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