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Authors: Elizabeth Benedict

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BOOK: What My Mother Gave Me
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e Plant Whisperer


I was raised in a greenhouse.

My mother, born of Iraqi Jews who had migrated to India, married a Canadian who brought her home to a glass house in Ottawa. As a toddler, I barely noticed that most of the house was made of windows, but it wasn't me paying the heating bills. What I did notice was that every window was always and forever mounded with plants. Delicate African violets and cactuses bloomed, and avocado trees stood sentry over the living room.
ey must all have been as baffled by the endless Canadian winters as my mother. But more pressing in my memory, we were running a plant infirmary at my house, in which root tipping, stem reinforcing, and plant healing happened in tiny glass jars and chipped mugs on every windowsill.

It was as if my brothers and I had a whole host of plant half siblings guiding us through our childhoods, hopping along on their little plant wheelchairs and slings and crutches.

Of course when I started college, I bought plants for my dorm rooms, and I even have a vague, blurred memory of my mother once walking me through a root transplant over the phone, in the manner of Hawkeye Pierce on
talking some rookie surgeon through an amputation by walkie-talkie. When my parents finally moved to the desert, my mother's green world exploded into the outdoors. Suddenly there was jasmine, and hibiscus, and lemon trees so fat with fruit the neighbors would come by with shopping bags. Plants outside the house! If I call her and the phone rings and rings, it just means my mom is out in her garden, snapping off dried leaves and picking out tiny weeds and doing something with something that will someday bloom into something extraordinary.

But then came the plant she gave me when my first son was being born. A painful and violent labor turned into a painful and violent delivery and then got worse. It was going so badly that when my parents left the hospital the first night, my mother tore the printed message off the top of the little card they'd stuck in the plant at the hospital gift shop, which had read
or some such. A joyous welcome was no longer certain. A few hours later, soon after Coby emerged, I saw a new, flowering plant by my bed and only the torn bottom half of a card.

the worst of my postpartum derangement syndrome on that poor plant. I couldn't help but wonder how my mother imagined I could take care of a tiny white flowering plant over and above the colicky, deranged, sleepless bucket of hair that came out of me crying and couldn't stop for three and a half months (but who's counting?). I wanted to drown that plant. Taking care of it was too much to ask of me.

My son did stop crying, but only after my mother sat up rocking him all night long, so my husband and I could sleep for a few hours and not phone the divorce attorneys. Eight and a half years later, the plant still blooms in an upstairs dormer window. I forget to water it and it lives, I overwater it and it coughs up a lung and then thrives again. Tiny white flowers greet me almost every morning, despite my best efforts to forget it. I once dragged my mother over to the plant and demanded that she explain why it looked so droopy in places.

“Yes, they do that,” she said.

Even with its perilous beginnings, that plant is the most precious thing my mother has ever given me. Most of what I know about parenting and patience and life I've learned by watching it. Of my kids, I now mostly think, “Yes, they do that.” At some point, I asked my mother what this type of plant is called, and she said, “It's a Grandma Rose plant,” because my grandmother, her mother-in-law, had loved them so much. When my son turned three, he planted strawberries all over the backyard garden, and they produce similar tiny white flowers that—I secretly hope, every spring—might just grow into my Grandma Rose.

My second son, Sopher, was born without a plant entourage, but with a green thumb in his mouth. He started popping seeds into the garden as soon as he could toddle, and the row dedicated to peas is still labeled “pesa” because he was four and couldn't spell, and really, shouldn't they have been called pesa in the first place? Last summer, when he was five, Sopher and I ended up in Home Depot or Lowe's or one of those huge wretched “home improvement” stores with no windows anywhere, and he circled four times around a rack of broken, dead, and diseased plants generously described by a sign as “lonely plants” but largely marked by their cryptlike odor. He begged for one. We now have three. He waters them and names them and tells me he is the “plant whisperer,” just like his grandmother.

His sunflower grew so big it finally fell over. His tomatoes are still glorious. Even the pesa. I worry that the neighbors will come with shopping bags for the pesa. I watch him out there in wonder.

Voltaire famously concluded
with the advice, “But let us cultivate our garden.” He understood that there is something about caring for the plant world that makes us more apt to behave well in the human world. One has the notion that things raised in hothouses come out delicate and fragile. But I think the opposite is true: I think they are raised with an understanding of how life runs deep and sure and all around.

a green family. Prius, check. Compost heap, check. But I don't shiver in anticipation at the thought of splitting tubers or transplanting peonies, as my mother does. She reminds me what it is to be of the earth and to fight for the earth, not by way of bumper stickers and committee meetings and petitions, but by just planting and tending and weeding and never giving up on even a broken bit of spider plant. I see that in my son now, too—happy with dirt in his green rubber boots and a watering can and a watermelon seed. When I go to visit my parents, my first stop is my mother's garden. When his lonely plant goes yellow at the edges, my son asks to put in a call to his grandparents.
e earth and the garden have rooted us all to one another when nobody was looking. We cultivate our garden and let life take it from there.

Wait Till You See What I Found for You


My mother gave me many gifts: her love of humor, peanut butter cups, Dorothy Parker,
New Yorker
cartoons, Cole Porter, flea markets, libraries, steamed lobsters, raw peas fresh out of the pod, and silver candlesticks. And even though my father's twelve-year illness forced her into pinching pennies, she relished the rare grand gesture—the Waldo Pierce painting, a restaurant filet mignon (the right side of the menu be damned), the fur-collared coat she bought me for my twenty-first birthday. Every treat teetered on the seesaw between need and indulgence; as a result, she refused to buy a new refrigerator, thus requiring the repairman to pay so many service calls we began to claim him as a relative. And forget any dryer to accompany the washer that shook our floors with hurricane-gale force the minute it segued into spin. Condemned to the backyard clothesline, our sheets froze into rectangles fringed with icicles. She also nixed pajama-party-compulsory Lanz nightgowns and toasty boots for the mile and a half walk to school. Deprivation built character; surprising extras provoked cartwheels of ecstasy in my younger sister and me.

While I can appreciate someone else's large white room filled with light and not much else, I am my mother's daughter when it comes to spurning plain walls and empty tabletops. I support my daughter-in-law's rule of eliminating an old coffee mug for every new one, but my mother's all-addition/no-subtraction approach better suits my kind of math. She collected objects, paintings, furniture until the day she died, convinced there was a place for one more thing in the eight small rooms she inhabited for over sixty years. She always managed to carve out a few more feet for yet another portrait, rearranging the wall's jigsaw to accommodate the latest faux ancestor. Even in her final months, connected to oxygen tanks, she insisted we cart Chippendale chairs and silver trays to her nursing home to recreate a mirror image of a familiar interior.

When we were first married, my husband and I occupied furnished student digs amid a hodgepodge of battered tables and old socks balled into corners by the previous tenants. After graduating, we rented an apartment barely big enough for our desks and books. As a housewarming gift, my mother gave us a four-poster mahogany bed whose finials grazed the low ceilings. We were ecstatic over such a luxury. Measured against restless nights on the fold-down, spine-stabbing, ridged sofa that our friend Louise left us when she moved to Los Angeles, this standard-sized mattress seemed as vast and infinite as the sea.

In 1971, we bought our current house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thus providing my mother with the best outlet for all her gracious-living dreams.
ough it's an 1865 Victorian on a lovely hill, her first reaction crushed us. “But it doesn't have two full baths,” she said. (She didn't have two full baths.) “
ere are a lot of stairs,” she said. (She had a lot of stairs.) “No fireplace,” she said. (She had no fireplace.) “
e kitchen is kind of small,” she said. (Hers was smaller). “Why so few closets?” she asked. (Her whole house sported only two phone-booth-sized closets with space, perhaps, for a single Clark Kent Superman cape.)

“Look at the good bones,” I said. I pointed out intricate molding and high ceilings. “And as soon as we can afford it, we'll hire an architect and renovate.”

“Renovate?” she asked, her lips pursed as if she'd swallowed something sour.
was not a word in her vocabulary. Nothing had been renovated in her house for sixty years except for the emergency replacement of the living room wallpaper when it started coming off in sheets so massive even the chockablock paintings couldn't hold back gravity.

“I suppose you could improve it,” she allowed, and went on to describe the house of her best friend's son, Ethan. He'd built it overlooking the ocean, she said. It was gigantic. It had its own beach.
e dining table sat fifteen.
e kitchen rivaled the Brighton Pavilion's palm tree fantasy. At the end of the bed, in the master bedroom, a movie screen popped up the minute you tapped your foot.

“I would hate that,” I protested.

“Of course you would, dear,” she sighed. “It's just so grand.”

I knew what she wanted for me. Something grand. Gracious living times two. A House Beautiful house. A stately home. Bragging rights.

To please her, I needed only to acquire for myself what she had always coveted for her own self. My mother's happiness was on my shoulders. I had inherited her more-is-more gene while my sister ate off a white plastic table and refused all my mother's home-improvement gifts. “I don't care about fixing up my apartment,” my sister said. “I'm never there anyway.” My sister had a real job, an office to go to, while I, a writer, worked from my own turf, face-to-face, on an hourly basis, with all my house's inadequacies.

But if my sister didn't care, I cared. And my mother knew it. Besides, my husband and I loved her taste. She could do the heavy lifting, have fun, and also take the burden off us. Let me add that at the time we bought our house, my mother had been widowed for eleven years, taught nursery school, and weighed a no-weakling ninety pounds. So petite was she that antique dealers sold her baby bracelets cheap because nobody else, including well-nourished infants, could clasp them around modern wrists. She wore them by the dozens, clanging when she walked.

Bracelets still clanging, she got to work. With the help of a neighbor, she roped to the top of her rusty Dodge Dart rugs and chairs and tables and, once, a ballroom's gold-leafed mirror bought at an estate sale from a Bar Harbor “cottage” and made the four-and-a-half-hour trip from Bangor to Cambridge. None of her treasures was perfect—the rugs had holes and faded colors, the mirror had lost a whole corner of curlicues, the chair legs were spindly, fit only to hold someone the size of my mother. We accepted all gifts gladly, moving them around our fast filling-up rooms until, at last, my mother declared our house, if not grand, then “interesting.”
rilling us, she added the ultimate compliment: “Even more interesting than Ethan's house.” She lowered her voice. “However tiny in comparison.”

ough such praise was a real gift, the best was yet to come. “Wait till you see what I found for you,” she called one afternoon. Glee marked each syllable. “I'll drive it to Cambridge this weekend, as soon as I can get my neighbor to tie it to the roof.”

“Great,” we said. “What could it be?” we asked each other.

ree days later, she arrived. We studied the huge, mysterious, tarp-covered bulk lashed to the top of the car with what looked like dangerously flimsy rope. “Bigger than a bread box,” my husband quipped.

My mother seemed a little shaky when she stepped onto the sidewalk. “Sea legs,” she explained. “It acted like a sail. I was all over the road.”

We cut the rope. We pulled off the tarp.

“Ta da!” my mother beamed. Triumphantly, she thrust her braceleted fist into the air.

We grinned. We clapped. “Wow,” we chorused and beheld our new front door.

before we bought it, our house had gone through multiple renovations—first single family, then two family, followed by a third apartment built into the basement. After so many past lives, the original central entrance had now been switched to the side; its door was flat, nondescript, utilitarian, probably plywood. We varnished it and were satisfied.

But not my mother. Rescued from a wrecking ball, her salvaged treasure had once served as the proud portal to a nineteenth-century Bulfinch house with impressive architectural lineage.
e house was in the process of being demolished to make way for a drive-through Chinese restaurant when my mother jumped from her car yelling, “Stop!”

“I got there just in time,” she explained.

“Lucky for us,” my husband said.

is door was a work of art, big, substantial, paneled with intricate raised molding; a large oval brass knob jutted out from a gleaming flower-etched brass plate. “To think it might have ended up in some landfill,” my mother groaned. We called my cousin Stevie, an engineering student at MIT and thus qualified as “handy.” He widened the frame; he adjusted the threshold. A locksmith came that afternoon to fix the locks and make us keys.

forty years, the door has greeted an endless parade of family and friends. An ongoing cycle of tacked-up notes, Post-its, and political leaflets has bannered its panels; truckloads of mail have slid through its slot; bouquets of flowers, fruit baskets, and packages have leaned against its jamb. Our tiny, blanket-swathed newborns, whom we first carried, terrified and exultant, through this door, now have children of their own. Yet again, a new wave of toddlers' hands reaches for the knocker, twists the knob. “We're here. Let us in,” they call. Such continuity delights and comforts us.

ough the door has been painted black, crimson, French blue, and is currently park-bench green, its magnificent molding highlighted in Chinese red, these are only superficial changes for what remains our cornerstone. Sometimes I worry about its future. “Can we sell the house without the door?” I ask my husband. Its plywood predecessor is still stored in the basement. “Can we give it to the kids?” One son lives in an apartment; the other prefers spare and modern. “It belongs here,” my husband and I conclude.

“Beautiful,” pronounced my mother, who used to carry around a photograph of the door along with snapshots of her grandchildren. I picture generations of boys and girls skipping through that door to play in the front yard. I imagine future hands inserting the key, turning the knob, smoothing it, leaving fingerprints. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, our door is the mirror of the heart of our house.
it says. My mother's gift opens, like the first of Russian nesting dolls, into the gifts beyond that door: the things of hers I have, tangible and intangible. And I know she lives on in the thick, solid, enduring fact of her gift, once set like a sail on top of her car.

BOOK: What My Mother Gave Me
10.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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