Welcome, Grandmother

[photo of my grandmother, my mother and her siblings, circa 1940]

 

Welcome, Grandmother

My mother did not have a green thumb.  Growing up, we had maybe three houseplants, the one, a Philodendron that hung in the living room, its spindly arms hanging down in supplication — “won’t someone please love me?”, it’s leaves small and sparse.  My mother  dutifully watered the little plant once a week and when the vines got too long she would trim them and throw them away.  While not sickly, the plant never looked happy, like it was missing a crucial mineral necessary for its growth.

There’s not a lot of green, generally, in a city, and my mother grew up in South Philadelphia.  She liked things clean.  Cleaning was a requirement, like going to Mass on Sunday except, while we were growing up, she did it every day.  My childhood bestie, Stephen, called her Immaculate Rita because the house was never out-of-order.  I think genetics may be involved as decades later when I myself lived in Queen’s Village in Philadelphia (almost South Philly), the old Italian neighbor lady down the block swept her stoop and sidewalk meticulously a couple of times a day while cursing the solitary black walnut tree that grew in front of her house.  “What a mess,” she’d say, a refrain I heard my own mother cry on more than one occasion when my sister and I were young.  My neighbor would sooner cut the tree down than deal with the mess so it’s possible that this cleaning thing is a genetic trait in Italians.  I did not inherit this cleaning gene from my mother.

Contrast my grandmother who grew up on a farm in Italy and tilled the soil to grow vegetables, gathered eggs, and cut the heads off of chickens if they were lucky enough to be cooking one for dinner that night.  In Philadelphia, she had a small vegetable garden out back where she grew tomatoes for her gravy and other delectables like zucchini and peppers that young Rita refused to eat.  My mother relates that at one point growing up she ate only peanut butter and ice cream.  I don’t recall her saying how long this behavior continued, but I’m pretty sure my grandmother eventually won.  I am sure of this because once she was a mother, my mother always won, and that kind of mothering is definitely genetic.

 

I took over the care and feeding of my mother’s Philodendron when she sold the house.  Philo was old and scraggly with but a few vines to it, but also wise, and I felt an obligation to a plant that had hung in there that long under such circumstances.  I don’t have a picture of what the plant looked like hanging in my parent’s house, but today my mother’s Philodendron looks like this:

 

…leading me to believe that green thumbs skip a generation.   If you need more proof, how about these:  

This Ficus I got when I started college in 1979.  Given how slow Ficus grow, it had to be at least five years old when I bought it so it’s now likely over 50 years old.  We haul it out to the back deck in summer and back into the living room in winter.  We had to cut a least a third of it’s height last year because it was too tall to get back into the house.  Ficus can grow up to 98 feet tall!   I briefly contemplated moving to a house with 10-foot ceilings, but a trim seemed easier and more practical.

 I bought a second Ficus when I graduated from college.  They look about the same age, even by their trunks and especially after pruning.

And here’s the Norfolk Pine that my office gave me when my father died in 1994.  It, too, has been under the knife —three times, and it’s probably lost at least three feet overall — but after each trim it sprouts a new doo and continues, undeterred.  Originally, the pruning jobs for these three trees fell to my husband because I couldn’t bear it.  Ficus are notoriously fussy and temperamental and Norfolk Pines with their heads hacked off seemed destined for the trash bin.  I envisioned them all screaming with each snip as discussed in The Secret Life of Plants, and worse, dying from all the abuse.  

The first time we cut them back, the oldest Ficus dropped all its leaves. I was horrified and disconsolate, but the bare branches didn’t last but a week or so before little shoots appeared.  Adaptation despite inconvenience, I heard the Ficus say.  Better to be smaller than in the trash heap. 

Dr. Christine Northrup, a women’s health expert and visionary in the field, who combines mind, body and spirit in her approach to women’s health, talks about how women’s wisdom is passed down through the maternal line in her book Mother-Daughter Wisdom.  Even if your mother or grandmother is no longer alive, you are still getting the benefit of that wisdom, Northrup says.  You just need to be still and invite her in, an exercise she calls a matrilineal naming circle.  

You name your mother’s line as far back as you know it so for me, “I am Pam, daughter of Rita, daughter of Yolanda.”  That’s as far back as I know since my grandmother died when I was very young.  My grandmother’s siblings moved in spurts from Italy to Canada and my grandmother was the sole U.S. immigrant so growing up, there really was no one to ask.  In Dr. Northrup’s book she describes a workshop where all the women named their female ancestors and then invited them into the group.  The room was intense, filled with the energy of all the women who had gone before, and many of the women experienced a huge emotional release — tears of joy, sadness, or just the ability to dump some baggage.  Northrup believes that for a woman to understand her own body and mind, she needs to look to the past from time-to-time, to see where she has come from.  

 

My mother believed this as she continued to look for alternative/eastern medicinal cures for her still incurable scleroderma, reasoning that whatever she could fix in her own body would be fixed for her girls.  (Thanks, Mom!)  My gardening proclivities go way beyond anything Rita ever did and certainly beyond what she taught me, and, but for an offhand comment my mom made, I would have never known my grandmother was an amazing gardener.

 

 

So mystery solved.  Although I’m not yet an amazing gardener, I have potential, and my plants seem to adore me if growth rates are any indication.  Also good to know that knowledge is fluid, possibly genetic, and available for download from the ethers even when people aren’t around.  Next time I have a few moments, I’m going to ask Nana how to get my bee balm to stop overrunning my daylilies.  I’m sure she’ll have quite a lot to say.

pjlazos 7.22.18

About Pam Lazos

writer, blogger, environmentally hopeful
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47 Responses to Welcome, Grandmother

  1. cindy knoke says:

    “My childhood bestie, Stephen, called her Immaculate Rita because the house was never out-of-order.”
    This reminds me of so many shared childhood names for people’s parents, but ours (La Jollan kids) names were worse, probably because we grew up in La Jolla.
    One guy’s dad was “Ivan the Terrible.” He was a very successful orthodontist, and he was truly terrible, to his son, and his mom. But, hey, he was a great orthodontist, and some people may be fond of orthodontists?
    Another was, “Violent Vi,” who pretty much seemed intent on destroying her daughter. Her name was Violet. Her nickname was clearly a oxymoron, but what did we know?
    There were so many more. I could keep going.
    We just called my mother, “Eleanor of Aquitaine,” cuz ya’ know a queen, is a queen, no matter where she is.
    It was sort of depraved upper class place, breeding damaged survivors to rule the world.
    But, it has the best beaches in contiguous north america.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pjlazos says:

      Oh my gosh, Cindy, that’s hilarious, except for all the meanness, but I guess the funny name’s were the main coping mechanism of children growing up in dysfunctional families. Love your mom’s name. 😘

      Like

  2. Robyn Haynes says:

    Pam I loved this post. My mother’s generation loved philodendrons. It must have been a fashion then. Mum had hers growing up and around the window frames in the kitchen. Yours is looking very healthy.

    I do think modelling behaviour is an element in the green thumb generational transition. We see what our role models are doing, getting joy from, and we emulate. In some cases anyway.

    It’s so foreign to me to imagine bringing plants inside for the winter. Despite this, yours have done so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Susan Scott says:

    Lovely post Pam! I feel for roses when they have to be trimmed in the pruning season. It doesn’t surprise me that the thorns prick and cause pain to me – I don’t wear gardening gloves. My orchids always surprise me by blooming so prolifically. I don’t feed them anything but I do say thank you to them for their beauty. My late mother talked to her plants and vegetables, encouraging them and praising them for their bounty. I enjoyed what you said about Cristiana Northrup. Have a great weekend 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • pjlazos says:

      The last flower on the orchid I received for my early July birthday just dropped off. I don’t know what it is with me and orchids, but they refuse to grow for me, unlike most everything else. Lucky you and yours. Have a great weekend yourself! ox

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post! My mother and grandmother are both green-thumbed, but mine’s nick-named Wilty McBrownDigit. 🙂 I don’t think I picked up on the cleanliness thing, either, come to think….

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Forestwood says:

    Love that you said knowledge is fluid and maybe genetic!! I want closer emotionally to my grandmother but intangibly and subconsciously she passed on her ways to me. Your post had made me think. Thank you. P.S. I meet thought a Norfolk pine would recovery from top pruning! Well done!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love this plant history! I had a Christmas cactus that bloomed every year for about 15 years back in Boston. It was a birthday gift from a friend. But I had to leave it behind with other friends when we moved. When I was lamenting leaving my cactus behind, my cousin told me then about a cactus she still has from our Nana, who was born in 1910 and passed away in 1998. That cactus is over 60 years old but still going strong!

    Liked by 3 people

    • pjlazos says:

      Ah, that’s so awesome, Karen, particularly for something like a cactus that’s easy to overwater. I’m sure it makes you feel closer to your Nana. My grandmother on my dad’s side, my Yiayia, had African violets, which for me is like an orchid cause I can’t keep them alive for more than a few years. I think the plants that need to be ignored in life are the ones I have trouble with!😘

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Such a fun and interesting post, Pam. I’m going to have to read that book!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Scott says:

    Wonderful story

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Cathy wisda says:

    My moms philosophy on plants. They should decorate. If they no longer decorate, you should throw them out! So very practical she was.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Cathy wisda says:

    My moms philosophy on plants. They are there to decorate. If they don’t decorate, throw them out! So very practical she was.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. lindasschaub says:

    I do believe green thumbs can skip a generation … my grandmother would take “snips” every time she visited someone’s house and turn them into beautiful houseplants; my mom was not big on green houseplants, but did wonderfully with her kitchen windowsill cactus gardens. I, on the other hand, can kill a houseplant in no time, but have luck with outside plants through the years. (The back-to-back Polar Vortexes do not count for their ravage of my backyard.)

    On the other hand, baking and housekeeping skills that were part of my mom’s attributes have stopped with her … I have neither. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • pjlazos says:

      So what if your mom’s or grandmothers talents did you inherit, Linda? Inquiring minds want to know!😘

      Liked by 1 person

      • lindasschaub says:

        Hmm – I would say temperament. The male side of our family, going back to my great grandfather has been nothing but irascible old coots (I loved that moniker of ‘old coots’ from “On Golden Pond”). Truthfully, none of them were very kind and that is why I am still single. I am sure not my mother’s daughter when it comes to keeping house or cooking though and my grandmother could cook pot roast and that was it … her lemon pies I understand were rubbery and could bounce off the side of a wall. 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

      • pjlazos says:

        Ah, that’s sad. Some say that a girl’s relationship with her father is what determines how the woman is in a relationship with her husband and if you had a terrible “old coot” for a dad I could see not wanting to take that chance. I’ve got a friend, though, who believes that if your relationship with your mother is solid then you can work anything in your life out. Both theories make sense to me so maybe it’s just what you focus on (because it’s always what you focus on).😘
        Thanks for stopping by.🙏

        Liked by 2 people

      • lindasschaub says:

        I had a good relationship with my mom and we were very close. I think we compared our moms when you wrote a post for Mother’s Day.

        My great-grandfather was a farmer and his wife kept up with him in the fields and working in the house, all while raising nine children. It was admirable until she was saddling a buggy for church and Mabel, the buggy horse, was spooked somehow and reared up, then came down on her foot and shattered it. My great grandfather deemed her “not much help to him anymore” and treated her with no respect, barely talking to her, except at mealtime.

        My grandfather was likewise, “an old coot” … he was cantankerous and had a filthy mouth and used it frequently, especially when he’d been drinking. My grandmother was lucky that he got pneumonia and passed away, while she still had some of life left to live peacefully.

        As to my parents, I was an only child, born to my parents in their 30th year. I was spoiled by my father and my mother was the disciplinarian in the house. However, after 30 years of marriage, in 1983, my father announced on Christmas Day that he no longer wanted to be part of the family and left. What my mother didn’t know is that he had already been to the bank, cleared out the bank account, plus forged her name to an annuity account they held jointly. Then he returned to his native Germany. My mother was left penniless and had medical issues and could not work and was not old enough for social security (she was 57). Luckily the house was paid for and I still lived at home. I used to travel a lot so, since I got along fine with my parents, I chose to live at home and take a nice vacation every year. So, we were fine financially, but I “carried” us until she received social security, both from Canada and the U.S. (We moved here in 1966.) My mom encouraged me to put away money and invest in my future, so I was never put in the precarious position that she had been put in. She could not go on assistance, because she was not deemed in need of assistance after they gave her a physical, however, she could not go to work as she had been in an automobile accident at age 11, spent the next four years in the hospital and had some 42 orthopedic operations over her lifetime. She had difficulty walking and was in constant pain and did not drive. She went to business school and worked in an office before I was born in 1956.

        I do believe that her tenacity and temperament is what carries me through, but I am very reluctant to get close to anyone – it bothered my mother very much that this was my mindset, and she went to her grave hating my father for that as well.

        Liked by 2 people

      • pjlazos says:

        Oh my gosh, Linda. That’s quite a story and I don’t even know how to begin to reply other than to say you might want to write this all down either as a memoir or fiction. Either way, it would be good to look closely at and then clear out all that emotional baggage.🧐

        Liked by 2 people

      • lindasschaub says:

        My mother used to suggest I write a memoir too … I have no family members now, except my father, whom I recently discovered is still alive. He will be 92 years old on December 3rd.

        I have a friend from high school who is very interested in genealogy and has tracked down her maternal and paternal ancestors way back, as far as a dozen generations ago. In doing so, Carol discovered we were related somehow (11th cousins removed, something like that) as our grandfathers both hailed from Montreal, Quebec. My friend was pursuing a lead about a relative of hers in Germany and used a professional genealogist whom she has used in the past. As a favor to her, he said he was slow at work and would do any other research for her gratis, so she had attempted to find whether my father was alive before using Ancestry software and had no luck. So I gave her his SS # and birth certificate info re: his parents. This genealogist was able to give me info, though I want no contact with him. I was just curious. He remarried a woman much younger than him which surprised me.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. I so enjoyed reading this Pam! And I’ve read both the books you mention too, so absolutely understand where you are coming from. You’ve certainly added to your Philo’s enjoyment of life!!
    My mother never grew indoor plants – believing them to be of no use whatsoever. Her gardening was mostly aimed at growing things to eat and the flowers were mostly introduced by her sister who believed in beauty for beauties sake. (They were as different as chalk and cheese!) My own house at one stage had so many indoor plants I considered buying a bigger one just for them – crazy huh! Nowadays I have a better balance and my kids have inherited the larger plants …….

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Hi. Real good story.
    On a somewhat related vein, here’s an article you might like about immigrants moving from New York to Philadelphia.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. hilarymb says:

    Hi PJ – what a delightful post to your grandmother and mother … interesting thoughts about what ifs … and how much we ‘inherit’ from our genealogical roots … both my mother and my grandmother were inveterate and very good gardeners … I’ve had two gardens in my life both in South Africa – so not sure what my English ones would have been like … I do like cleanliness too – but am happy being outside tidying up if necessary … and harvesting crops … loved your story and memories here … cheers Hilary

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Patricia Madlinger-Heller says:

    I liked this story. I have the same plant, mine came to me two weeks ago. It’s from a divorce. No one wanted the plant.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Pam, a fabulous and moving post xxx

    Liked by 3 people

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