Is It Just Me? – When Plants Are More Than

Stone ThumbnailMy grandmother’s “Silver Queen” houseplant was dying beside my bathtub. There were more yellow leaves than the trademark green and silver, and they drooped like lettuce leaves at the bottom of an overdressed salad.

Grandma Sybil’s life ended more than fifteen years ago. She was alone in her bed and her death made me sad, relieved and ashamed all at the same time.

For her last birthday, I gave my grandmother the aforementioned plant in a lovely blue and white ceramic pot. By then, she didn’t need anything except the attention of family, but she liked growing things, and I wanted to give her something to brighten up the small apartment in which she was spending increasing amounts of time.

I think my grandmother turned 84 that December, but I could not be sure since Sybil was as secretive about her age as any starlet of her generation. She never learned to drive so there was no license to verify her years and her birth certificate went missing decades before I even met her. My family used to joke that she must’ve dropped down from Outer Space. Personally, I think her birth certificate was lost on the boat-ride from Russia to Canada when she was a toddler, but somehow descending from the skies is a sexier story. My grandma preferred that.

When I was four, my grandfather died and Sybil moved in with our family, instantly becoming a resident babysitter and co-conspirator. Grandma taught me how wonderful it is to grow up with someone who loves you as much as a parent, but isn’t nearly as strict.

My mother fed our family healthily, her and Grandma working side by side in our kitchen. But, whenever my parents went on vacation, Sybil brought out her favorite frying pan and the promise of potatoes.

“What would you kids like?” she’d ask my brother, Stephen, and me, a small grin playing in the crinkles of her lips, waiting for an invitation to break into silent laughter. My grandma loved a good giggle, but she rarely made any sounds. I would glance over at her and see that her face had turned an alarming shade of eggplant, tears trickling quietly down her cheeks. My mother now laughs the same way, and I long for my own silent laughter gene to kick in – I wish it had happened in grade school!

Stephen and I would ask Grandma for fried potatoes, potato latkahs, and Sybil’s family-famous, deliciously crisp potato kugel.

When we weren’t turning into tubers, our grandma taught us slightly rude, French “ditties”. She taught us how to play Blackjack and encouraged me to help myself to one of the individually wrapped candies available in bulk whenever we visited the Woolworth’s store. This made my mother nuts but I didn’t grow up to become a thief, just an adult who understands how mixing generations together can make a family spicy and strong. With my grandma around I always found fun.

But, our camaraderie was squashed in my late teens. I wanted to be treated as an adult, not as a little kid who needed to be reminded to wash her hands before supper. Sybil always asked me the exact personal questions that I worked hard to avoid considering. “I like your boyfriend, but why doesn’t he shave off that scruffy beard so we can see what he looks like? . . . When are you going to get married already? . . When are you going to stay home and have a couple of nice kids?”

When I was thirty, my parents sold their house and moved into a condo, renting a manageable apartment for Grandma nearby. By that time, my boyfriend had shaved off the beard and I had changed his designation to “spouse”. I visited Sybil weekly, but she continued to pepper me with questions about kids, a subject with which my husband and I were still struggling. Eventually, we did have the couple of nice kids Grandma wanted for us, but much to my regret she never got to meet them. In the meanwhile, I was busy with life and angry that she was growing older, and more demanding of my mother and the rest of our family.

One day, early in her final September, I convinced Grandma to come outside for a short walk. She wore the warm sweater I’d suggested, protesting like a little kid whose mom forces her to wear a bulky, embarrassing coat. I began to understand that our roles had reversed.

We sat on a bench in the sunshine and I cajoled Grandma in to doing some gentle leg lifts and wrist rolls. I don’t think she enjoyed these exercises, but she humored me, the silent laughter raising some colour in her cheeks.

As we rose together to return to her apartment, I was momentarily shocked by how small Sybil had become. She had already shrunk an inch or two from aging, but this was different. She was like a snowman slowly melting on the lawn, losing not just height but girth and tone.

My grandma died a few weeks later and once we felt able, my mother, brother and I went to her apartment to sort through her belongings. I took a hand mirror, a digital clock which now sits on the bedside table of my oldest son who shares Grandma’s Hebrew name, and the plant I gave Sybil on her final birthday. It flourished under her care and I secretly believed I was bringing home a live piece of her, something that would keep us connected across two worlds.

I feel compelled to keep that “Silver Queen” plant alive. I’ve gently removed the yellow leaves and applied fertilizer, and I’m relieved to report that new shoots are emerging from the existing plant. This spring, on the eve of my grandma’s favourite holiday, Passover, the leaves are once again pointing up towards the hope of heaven and to my own Silver Queen, Grandma Sybil.

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