Monday, August 07, 2006

Don't Forget to Water the Flowers

By Martha Marshall, from 1998

Mama always had a green thumb. She could pinch off the smallest piece of any growing thing, poke it down into some water in a drinking glass that had maybe once held Bama blackberry jelly, and before you knew it that little piece of coleus, or strawberry begonia, or hen and chickens (she could tell you the most glorious names and knew them all on sight) would be happily curling its way around the kitchen window. She had plants everywhere – in every available space on a wall shelf, every window sill, and spread out halfway across the floor, most of them having had similar water-borne beginnings, or were treasures she occasionally would bring home from the Sears garden store.

The ones in pots may or may not have had anything under them to catch the overflow and protect the furniture when you watered them. More often than not, it would be a used Morton’s chicken pot pie pan, or a lid from a plastic refrigerator bowl that had long since lost its mate, or just a piece torn from a cardboard box with aluminum foil placed underneath. Things always got a second chance at life with my Mama.

In the winter time, all the potted plants out on the porch would take up residence inside, where it was already crowded enough. She would lovingly make a space for them among all the rest, making it impossible to get by them in tight corners without extreme caution. She would gleefully anticipate the annual blooming of the Christmas cactus. Her watering ritual seemed to take at least forty-five minutes. Somehow she always knew which ones needed how much water, how much light they needed, and from what direction, and when to take the spent flowers off so they would keep blooming.

She had a prized African violet collection, which had their special window in order to take advantage of just the right light. I remember, over the years, countless individual African violet leaves sticking down through waxed paper into water glasses on their way to becoming new plants. You could see the pain come over her face if any one of them got knocked off by a dog or a cat – or worse, by one of us in one of our wild chases through the house.

She raised two daughters, and neither of us turned out to be particularly gifted at growing ornamental things. We both could grow tomatoes, corn, okra, and kids – things that we thought really meant something. But we just never had an aptitude for growing things in pots. This could have had something to do with the fact that Mama sometimes seemed to care more about all those potted plants than she did about us. We thought at times, even though we never said it out loud, that she could have concerned herself just the tiniest bit more with us and whatever was on our minds on a particular day. I think we were more than a little bit jealous of those plants.

When Mama went somewhere for a few days, Daddy would take care of his dogs and she would say to us, “Don’t forget to water the flowers.” And by “flowers” she meant the whole assortment of plants, flowering or not. And if you didn’t, she would know. She knew them all and had nurtured every one, many times having carefully relocated them when we moved from house to house. She had put so much time and love into them, you just couldn’t contemplate being the one to cause their early demise. For me, that meant I would sometimes be overly anxious and water a plant too much, and that would be just as bad as if I had left it alone. A time or two, when that happened, I would think of replacing it with a brand new one, but then I would immediately realize that it was no use; she would know. So I would just prepare to face whatever disappointment I might cause her.

My sister tells the story that when I was about ten, she was already working full time and couldn’t go with us on a family beach vacation. She received just one communication from us. It was a post card from Mama, with a picture of the beach on the front and one line on the back, which simply said, “Are you watering my flowers?”

When I left town with my young family, my sister and her family remained nearby. The tradition of taking care of Mama’s plants for her continued when she made a trip out of town with Daddy. Then later on, after Daddy died, it was just Mama and her plants. When she went somewhere, which seemed like all the time, my sister still would go over to Mama’s every few days to “water the flowers.”

Now that Mama is in the nursing home, my sister is still the one who lives nearby, and sits with her just about every day. She has made sure Mama always has a living plant or two in the window sill. It used to give Mama such pleasure just to see something alive and growing, that she felt she was caring for, even though, as time went by, she really wasn’t able to keep them going without a lot of help. If one started looking a little droopy, my sister would quietly replace it with a new one, and Mama really didn’t know the difference. Now, as she becomes more feeble, I don’t think she even notices the plants at all.

My sister and I both have tried over the years -- really tried -- to have potted plants of our own, but with sad results every time. Our lives made more urgent demands of us. My worst offense has always been the watering. I think I have finally mastered not watering them too much, but I’ve had difficulty giving them enough. At different times for each of us, we have simply given up, again and again. Mama was the best, and we could never begin to measure up.

Over a period of about two years after Mama went to the nursing home, we distributed her things among family members. I brought home one of those prehistoric-looking succulents with new baby plants all along the edges of the leaves, and tried to make it grow. Seeming to resent having been uprooted, and in spite of my weeks of fretting over it, it flatly refused. I had failed again.

But something may be changing this summer. I have been creating hanging pots with mixed annuals and greenery, and putting them out back on the screened porch, where we can enjoy them from inside the house. Their presence helps create the feeling of refuge and peace that I try to produce in our surroundings. I sometimes think those plants are even grateful to me for taking good care of them this season. They seem to sense what a supreme effort this is. I sit out there with those hanging baskets around me, in the cool early morning with my coffee, watching the cardinals and blue jays as they gently nudge this year’s teenagers toward adulthood, and reflect on what I can possibly do to make it work out this time, that will make the difference, so that these beautiful plants can survive the summer with me. I yawn, stretch, and head back inside to prepare for another busy day. And then, as if calling after me, I hear Mama’s voice – young, and strong, and clear, saying, “Don’t forget to water the flowers.”


Gramercy Galleria said...


What a wonderful story. It made me think of my own Mother. She always had plants, and her favorites were african violets. They seemed to love her as much as she did them. I inherited her love of house plants and have had hundreds of them over the years. I am at my lowest number ever -- which means I actually know the number. Just having plants in the house reminds me of my Mother.

Thanks for the wonderful posting.


Joyce said...

Thanks for sharing this information about your family, a very nurturing one indeed!

Martha Marshall said...

I'm so glad it touched a nerve with those who have had potted plants as family members. My sister and I definitely have mixed emotions, but fond memories just the same.

queenlint1 said...

Ah! Another link is formed! I loved this story. It reminds me of the angel wing begonia, ginger plant and bromeliad I have that once flourished in my mother's garden. Thanks so much for the wonderful post!