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Cactus Love
By Mary Ann Smyth, November 2005

"Gramma, will you keep my plant for me?" My darling Susanna stood before me with a three inch black plastic pot cradled in her hands. The Christmas cactus in that pot seemed to look at me critically, as though sizing up its adoptive mother and finding her wanting.

"Don't you want to take it with you, Susanna?" I replied, trying to keep any vestige of pleading from my voice. "It'll brighten up your room," I interjected a positive note.

"It won't survive the trip in my hot car. Remember, Gramma, my air conditioning broke down. Please keep it for me so I can visit it when I get home. You have a real green thumb. I know it'll do really fine with you." She finished with a sweet smile and a coy tilt to her head. Then she planted a kiss on my cheek as her arms surrounded me with love.

Who could resist a request like that? Not me. Not where my grandchildren are concerned. Susanna packed her car for the five-hour drive to Bennington College in Vermont where she was enrolled as a freshman. Her comment on my green thumb sent me into silent laughter. But I shouldered my new burden with fortitude and good grace. "I'll do my best, darling," I told her. "You can't ask more than that of anyone."

Cactus PotSo the little Christmas cactus and I became intimate. I had slowly been weeding out my own houseplants. 'Thrive without any special care or out you go' was my philosophy. Tiring of philodendrons with long snakelike stems supporting the odd leaf here and there, and a ficus tree that dropped leaves at a dirty look, I ruthlessly discarded one after another. 'Shape up or ship out,' became my motto. I trimmed my responsibilities down to three. Which suited me just fine. I wanted no more dependents. I liked being answerable only to myself.

Then I inherited a rubber plant from my son-in-law's office. My daughter gave me a hibiscus for Easter. Friends came bearing African violets after minor surgery. The peace lily given me on my husband's death thrived on neglect and half-heartedly produced a drooping flower once a year. My sansevera (supposed to conquer any mistreatment) hobbled along dejectedly. A shifflora managed to retain most of its leaves despite my mishandling.

And now I had the extra burden of coddling a Christmas cactus that didn't live up to its name. It bloomed at the end of August when Susanna left. I talked to it. Fed it liquid food and false hope that if it did well it could accompany Susanna to Vermont after Thanksgiving vacation. The flowers slowly died but the stems flourished. The cactus looked so well that I started to feed my other plants (I also feared arrest for household-plant neglect.) Soon the only thing missing from my miniature jungle was a flock of colorful exotic birds to twitter as they flitted from branch to branch of lush green foliage.

Thanksgiving loomed and, wonder of wonders, the cactus bloomed. I pointed out to Susanna (home for turkey day) how well her plant looked. And how it looked forward to its new home in Vermont. "Not this trip, Gramma. I'll be home for Christmas. I can't leave it up there alone over Christmas break." I watered the dejected plant for another month and realized it would bloom again for Christmas! It was giving its all.

Susanna once more declined to take the cactus back to school with her - the air was too cold to risk it outside. I heard deep sighs from the cactus and sympathetic murmuring from the rest of my potted children. Easter came and went, as did Susanna. The cactus bloomed valiantly. But it stayed in Pennsylvania. Summer brought Susanna and, at staggered intervals, more flowers on the cactus. I feared it was growing too big to transport.

Fall saw it lose its blossoms when Susanna left, but it perked up again at Thanksgiving for her arrival. It generated a spectacular display at Christmas in time for her approval. I feared I would have the only Christmas cactus in recorded history with a hernia from trying too hard to be loved.

Cactus BloomI stopped promising it would go to Vermont and tried to let it down gently. Easter that year was lovely and warm and Susanna arrived to new flowers. Each time she came home, she admired her plant. The little stems stood straighter and the blossoms quivered. And each time she came home, it bloomed! Summer arrived and my indoor garden threatened to take over. If my plants ever elected a horticultural president, I was in trouble. The cactus outdid itself.

Fall saw Susanna once again in her little red Saab, headed for Vermont. The flowers fell from the cactus. I swear I saw a tear trickle down into its now much larger pot (well, I was watering at the time). October came with an e-mail that Susanna would not be home for Thanksgiving. I broke the news gently. "She really loves you. It's just that she's going to New York with friends. You can understand how that is, can't you? She's young. Just think of the fun she'll have. We want her to have fun, don't we?"

No answer. "Sullen doesn't become you," I said and turned to the rest of my brood. By the middle of November, I noticed tiny buds at the end of each stem. "Don't do this to yourself. She's not coming home," I said. "Wait for Christmas." Despite my pleas, the buds grew. Two days before Thanksgiving, I could almost hear as blossoms popped open. As I consoled the plant, I heard a familiar sound. I looked out my front window to see a little red Saab pulling up ... and Susanna walked in the door just as the last blossom unfurled.

Now that's devotion.
Thanks to Fernlea Flowers Ltd., 'an owner-operated North American grower and supplier of high quality garden and potted plants' (including Christmas cacti) for permission to use the photos.
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