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Legacy of an African Violet

On the day I was born, my father visited my mother in the hospital and brought a pure, small offering: a blooming African violet, with pristine white flowers. A simple, gentle gift that was so my dad. He always felt cut flowers didn’t last as long, and that anything rooted in the earth was evocative of the ability of life itself to build and transform into something larger. I believe I was about 6 pounds at the time, and maybe he was thinking about me and that idea. Of course, it could have just been a loving gesture for my mother, less about me. After all, he hadn’t met me yet; it was back in the days when men were not usually present in the delivery room. Whatever prompted it, it was a lovely token, likely having wound up in his hands without much forethought.

It evolved to be much more. My parents were devoted to each other for decades, and during that time lived in several different houses and climates. That first plant became a permanent fixture wherever they were planted, or transplanted – so much so it overflowed to need several containers, I don’t know how many times. My green-thumbed mother always found a way to keep that African violet alive and thriving no matter where she was. I remember once during their snowbird years, she carefully overwatered the plants before a two-week holiday visit up north – just watered “over” enough, but not enough to do damage, neat trick – and came back to find them alert to greet her upon her return. One time she said she “almost lost one” I think, but that original plant always survived and evolved into various shoots.

The presence of the plant was always there in the background of my life, even though I rarely saw it except on visits. “Your father brought that plant to the hospital when you were born” she would say often enough over the years to make it feel special, and it was a testament of her love for me, my father, and her love of life and all things green that was one of the most endearing things I remember about her. She and my dad have both evolved themselves to another world, and I hope there’s something lush and green in that world for them to enjoy.

Once after my father died, I brought two African violets to the cemetery with me one visit. It was my innocent way of letting him know it was me, his now more than 6-pound offspring, there to say hello. I’m sure he would have known it was me whether I brought the plants or not, but I wanted to honor him in the same way, with those gentle white blossoms.

I’ve learned that African violets make you wait for those flowers too. They don’t give them up so readily. I often used to joke with my mother, “How many flowers are on the plant?” If it was blooming I’d say, “Of course, that’s why things are blooming in my life.” And if it wasn’t I’d say, “See? That’s why things aren’t going so well.” I used to say that I was inextricably linked with that plant. It tickled her.

When my mother moved on some years after my dad, it was only natural that I would inherit the plant, which I found to be a somewhat weighty honor. What if it didn’t thrive with me? I didn’t know much about caring for flowering plants indoors; I had several low lights that did well, but this was a “prissier” plant. A bit more high-maintenance. And I wanted to do right by it.

I brought it home with me on a cold November night, after my mother had been in critical care and hospice for a week, being careful to protect it as best I could in the daze that was that time. It was contained in a piece of original green Fiestaware from the 70s. It went on my bookshelf, near a wall of windows closest to the light. I watered it once a week, not too much, but would give it a sip midweek if it looked like it needed it. I kept the temperature temperate and encouraged my other plants to give it a warm welcome from their various positions in the space.

My mother told me one of her secrets to keeping it going was to pinch off the dead leaves and actually tuck them into the soil. Kind of like plant food, I guess. Though to be honest, when I first heard her say it I thought, “Ew. Isn’t that just wrong?” But it is part of the life cycle, I suppose. That the plant would fertilize itself was regenerative in a way. So I tried it. I went with it her sage advice.

After maybe a month or a little longer, I noticed that the plant was kind of frozen over to one side, looking a bit like a hand with all five fingers grasping. I don’t think it was like that from the time I brought it home, but perhaps it was. It looked like it had a fright and curved away from something unpleasant. It wasn’t growing, and there were no flowers on it, static and sad looking. My mother always said she rotated it to grow evenly, but in the last weeks of her life, I don’t think she was able to pay attention to it. Being inextricably tied to her as well, perhaps it reacted to what was going on in her, and she wasn’t her usual self. I once heard that if a plant in one room becomes cognizant of the stress of another plant in another room, it feels the pain of the other plant. If all things in the material world are connected energetically, as it and my mother’s physical self were, perhaps that’s so.

Whatever happened, it needed help. I turned it so that it would try to bend toward the light. It didn’t.

When spring came, I decided to replant it. There was very little soil in its small container and I felt compelled to do it right away since it looked like the pot was cutting off its life supply, rather than help its growth. I used the only potting soil I had: an organic outdoor mix I got when I planted a rose bush. It was a firm soil, but I felt better putting it in a larger pot with room to spread out, and I planted it as upright as I could. I remember when I had pulled out the roots they sort of crumbled away, they were so fragile. I had never seen anything like them. They were relics. Thinking I averted disaster, I gave it a more prominent place on my coffee table where it got more light, and I kept a watchful eye.

But it never grew. No blossoms. Occasionally, leaves would die and I’d clip them off and bury them shallowly. I never really got the hang of that. Sorry mom.

By midsummer, I noticed how hard the soil was in the container. Not that I didn’t see this before, but it began to make me think the soil, too, was limiting its growth. The outside potting soil that I had used.

Since my thumbs absolutely did not feel green at this point, I brought it to a plant store to be repotted and rescued once again, this time by someone who could help me on my mission to keep it alive. I explained the plant’s history, and why it took on extra meaning for me. The man who found himself on the receiving end of this request seemed to understand, though with a bit too much precision for my comfort, cut around the roots of the plant and lifted it out of the pot. I was afraid he cut in too close and really cut off its last remaining bit of life force. At least he watered it attentively with his little spray bottle, my sprig of what was left. Finally, it was repotted it in the right soil. I brought it home and put another, larger plant next to it, for company, protection, and encouragement. Incentive to grow.

But very soon after, leaf after leaf – shriveled, withered, went. Hard, watching them go. I could see the plant was going to dissolve its physical form a few weeks before it did, and I began to accept the near-predictable demise of its very last leaf. I would still greet it in the morning and croon a few words on the way out the door. But when that last leaf demurred, I just tucked the depleted leaf into the soil, one last homage to my mom. Perhaps it would have lived if I just let it be and didn’t repot it that last time. I don’t know.

I just let it drift away slowly. By that point, I was okay with whatever it wanted to do. Like all life forms, maybe it was just time for it to dissipate, and dissolve to wherever physical forms go.

So now I had a blank canvas of dirt. What was I to do? I considered buying another African violet to carry on the tradition, so if family members asked how it was faring with me, I could say “Just great. There it is!” What I actually did though, for a few weeks, was to water the dirt. Yes, truly. I didn’t want it to be gone. I thought, maybe mom’s leaf theory will generate a sprout from beneath. Maybe the roots are salvageable and I would be surprised one day.

I had no patience for this notion after a week or two. All things considered, I decided to go to the plant store with every intention of buying a new African violet, but – likely no accident – there were none in stock. No white blossoms, no purple ones, none. I took this as a sign to adjust to something new. Whatever this plant had been in terms of its legacy and my associations with it, I felt drawn to a peach begonia that had a vital presence, next to some limper neighbors on its shelf.

It’s been months now, and the begonia is alive and well. It’s now my sense, thinking about the African violet, that it was not really about me and my birth, or supposed to accompany me throughout my lifetime. That was a notion I fashioned from the circumstances, an anecdote that became more meaningful with the passage of years. I see it now as more a part of my parents’ story. Then my mother’s solo story in her later years. When she left the planet, perhaps it was its natural time to go too, a little more than half a year later. Maybe it stayed around to help me transition after the loss. The way a pet does or kindly grandparent who waits to die until all last goodbyes are said. Of course, this was just a plant, and not a pet or something else one gets connected to, but why not?

There is something about the legacy of the African violet that I want to honor in some way. There is just something about its existence I find meaningful. That it endured season upon season, year upon year for so long carries a gentle imprint on the years I shared with my parents. In the background. On a side table. A part of the family.

I do remind myself now and again when I think of the plant that I do have another resource like it. I have only to go past my childhood home where my father planted about a dozen of our Christmas trees in the yard. There’re still there, for whomever lives there now. They’re huge too, solidly rooted in the earth. Not looking like they’ll be felled any time soon. No ancient crumbling roots. No pots constricting their growth. Just blue sky supporting them.

So what is the takeaway, the message of the African violet? I appreciated its being around as long as it was. I hear that there’s greenery in the worlds beyond this one, or so some spiritual traditions say. Maybe it simply transitioned there, plucky little plant, to continue its journey with my mom and dad. With the striving to live as long as it did, I’d like to think it evolved to something more. Like a beautiful watercolor, that’s how I see it now – or them now, all three. Thriving wherever they are. A “plant rebirth” that began, for me, with my birth, and now begins anew in another place. Beyond life and death, time and space.

That’s what I have come to embrace about the African violet. After all of our experiences together, that’s its lovely legacy for me.

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