large plants almost the size of basketballs, never failing to amaze my visitors.

When I moved to San Diego in 1994 I gave the plants to my sister, who was living nearby. I later tried to start new ones, but the Southern California sun was too hot and bright in my eastern window there. A north window proved to be too shady and cold, and the plants died. This resembles my impression of San Diego weather, hot in the sun and cold in the shade, but seldom “just right,” at least not for me. But that’s the subject of another post.

On moving back to Texas in 2002 I tried again with new violet cuttings from Mom’s house in San Antonio. At my Galveston house, they did fairly well on an etagere shelf in a north-facing bathroom window. The light there was similar to the one in Mom’s patio door, where she grew her violets arrayed on a white cart with three shelves. Mine grew thick, with few blooms. The main problem was that the bathroom sink was tiny and I had to take all the plants downstairs to water them, sometimes forgetting that task for weeks on end. Some other violets I had were forced to live in a dim and shady downstairs, where they existed but did not thrive. Our windows there had narrow sills, unsuitable for plants, and the rooms with eastern exposure were too narrow to allow plant stands close to the windows.

Upon moving here to Pearland last year I set all the violets in east facing windows and waited to see what would happen. The windowsills here are five or six inches deep, allowing the flowerpots a safe place to rest. Sure enough, the plants perked up. And, once winter was over I thought about Mom and her violets, and I wondered what would happen if I started using some plant food on them and giving them the attention they needed.

So off I went to Wal-Mart in mid-February, just a few blocks down from the post office. Just inside the Garden Center door was a display of beautiful African Violets with varigated flowers, white with violet edges. On impulse, I placed one in my cart then went off to find the violet food I’d really wanted and the other couple of sundries.

I remember the clerk telling me, “Good luck with that!” and her explaining that the violets always died for her. I told her about my mother and I having grown them, and so on and so forth. I chat with the clerks at the Wal-Mart and the Walgreens and the H.E.B. I don’t have that many people to talk to these days, actually, and it gives me a sense of connection, making the commercial transaction a little more human and pleasant as well. And then I came home, placed the violet in the window, and started typing this long-abandoned note.

Now, two months later, the new plant is doing well. All the original blooms are gone, but the plant itself has doubled in size. My other violets, now getting regular feeding, have also grown remarkably and are blooming. Some of the flowers are close to two inches across.

This morning I was talking with Freddie — F. of the previous entries, but let’s use complete names, what the heck — and we spoke about my parents and his. Mine have passed on, while his are in their fragile mid-eighties where anything could happen at any time. He’s been feeling “melancholy,” as he labels it, because he anticipates a time when he will no longer be able to call his father on the phone and speak with him. They talk almost every day, sometimes more than once a day. His mother has dementia, and it is becoming increasingly frustrating for Freddie to speak with her, although they, too, manage to get a few minutes in almost every day.

Freddie said that he felt sad. Mom — my mom — was gone, and he missed her, and he knows a time is coming soon when his parents will be gone. And what will he do then…?

I told him that in some ways, I feel closer to Mom now than I did over the last few years. My mother and I did not speak on the phone often. When she was still in her apartment, up until the last year, we exchanged email almost every day, but that’s not quite the same thing. I couldn’t go and see her in San Antonio more often than every few months, and even in the last year it was usually only once a month. In other words, the distance was always there for me.

Now, however, I feel more like Mom is here with us every day. I’d wanted her to visit us, maybe even to come and live with us, but that was impossible. So much of our surroundings are made of things that she would have loved or — in the case of some her furniture and decor — things that she actually did have and love. I see the cat sitting on Mom’s armchair, and I remember when we visited Mom and the cat sat with her, in that chair. We have the violets, the birds, the garden, all the things that would have made her feel at home. It’s almost as if Mom is here, like just another PCS.

The conclusion I’m approaching is that I don’t feel so much of a sense of separation anymore. I told Freddie that Mom believed in God but never went to church. She didn’t have to be “in His presence” that way in order to be with God, instead claiming like Emily Dickinson that the birds and flowers and trees provided her cathedral and her choir. I feel this, too, showing I suppose that I am truly my mother’s son. And in the same way, I see my mother here, regardless of the lack of her physical presence. It’s six months now since she passed away, and I’m doing o.k.