First Person: Repotted

Photo by Corina Bianca Alb / Unsplash

Mom’s green thumb was legendary. In addition to a phalanx of houseplants, every April she started hundreds of vegetable seeds inside under grow lights in order to plant green sprouted seedlings. Plants in Northern Minnesota need a head start in the short, 135-day, Zone 4 growing season. As a farmer’s daughter, a farmer’s wife, and a self-taught horticulturalist, she regularly started all kinds of plants from seed. She cross-pollinated Christmas cactus to start new varieties. She generously gave newly potted plants to her children, sisters, in-laws, neighbors, and friends. The African violet she handed to me as my former husband, my five-year-old daughter, and I left her house after Dad’s funeral, was one of them.

The violet was a reminder of home, a reminder of Dad, a sign of Mom’s strength, and a symbol of growth. It bloomed on my kitchen counter for the next two years. It didn’t just bloom, it bloomed profusely. The spot where it sat to get good sunlight was right under the kitchen window next to the sink and the dishwasher – a busy spot. Not all was going well in my marriage, and somehow, the plant seemed to get some of the collateral damage. I’d bump it with the edge of a plate or pan, knock it over, and spill dirt across the counter. In fact, I knocked it over way too often. Eventually, the profusion of blossoms stopped. As I got ready to throw it out after the most recent counter spill, I looked at it closely. Two purplish pink blossoms poked their heads from within the leaves. I couldn’t throw out a plant that was ready to bloom.

No, those leaves give the plant character. It’s been through life and survived.As I readied new potting soil, I saw that the plant had only one root that still anchored it to a core of dirt. I thought again about throwing it away. I wondered to myself: This plant is just in the way. I keep knocking it over. What use is it anyway? But when I looked at those two blossoms, Mom’s penchant for growing things must have blossomed within me, too. In the early 1990’s, the Internet wasn’t a readily available source of information for the public. Instead, I opened up a book on houseplants to see if it would tell me how to rejuvenate African violets.

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The book described how to cover a bowl of water with aluminum foil, punch holes in the foil, and put roots through the holes. The foil would hold up the plant as it grew new, stronger roots. Leaves poking through the foil could also start roots to eventually become plants. I followed the instructions. I covered a bowl of water with aluminum foil, punched it with holes, plucked off extra leaves on the current plant, and put each leaf through a hole. A few months later, when Mom came to visit for a weekend, each of those leaves had between one and three new plants starting from their stems. The core plant, the one that had just one root at the time I thrust it through the foil, was healthy and had a ton of roots.

Well, it was sort of healthy. We noticed that some of the leaves were slightly deformed. We speculated, my mother and I, that this had happened when the plant was being abused – knocked over on a regular basis – and when it was only connected to the soil by one root. The new leaves that sprang up from the center during the rejuvenating months were healthy and whole.

As we repotted the plant, Mom said, “Maybe we should pluck those sickly leaves off and plant it deeper into the soil.”

“No, those leaves give the plant character. It’s been through life and survived.” I immediately saw the plant as a symbol of recovery. The stubborn character flaws that I despaired over and worried that I’d never get rid of were part of my survival. As I lived with active addiction, I got bruised and knocked around, not physically in my case, but emotionally. My metaphorical leaves got bruised, didn’t get enough nourishment, weren’t properly connected to the right kind of soil. Some of the actions that I took to protect myself became deformed characteristics. I wasn’t perfect, no one is.

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However, I was able to rejuvenate. Recovery groups and a woman’s therapy group gave me a second chance. I’d been given a fresh bowl of water, sunshine, a new group of friends. Just like the aluminum foil, those friends held me up and urged me to grow new roots. When I went back to college to get recertified as a teacher, a license I’d let lapse, it was as if I’d been given a pot filled with new potting soil to feed my talents. When I took the fresh opportunities offered to me, I found that my core plant was still okay. I didn’t throw myself away.

By the time Mom left for home the following Monday, fourteen repotted African violets had risen from that one battered violet plant. I gave one to each member of my therapy group, as well as to six other friends. It’s only appropriate that we pass on the gifts we’ve received from a rejuvenated personality. The plant that Mom handed to me after Dad’s funeral was a gift that multiplied. Thirty years later, I found the story in my journal and once again, the plant will keep on giving.

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Last Updated on June 17, 2022

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