The following is my response to the first prompt. It isn’t about my first plant. I decided to go in another direction because I have already written about my first plant and didn’t have anything further to say. Instead, I jumped ahead several years to another time in my life when the impulse to grow things appeared unexpectedly. There was actually another time before this, but this is the story that came to mind and I went with it. I’m feeling a little nervous about posting this because I wrote it in one go last night (with a few edits and a break for dinner) so it’s probably full of errors.
Grow Write Guild Prompt #1: Write about your first plant.
In my eighteenth year I moved away from my hometown in order to put some healthy distance between my childhood and the adult life I hoped to make going forward. My new life started out scary, but promising. I enrolled in a local high school so that I could finish out grade 13 and obtain the credits I needed in order to attend university the following fall. I found an apartment, and for the first time in my life got a taste for the true meaning of the word home. I acquired a retail position at a dollar store that was just opening up (I took the job without knowing what a dollar store was!) and soon found myself experiencing another personal first: the insane inner workings and anthropological weirdness that is mall culture.
I learned a lot of new things at this job. I learned how to stock shelves, order items, create schedules, and manage a store. I also learned about people. I have always been a people watcher, a child with a need to understand why the people in my life were, well, so f*cking crazy. But there is a difference between observing the human condition from a distance and confronting the honesty and vulnerability that reveals itself clearly from inside a person’s eyes. I was out on my own now, a burgeoning adult entering the adult world, and in a way, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and looking directly at people for the first time. I did not like what I saw. I had always wrongly assumed — probably out of a need for self-preservation — that the pain and world-weariness I saw in my neighbors did not exist beyond our subdivision’s boundaries, and certainly — no, definitely — not outside of the town. It would be another decade still before I could look strangers directly in the eye without flinching.
But this is not what I meant to tell you. It seems that I never mean to tell you the things that I eventually reveal. My own vulnerability pours out from my fingers; rarely my face.
The town I grew up in had a Kresge’s. It is because of this store that I have a lifelong fondness for the North American department store with a built-in lunch counter. Woolco, Woolworth, old school Kmart: I feel a comfortable, nostalgic familiarity in the aisles of this type of shop. The mall I worked in had such a store affixed to the right side, directly next to the entrance. Perhaps it was my general discomfort with all things mallish, or perhaps it was because my world had been upended and I had a need for warmth wherever I could find it, but when headed in to work a shift, I always approached the mall by a twisty trail through the department store rather than the direct route through the main doors. And I lingered. I took in the sights and smells of the lunch counter. The ladies in their uniforms; the regulars hunched over puffy vinyl stools, a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other. The constant clatter of dishware filling the space, registers counting out change in agreement. A muzak version of “More Than a Feeling” tinkling over the PA system, and just underneath it all, if you listened carefully, the long drawn out pfffffff of vinyl as one patron stood up and another sat down in their place.
I followed a winding, illuminated pathway that took me past white metal shelves stocked with dusty bottles of Wet and Wild nail polish and racks of discoloured postcards featuring long-since-abandoned tourist attractions and forgotten destinations. Thinking on it now, I wonder if my draw to these sorts of stores is entirely down to the lost banal treasures they hold: accidental museums of faded, ordinary glory.
It was on this path that I found them. Here, set to the side of the walkway, sat a feeble display of 4” plastic pots bursting with sprays of greenery. Two bucks a pop. They were nothing special, just your average everyday tropicals; the sort you’d find in doctor’s offices and gift baskets.
“Happy Birthday Marie!”
“Get Well Soon Barbara! Love from the girls at Bingo!”
I don’t know why I had to have them. It started with a peace lily and a rubbery jade. I took them home and placed them on an empty shelf. The next time I walked by I paused on a rubber tree with big, leathery leaves. It came home with me too. It continued like this, on and on, a new plant on the shelf every few days. I did not think about it much. I was a child of the seventies and while I did not grow up in a house full of plants, I can’t think of a single, functional family home that didn’t have a few. Even homes where the parents were falling down drunks had a ficus or something palm-like shoved into the corner of the living room. Here is your shag rug. Here is your giant, bevel-edged floor model television covered in doilies on top of which sit an assortment of slapdash ashtrays and figurines that mom painted in ceramics class (every other Wednesday night at 7 in the church basement on Elm Street). And in the window, one or two variegated spider plants hanging from macramé slings. I got myself one of those too, (the plant, not the macramé). That and a burgundy and silver striped wandering jew thanks to a caring biology teacher who clipped them for me from plants that hung in the classroom.
No, it didn’t take me long to figure out the magic in making new plants for free. And then I was off. Soon everything was a potential plant in waiting. I stuck the seeds cut from bell peppers and other produce into little pots of soil and set them on the kitchen windowsill. I combed the yard around my apartment building, curious about the bulbs that the squirrels found so appealing (they were Lily-of-the-Valley). I planted a bag of papery onion sets in the deep shade (no surprise, they rotted) and tried to root raspberry canes at the edge of the parking lot next to the communal garbage cans. At least I had enough sense to put those in the sun! I never asked myself where this impulse to make things grow had come from or why I was doing it.
And then I stopped. I took it up again a few months later in a lonely college dorm room. And then I stopped and started again two more times before it became as commonplace as breathing and I finally paused long enough to ask myself, “But why?”