He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children. —Psalm 113:9

October 14, 2010

Green Thumb Envy

I was born with a thumb that’s blacker than Johnny Depp’s guyliner. Throughout my life, every green thing it touched would from that moment on have the life expectancy of a Mayfly. The women in my family all have verdant thumbs, along with the lush gardens to prove it. Passers-by stop in front of my mother’s house to gaze admiringly at flower beds filled with roses and hydrangeas and plenty of other green and flowering things I can’t even begin to identify. It’s the same with my sisters, both of whom have homes and yards filled with real, live plants and flowers, and not a silk petal or plastic stem in sight.

The only flowering objects found in my yard are weeds, or as I prefer to call them, wildflowers -- the kind it takes more work to kill than it does to grow. As for house plants... well, let’s just say I’m better off being responsible for the kind of living thing that can tell you when it needs care. A plant can’t make cute noises to remind you it exists or bite your leg when it’s displeased at having been neglected for too long.

There have been plenty of attempts over the years to remedy my poor, plantless existence. One year, a group of co-workers decided to pitch in and surprise me with some plants for my desk. When I came back from lunch to find them sitting there next to an accompanying greeting card, I think I died a little inside. Inwardly cringing, I pasted on a grin and made the appropriate thank-yous, all the while filled with dread at having these people see their kind intentions shrivel up and die under my care. Thankfully, salvation came in the form of the people hired to tend the office plants, who took pity on me -- or maybe it was on the plants. Either way, the plants stayed watered and pruned. My co-workers were none the wiser, and the plants thrived... until I lost my job, and was forced to take the poor, doomed things home.

Home, where out of sight meant out of mind, and the only places where they wouldn’t get eaten by the cat were definitely out of sight. The plants were dead in a matter of weeks.

I didn’t make another attempt at caring for plants until years later, after I was married and beginning to nurture a latent domestic streak that I was surprised to discover existed. Inspired by a productivity blog that suggested keeping plants in your office to combat stress, I followed an impulse to go right out and buy some plants for my cubicle. I reasoned that I was older and more responsible since my last attempt. Plus, having them right there by my computer every day would make it a lot harder to forget their existence. Besides, this time I could even name the plants: an African violet and a pot of lucky bamboo. That’s progress, right?

To my surprise, I’d reasoned correctly. I managed to keep these new plants alive without any outside intervention. Then the economy took a turn for the worse and I was laid off... again. As I cleaned out my desk, I actually apologized to the plants, knowing what fate awaited them at home. I thought about finding them a new home with a newly-ex co-worker, but my husband had been wanting to get house plants to serve as low-cost air purifiers. I’d been putting him off with warnings about my black thumb, and I thought these plants might placate him. Either that, or they’d demonstrate my plant-murdering ways first-hand and put him off the subject for good.

Then something completely unexpected happened: the plants lived. A year after I brought them home, they remained leafy and green. At least, they did until earlier this spring when I left the violet too long in a too-sunny window. Apparently, plants can get sunburned. Who knew? After that the poor thing withered away to a desiccated wisp. The lucky bamboo was a different story. It has held on through being nibbled on by my cat and weeks of being neglected while we dealt with a family tragedy.

True to its name, that lucky bamboo is still with us. Its persistence has inspired us to dare increasing our collection, starting with replacing that ill-fated African violet. Next came an aloe vera and a pot of English ivy. As those did well, my mother and older sister started giving us cuttings from their collections, no doubt thrilled by how far my ability to keep a plant alive signified that I’d come as an adult.

Now that my home is full of plants, I’ve recently made a discovery that, if you’d suggested back when I was throwing out the shriveled remains of those gifts from co-workers, would have made me laugh at your funny joke. These plants make me happier. Maybe it’s the splashes of cheerful color they add, or the sense of being closer to nature. Maybe it’s the hope they inspire, the expectancy of nascent flowers that reflect the care they’ve been given. Or maybe all that extra oxygen they supply is doing funny things to my brain. But tending these plants -- making the rounds with the watering can, checking them over for dead leaves that need pruning, simply spending time with them -- has become the highlight of my day.

Far from being one more chore that must be done, one more thing that’s dependent on me, my plants offer an escape from a hectic day. They’re an excuse to slow down, to take a little time out to commune with nature and experience its beauty. I get it now, the joy that my mom and sisters derive from their plants. I’m no longer envious of their green thumbs now that my own thumb has turned a greener shade of gray.

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