House Plants and Friendship

House plants are needy little things.  You can water them and fertilize them, and pick off the dead leaves and they’ll flourish.  However, if you leave them untended for too long, the leaves go dry, the stems wilt, and pretty soon, all you have is a dish full of dirt.  I should know.  I have the black thumb of all time.

When I was in college, a friend gave me a miniature cactus.  I put it under my desk light and every once in a while threw a glass of water on it.  It seemed to be fine, but one night as I was writing a paper on “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the cactus suddenly gave a pitiful sigh and plopped to its side, falling out of its bowl and onto the desk, roots exposed, and dead as dead could be.

Since that day, I have noticed that most people have several houseplants, and can keep them alive.  My sister Martha-Jean has so many, it takes her an afternoon to water all of them.  They sit on windowsills and bookcases, filling her home with curling vines of emerald and chartreuse filigree.  Not so for me.  Houseplants that enter my home begin as verdant leaves and yellow buds sprouting from a bed of moss.  Within a week, shiny jade leaves acquire an ashen death pallor, and soon turn brown.   Stems bend and crack, and blossoms litter the tablecloth until at last the plant meets its demise.

Friendships are a lot like houseplants.  They require nurturing in order to stay alive.  Some need a great deal of maintenance and others only a kiss and a promise every now and then.  But all need some degree of attention.

I thought about this when my friend Sue called a couple of weeks ago.  She and I met when I was pregnant with my son Gabriel, and after he was born, we’d chat in the church nursery while her Ben and my Abby played at our feet.   During her next pregnancy, she was put on bed rest, and I, a stay-at-home mom, made daily phone calls to check up on her and keep her company.   This was a fairly easy accomplishment, as we lived in a three room apartment that was so small, my phone cord reached from one end to the other.  While Abby and Gabe played in their bedroom, I would dust, do dishes and tidy the rest of the apartment while Sue and I chatted.  We talked about everything- children, marriage, sewing projects and recipes.  We shared a love for God and family, and our conversations were peppered with laughter and encouragement.  By the time her baby Joshua was born, we had cemented a life long friendship.

Sue and I spent the next several years as frequent companions.  Together we re-upolstered my kitchen chairs, canned applesauce, and sewed clothing for our kids.  We babysat each other’s children, team taught Sunday School classes and on hot summer days piled all of our kids into one car to spend a day at the beach.  Our children were almost like siblings, and we were as close as any sisters could be.

The two of us weathered life’s trials-her complicated pregnancies, my complicated marriage.  Her transition to a new part of the country, my transition to a single woman.  Bound by prayer and phone lines, we battled cancer, heart attacks, economic strife, birth and death.  We celebrated graduations and promotions.  We laughed over our kids’ antics and cried over their heartbreaks.  She has taught me much- acceptance, hospitality, forgiveness, patience- all with gentle nudges and encouraging smiles.

When Sue and her husband moved to North Carolina, I thought my heart would break.  But true friendships weather the storm of distance, and every now and then we will share a cup of coffee over a long phone call, catching up on each other’s lives, celebrating successes, praying together over concerns.  Our friendship is like a low maintenance houseplant.

But even low maintenance needs some maintenance, and this week, while Sue was in New Hampshire for the holidays, we were able to steal a couple of hours for face-to-face catch up.  We drove to a small cafe for breakfast and chatter.  The quiche was dry.  The coffee tasted burned.  But the time with my forever friend was absolutely delicious.

How easy, I thought, it is to let friendships fade, like houseplants tucked away in a forgotten corner.  This is a friendship that deserves more than a splash of water and a promise of a new pot for it’s stretching roots.  This friendship needs to be nurtured- dust wiped from its leaves, fresh soil to encourage new growth, sunlight to turn brown to beryl.   This is a friendship to be treasured, for Sue, a woman whose grace and beauty has touched more lives than she’ll ever know, deserves to be treasured.

So plans have been sketched out for a long weekend at the beach this spring where there is time to catch up, time to rehash and time to plan ahead.  We will tend to the garden we have planted together.  A garden of friendship.  And who knows what will come next?  Perhaps I’ll even learn to keep an African violet alive.


How Momma G Let Go at the Perfect Wedding

In all my fantasies, I had always envisioned my daughter Abby to have the perfect wedding.  She, who lives by her check lists, didn’t miss a detail; a small intimate setting, muted colors of grey, mocha and ivory, hundreds of mason jars filled with candles.  She and her betrothed painstakingly chose music, lighting, and food for the brunch reception.  Everything was precisely planned. No component was overlooked.

And then the bride got sick.  The day before the wedding Abby became violently ill.  Too ill to attend the rehearsal.  Too ill to get out of bed.  She lay pale and shivering under her blankets, and I brought her medicine and ginger ale.  I tucked her in to keep her warm and several hours later, when she felt well enough to shower but was too weak to dry her hair, I did that for her too.

As Abby sat on her bed, I ruffled her long tresses and held the dryer, just as I had done a hundred times when she was a little girl.  Her hair is brown now, but when she was little, it was golden blond and hung to her waist.  It feels the same as it did then- soft and fine like a baby’s.  I closed my eyes and remembered the little girl with huge green eyes whose hair I washed and dried and braided to keep out of her face.  It seems as if I had shut my eyes for only a second and the little girl became a woman.  How I cherished the child she was and how I cherish the woman she has become.  I drank in the moment, glad to have one more opportunity to care for my firstborn.

As the dryer hummed, I remembered the days of Abby’s first summer.  How on a sweltering July afternoon when she and I both were irritable from the heat, I filled the tub with tepid water to cool us down.  She fussed and rooted and as we sat in the tub, I nursed her and marveled that our wet skin still smelled the same, even though her body was no longer connected to mine.  I swore that I would protect her forever and never let her go.

I remembered leaving my little girl in the arms of a kindergarten teacher, and how she cried when I left the classroom.  She never knew that I cried too- that I felt as if she was being yanked from my very heart by the passing years.  I remembered the day she moved into her college dorm, how her eyes filled with tears as I drove away, and the sobs that choked me as I drove back to New Hampshire.  And I remembered the mature young woman who left for India a few years ago, unafraid and determined to fight the trafficking of young children in a foreign land.  Since the moment she was born, the days were marked by separations, and yet we still were as one.

A couple of hours after her shower, still feverish,  my daughter declared herself well enough to go to the hotel where she and her sister would stay the night before the wedding.  And the next day, I rose early so I could go back to the hotel and help her  get ready for her morning nuptials. 

The hair dresser had already come and gone, her makeup was done and her veil in place.  She looked exquisite. An hour later she floated down the aisle on her brother’s arm to marry her beloved Johnny.  The music was perfect. The lighting was perfect.  Every detail was in place.  And once again, unable to hide the tears, I let her go.

The Perfect Christmas Snap Shot

Earlier this week I listened to friends say that they couldn’t wait for the Christmas season to end.  Their kids are over tired and over stimulated.  They are overwhelmed with baking and decorating and buying and wrapping.  I empathise with them, but I do not agree with them.  I love Christmas.  It is the season for making memories.

I thought about this later when my son and I returned from some last-minute shopping.  As we wrapped gifts and listened to music, he asked,

“Remember the year you and Dad bought us boom boxes?”

I do indeed.  We went shopping the week before Christmas, during a snow storm.  On a whim, we decided to buy each of the children a boom box, and finding that they took up the entire space in the car trunk, we returned home to unload and go out for a few more items.

The bushes in front of our townhouse were aglow with white lights that glittered in the falling snow.  Struggling to hold two of the large boxes, I stood on the stoop as Paul searched his pockets for the car keys.  Through the front door, we could hear peals of laughter coming from the living room.  Paul stopped looking for his keys and we stood there for a few moments, watching the snow and listening to the music of our children’s laughter.  It was a perfect Christmas snapshot.

Most of us have a favorite Christmas memory.  I have many.  The smell of a new doll brought by Santa.   Tearing wrapping paper to reveal the glitter of Sparkle Paints.  Lying in my bunk bed until midnight, listening to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” through the earphone on a new transistor radio.  The trip we took to see the lights at Constitution Plaza, where my brother Eric discovered that he could stand on a bridge and spit on the cars speeding along the highway below us.  “Frosty the Snowman” performed by the Ray Conniff singers.  Assembling toys at two o’clock in the morning, and hoping we would be finished before the kids woke up.  Singing “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” at midnight mass.

Some Christmases were a bit more challenging.  The year Gabe was a baby, all four of us got influenza.   Another year, we had only thirty dollars to buy the children’s Christmas gifts.  The year Abby was five, I made her a beautiful plaid dress to wear for her first Christmas cantata.  On the way to the performance, she turned a ghastly white, said “I can’t do this,”  and threw up all over the porch steps, and her new dress.

And there was last year, when I spent Christmas afternoon sitting in my mother’s empty room, wishing for just one more chance to hear her read aloud, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

For most of us, Christmas is a kaleidoscope of glitter, color and noise.  It is family, and laughter and foods too rich to eat more than once a year.  It is a riot of gifts, carols and crimson cheeked children watching for Santa’s arrival.  But mostly, it is about hope.  Hope that the special gift we found for that someone special will convey the love in our hearts.  Hope that our children will stay healthy and happy and not tell Aunt Polly that she has a whisker growing from her chin.  Hope that through the birth of a small child in Bethlehem, we are redeemed from our sins.

With that hope to guide us, the things we do will make the memories we so badly want for our loved ones.  When our children are grown, they will remember how they felt on Christmas morning.  They will remember the thrill of finding treasures left by Santa, the aroma of warm gingerbread cookies, and their favorite ornament on the tree.  They will remember opening gifts in their pajamas, and laughter from the children’s table, and hugging a new teddy bear as they drift off to sleep on Christmas night.

This year, my family is making a new holiday memory.  On December 24th, my firstborn will dress in a gown as white as fresh snow and pledge her love to the man who makes every day feel like Christmas morning.  There will be laughter. There will be tears. It will be forever etched in my heart as a perfect Christmas snapshot. 

I hope you and your family will share in the hope of love and light this Christmas, and that your holiday season will be full of new and wonderful memories.

Dad’s Gift

This morning I woke up with the bug…the Christmas bug.  Suddenly, I can’t wait to put up a tree and start gift shopping.  It’s time for carols and cookies and secrets in stockings. 

For me, Christmas is all about anticipation.  It is the season of planning and conniving.  It starts off small, like one little golden bell jingling in the distance and as the big day approaches, other bells join in, until it all reaches a crescendo of laughter, food and gift giving.

As a child, I would slowly turn the pages of the Sears catalogue, dreaming about what presents Santa might leave under the tree.  I imagined buying diamond earrings for my mother and a gold watch for my father.  I envisioned my sisters waking up to find their bedrooms had been redecorated in thick comforters with matching floral curtains.  I laboriously read the descriptions of Tonka trucks so I could choose the very best for my brothers, and I debated upon which teddy bear would be the softest for the babies. 

This was “pretend” shopping. The reality is that with a large family and limited income, my parents had to pinch pennies to give presents to their children.  However, that did not keep them from teaching us the joy of gift giving. 

The Christmas before my seventh birthday, I was given a dollar to spend at the five-and-dime.  I slowly walked through the aisles, carefully calculating how much money each gift cost, and subtracting it from my total purse.  A delicate handkerchief for my mother.  Cubes of guest soap for my sisters.  Plastic animals that squeaked when they were squeezed for the babies.  And two little bottles of “Kings Men” after shave for my father.  The bottles were milky glass with lids in the shape of knights’ armor.  I couldn’t loosen the caps to smell what was inside the bottles, but I felt sure that anything named “Kings Men” would be delightful.  Most certainly my father, who meticulously shaved every morning, would love it.

The little gifts were punctiliously selected and taken home to my room, where I spread them out on my bottom bunk.  I selected the wrapping paper to fit each gift’s owner- jolly elves for the boys, Poinsettia for the girls, and after using half a roll of tape and several yards of curling ribbon, took the masterpieces downstairs and laid them at the base of the tree.

On Christmas morning, I rose before dawn, crept down the stairs and gasped at the plethora of gifts that found their way to our living room.  Shiny red tricycles, baby dolls that drank and wet, and sleds had miraculously appeared in our living room.  For the next few hours, ribbons and bows flew as gifts were ripped open and voices exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted!” 

When we got to the last of the pile, I saw my father’s gift.  It seemed small and insignificant next to the wool sweater vest and set of screw drivers he had already opened.  I slowly brought the package to his easy chair and he looked at the tag.  “For me?  Is this from you, Boo?”

I nodded and watched while he struggled with the tape.  He opened the package and uncapped one of the bottles to take a whiff.  As he inhaled, his eyes grew huge and he gave a small cough.  “Did you pick this out all by yourself? “

I nodded again and he gathered me in his arms.  “Thanks Boo.”

He carefully arranged the bottles in their place of honor with his other gifts and winked at my mother.  I felt my heart would burst with pride.  His favorite gift.  From me!

For years the little white bottles of “Kings Men” sat in the medicine cabinet of our bathroom.  I occasionally wondered why Dad never ran out of it, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized what a rancid odor was contained under the caps of armor. 

I suppose you could argue that Dad missed an opportunity to be honest with me.  You could say that children should be given more guidance when shopping for gifts- that they should be taught to “find something nice.”

But here’s the thing- when my friends are grumbling about the chore of Christmas shopping, I can’t wait to pick out a special something for a special someone.  My parents taught me to do the best with what I have and trust that the recipients will accept all presents in the spirit in which they are given.  Consequently, gift giving is easy for me.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  Learning to give without fear was the gift my father gave to me that Christmas. And it remains in my heart to this day.

So now, when I hear the faint tinkle of Jingle Bells playing in my head, I am tempted to ditch work in favor of some Holiday shopping.  There are gifts to be picked out.  Smiles to be won.  Packages to be wrapped and ribbon to be curled.  It’s Christmas.  It’s time for giving. 

Thanks, Dad.

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