Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ode To A Houseplant

To remember people and events important to us we keep physical things around as reminders. They make our lives layered and colorful.

For me, one of those things is plants. My two-story apartment is crawling with spider plants, wandering Jews, cacti, even a small tree. Houseplants fill me with giddy, sublime joy. But not for reasons you might think.

First a little background.

In some genetic roulette game, I inherited all of my mother’s Hungarian gypsy blood from her brood of seven. At age 21 I moved to China where I lived for over three years and traveled all around Asia. In a two-year period, I lived in 14 different places including a squat in New York City, a youth hostel in Seattle and a truck going cross country.

So, I owned very little. Committing to even a houseplant was out of the question.

That’s why in my late-20s while finishing my second degree, working as a reporter and a waitress, performing in theater and traveling quite a bit, I was shocked when a friend, who knew me quite well, gifted me a plant.

An African violet, to be exact, with delicate purple flowers nestled amid its foliage -- a living thing that without proper care and attention would die.

How very thoughtless.

What about that 3-day music festival on my calendar? What if I wanted to disappear for a month? The camping trip? I feel the walls closing in.

“What, pray tell, am I supposed to do with this?” I ask Rachel, my best friend and roommate in our railroad-style Victorian two-story walk-up apartment.

“I don’t know,” she answers. “Water it?”

While no veteran of 4-H agricultural camp, Rachel's advice is spot on. I water The Plant. I even enlist others to water it when I go traveling.

My commitment to The Plant shows. It thrives under my care. Always fresh looking, always green. I must have a knack. My arms ache from all the back patting.

About a year later, Rachel and I decide to rent a house with another friend and to leave our beloved apartment. We chat in my room about the move and what we plan to bring. Standing between us stands a small table and on that small table is The Plant, its pretty purple petals staring up at us.

“So, are you bringing all your furniture?” Rachel asks.

"There’s not much," I say. "My futon mattress. (looking down) This table. The Plant, of course.”

Our eyes both fall on The Plant.

“You know, I’ve been wanting to ask this for a long time," begins Rachel. "But, um, that plant … is it (pause) real?”

What? Did she really just ask that??

With my best defensive posture and emphatic enunciation, I say, “Rachel. Look. I think I can tell the difference between a fake plant and a real plant.”

I flip my hair back. I don't want to. But she deserves it.

“I’m sorry. Really,” counters Rachel. “It’s just that, … well, it’s never changed. At all.”

We stare at each other.


We look down at the plant.

Longer Pause.

I reach down and bend a leaf. It springs back with elastic vigor. I tug at a flower and the whole plant pops out of the little terra cotta flowerpot revealing not a spec of dirt, only Styrofoam. For one second, the entire year spent watering and caring for The Plant flashes through my mind like a movie montage.

Rachel and I stand there staring at each other, The Plant's silky polyester leaves dangling between my fingers. A purple flower pops off. I snap it back on.

"We need never speak of this again," I manage to say in complete seriousness before we both fall to the floor in a fit of giggles that lasts for days.

When I first wrote this story, I thought that she hadn't told anyone. But after reading my blog, she confessed to me that she has, in fact, told this story often over the years. To many people, actually. Sometimes to complete strangers. Standing in a grocery line, the topic of plants will come up and she'll hear herself saying, "You know, I have this friend who watered a fake ..."

I can't blame her. The comedic value is pretty high. And it's part of an unspoken agreement we have with each other - to sacrifice self-respect for a good laugh.

And that's why I love having houseplants around.

And Rachel.