My mother, concave with age, grabs my wrist as I enter the foyer. "Good!" she whispers, lips pursed so as to enunciate clearly. "And you're not even late. You used to drive your father crazy with lateness, remember? I thought he'd get sick with worry. But now, thank God, you're here. Are you hungry?"
I pat my stomach, pushing it out to prove I'm full. My mother, small eyes deeply set and very bright, nods. "I asked you to care for these plants," she says, "because, of all of my children, you're the one who loves to grow things. And these are old, you'll see, from way before your father's last heart attack, may he rest in peace."
"But Sam says he'll water them," I remind her. "You don't have to give them up."
Slapping the air with the palm of her hand, my mother shakes her head. "Sam's busy. What, he's gonna travel an hour on the train and an hour back to water plants? I'm going to Florida, I don't want to worry about them—or him. Help me."
"Sure." I take off my coat. When my mother hugs me, I feel the Vaseline on her face.
"I'm dry, and it takes away the lines," she explains when I touch the oil now on my cheek. "Besides, it's very cheap." Indeed, my mother's head looks like a large slippery flower on a gnarled stalk.
"I don't know if they're doing very well," she admits as we walk to the guest room. At first glance the plants look OK: decent color, upright stance. But then I see how lanky they are, and how anorexic their stems. One rubber plant is staked, as it hasn't the strength to stand on its own. A six-foot aluminum plant supported by sticks is producing a leaf every two or three inches. And the philodendron, perhaps seven-trellised-feet tall, is at its base as thin as a string. [End Page 94]
In my mother's bedroom there is a spindly chapossea, and some skeletal arrowhead vines. "What do you feed them?" I ask.
"I water them once a week. And I tie them when they flop over."
"Good, but do you repot? Do you feed them?"
"Feed? What is feed? You mean water?"
That's when I realize that these plants have not been fertilized for 20 or 30 years.
"Your father gave me those," my mother says, touching the veined Arrowhead vines. "It was when everyone was gone. All the children were out of the house, and we were alone. He took me to 28th Street, where they have all the plants, and I picked them out."
My mother sits down on the double bed she'd shared with Bernie for 38 years, her hand running over the light blue bedspread. "It was like our second honeymoon," she says. "We folk danced, we walked, we went to free concerts. You know what we'd do? We'd sneak into Brooklyn College art lectures. Nobody caught us. We'd sit in the back and look at the slides. Then we'd go to museums and show off what we learned."
"That's nice," I say. But I'm worried about the job ahead. I'll have to consolidate, prune, repot, and find good homes for these orphans, as my house is full of plants. Some of them might not survive a transplant. It'll depend on their root systems; on their life-grip. I might, in this process, kill some of them.
"And then Sam moved back here," my mother continues. "He didn't even tell us he had a girlfriend. He didn't even mention how serious it was. Can you imagine? Your brother came from graduate school when he got a job at Bowen Company and he wanted to live here with this girl? And I said no."
"Why? Because they weren't married?" I ask, unclear about this story.
My mother looks up, then stares at me. "Because the girl wasn't Jewish. You know...