Janet Sheridan: Little green deaths
January 19, 2012
My mother raised houseplants as calmly and productively as she raised children. I never offered to help her care for her plants and wasn't impressed by their green good looks — probably because I couldn't eat them.
Then my high school speech and drama teacher assigned a how-to speech: I had to explain and demonstrate a skill unique to me.
My classmates felt inspired. Blake decided to teach us magic tricks; Jeanette said she'd do fingering techniques on a violin; Neldon planned to simulate branding a calf.
I realized I was skill-less.
Desperately, I cast about for possibilities: I rejected tying my shoes as common, peeling foil from a gum wrapper as boring, and arm wrestling as unladylike.
Instead, I decided to re-pot a houseplant: a unique skill I didn't possess.
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Fortunately, I lived with an expert.
Mom raised her eyebrows when I explained my plan, but agreed to help. She taught me how to do a successful transplant and gave me a sturdy schefflera, which I bashed about during several practice sessions before taking it to school on performance day.
My speech class was sixth period. I didn't think it wise to stuff the long-suffering plant in my locker until then, so I dragged it around with me.
Interested classmates bombarded it with pencils, decorated it with chewing gum, tried to autograph its petals, and suggested I name it Doomed.
My plant looked weary by the time it underwent its 12th transplant, but seemed to survive. Then during the bus ride home, it expired.
I received a B+ on my speech, which encouraged me to kill all sorts of plants.
My next victim was an african violet in bloom, a gift from my boyfriend. Misled by my speech, the poor fellow thought I liked houseplants. A month later, he noticed it cowering in a corner, covered with powdery mildew.
"Well," he said, "looks like the gift I gave you is dying from neglect."
After that remark, so was our relationship.
Undeterred, I took a summer job watering the jungle that threatened to engulf an elderly neighbor's living room. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bradford had no way of knowing that her extended visit with her daughter would result in a massacre.
Gnats hovered; spider mites spun; and leaf spot multiplied. Fatalities occurred.
In August, Mrs. Bradford paid me in grim-faced silence and failed to include a tip.
After that, I left houseplants alone for several years, thinking they would lead happier lives without me. Then a friend gave me a cactus garden in an ornate clay pot as a wedding gift. I loved those small prickly plants and was determined to treat them well.
But one by one they shriveled, shed tiny spines, toppled, and exposed their little roots. An Avon lady came calling, noticed them and exclaimed, "Oh, those poor things! Why don't you try watering them?"
Despite their tolerance for drought, I had killed my beloved cactus with prolonged, unalleviated thirst.
Despite these setbacks, houseplants seemed the perfect decorative accessory for the barren apartments my husband and I occupied as newlyweds; so I decided to buy them and make them comfortable while they died: a hospice service for house plants.
Little green deaths became a routine part of my life until Mom rescued me: "Here, take this plant home with you. It's called a wandering jew. It requires little water, grows in any light, and doesn't mind being root-bound. It's Janet-proof."
I carted that plant from apartment to apartment, rattling around with the kitchenware in the trunk of our Chevy or wedged into a U-Haul trailer among macramé projects and lava lamps.
No matter what I did, it never once threatened to die.
I still have it: the plucky plant that turned my thumb green. Thanks to the confidence it gave me, I now raise disease-free greenery, perform successful transplants, and have a Christmas cactus that blooms on schedule.
Mom would be pleased.