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.

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