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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 7-13

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The Natural History of My Begonia

Of the life of my begonia before I met it, almost 30 years ago, I know little. It came to me via a friend of my roommate at the time. Art had been talking about going to South America for months; though we'd begun to doubt he'd ever leave, one day he surprised us and bought a ticket for Santiago. After he'd packed up his apartment, he gave us a number of household items, none of which I still have, and a potted plant, which now sits in my kitchen window. It was a Cleopatra begonia, a large, healthy one, with enormous bronzy green leaves and eventually some pink flowers.

At that time, Seattle in the mid-seventies, I had other houseplants, hanging in the windows and lining the sills: Swedish ivy and an asparagus fern, several coleuses and many pots of wandering Jew that had wandered too far. Some had been given to me; most I'd picked up for a dollar or two at the grocery store. They moved with me into my own apartment, and I watered them and occasionally gave them a pinch of fertilizer and thought nothing much about them. The begonia stood out extravagantly, at least the first year, in its largeness and its full-leafedness, but eventually it began a quiet and extremely slow decline. First it stopped flowering; then its leaves seemed to get a little smaller, then a little smaller again, and then still smaller. Fewer, too. I thought that I would repot it, and took it out of its large plastic bowl container and put it into a new glazed ceramic pot. It looked better there, full and not so shrunken from former glories, but after some years the ceramic pot also began to look a little big for it.

I was a traveler, not a gardener, however, and paid little attention to my plants. House sitters inhabited my temporarily abandoned spaces for weeks or months at a time; it often seemed, when I returned from a trip, that another houseplant had not survived. The asparagus fern hung on pretty well for about 15 years, and the Swedish ivy more or less persisted, though its leaves looked pale and dry, for almost that long. But eventually they were [End Page 7] all dead, never to be replaced. Strangely, the begonia, in spite of the continuous, often imperceptible shrinking that seemed to have gone on right from the moment it became mine, never actually died. It would put out leaves, and then they would wither and fall, but then it would, hopefully, put out a few more. The leaves were pretty tiny by now, the size of a quarter, but they were still signs of life.

I didn't think much about this begonia; I don't think I had thought seriously about this begonia for many years, though I kept watering it when I remembered, which, without other houseplants as its companions, became a less frequent occurrence. Still, it would have felt odd to actually throw the begonia out. I have a kind of fellow-feeling, not always a pleasant one, for other survivors of sadness and abuse. It irritates me that they--that we--have had to suffer so much, and that they can look so flattened and weak and whiny. The pathetic qualities of the begonia bothered me.

Which was no reason at all to kill it.

I moved down to California for two years and, resignedly, took the begonia with me. There it sat, in one location after another that didn't quite suit it. The leaves were smaller now, the size of dimes. They didn't stay too long before dropping off. I thought about leaving the begonia in Oakland when my new partner and I moved back to Seattle, but at the last minute placed it in the car that a friend was driving up for me. I don't think she watered it, but...


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