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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

My Mother’s Prayer Plant

Last Friday was the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death. That means this prayer plant is twenty plus however-long-it-lived-with-my-mother years old. Not bad.

Until twenty years ago, my only plants were a stringy philodendron who had survived my tendency to forget to water, and many little jade plants rooted from the broken stems of a big one that an apartment sitter claimed “just fell apart one day.”

I had always wanted to have plants like my mother did, but so many had died on my watch that I never considered myself a green-thumb. In 1990, when my mother died, tending her plants became my mission. To my relief, all but one thrived. The one was this prayer plant, the coffee table centerpiece, who seemed determined to expire. I talked to it, coaxed and caressed it, pled with it to live, but one by one, the leaves turned from green to sickly yellow to brown, and by the time of my mother’s memorial party in her living room, it was a mournful sight among the perky violets and vases of cut flowers.

Clearing out my mother’s apartment was going to be a grueling job, but before I could approach it, I felt compelled to find homes for her plants. I gave some to friends and put glass shelves up in my three brownstone windows so I could house more plants. I took advantage of the small skylight in my bathroom by attaching a rope and pulley to its guard bars. And the first things I moved out of my mother’s home and into my own were as many plants as I could cram in.

To my delight, even though the plant books said it could not be done with a northern exposure, the geraniums continued sending up great fat, fire-engine-red and hot-pink flowers; the African violets outgrew their pots; an unidentifiable plant with small, maple-shaped, black-green leaves tripled its size and announced it was a croton; the dead half of the fern that had been wall-side at my mother’s turned green under the skylight in my bathroom; the ficus dropped not a leaf; but most miraculous, the prayer plant, who I’d feared might go further into distress at the change in location, not only revived, but burst into bloom! And suddenly I began to understand.

Twice since I’ve had the plant, I’ve gone away for extended vacations, and both times, despite the conscientious care of two different friends, the prayer plant (and only the prayer plant) went into decline. The second time I went away, I thought to warn my plant-caring neighbor about its tendency lest she feel that it was her fault, but I decided not to say a word; I wanted to test this phenomenon, and I thought if I said something I might influence my friend’s expectations, which in turn might affect the plant. And, as before, the plant began to die, but as soon as I returned, it sent up new shoots and practically smiled.

I remembered that for years this plant had gone through similar cycles of lushness to near-death. In fact, my mother used to marvel at its incredible will to survive. The cycles had no seasonal pattern. The light, water, and ventilation remained constant, and yet suddenly it would go from radiant health to near-expiration. And now I wonder if those cycles might have been in sync with my mother’s own health declines and miraculous recoveries. Could this plant have been so connected to her energetically, and when it came to live with me, could it have similarly bonded with me? Could my mother’s prayer plant simply be a plant that requires companionship — the appreciation of a loving witness — just as my mother had?

I do believe that plants have some kind of soul, and I also believe that having a green thumb may be nothing more than respecting, witnessing, and loving the life of that soul.

Twenty years after my mother’s death, many plants in my indoor garden have died and been replaced by new ones. I’ve learned to accept it. But that plant I’m closest to — the picture tell says it all: we’re doing fine.
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