Last Earth Day, about a month into lockdown, I got a call I’d been dreading for years. My beloved grandmother had died at age 84.
I was devastated. Mom-Mom, as we called her, was our family’s eccentric matriarch. Surely, she loved all her grandchildren equally, but I always felt a special connection to her. Mom-Mom was in the delivery room when I was born, and she would go on to shape me in countless ways for the rest of her life. As the only Virgos in the family, we shared the same high-strung perfectionist personalities, with the inability to sit still for too long. “I can’t help that I’m hyperactive!” she’d say whenever we’d point out one of her antics. (I’ve since adopted the phrase and use it regularly.)
Today, on the first anniversary of her death, I’ve found a bit of poetry in the timing of her Earth Day departure. After all, it was through her that I first learned to appreciate food and where it comes from, as well as to be thankful to those who grow it. And it was from watching her garden that I’d be interested in tending my own plants some day.
Mom-Mom grew up in the midwest and in California, where her aunt and uncle owned an avocado farm. Despite raising her four kids during the era of the microwave oven and questionable Jello salads, she never lost touch with the importance of farm-grown produce.
She taught me how to cook—and how to find joy in doing so. Together we made pumpkin and apple pies from scratch, persimmon bread, jars of peach jam, cheesy chicken enchiladas and pierogies. At Thanksgiving, she’d put me in charge of mashing the potatoes and assembling the green bean casserole, which I still do every year. Once, she made beef tongue, which she’d proudly purchased at a nearby Amish market, and we never forgave her for it. We preferred her lamb chops, which she served with bright green mint jelly.
Her Pennsylvania home backed up onto fields planted with soybeans and rows of corn. We’d often stroll past them on our way to the farmers market to grab fresh ingredients for dinner. There was a long row of wild blackberry and raspberry bushes along the way, and Mom-Mom would stop to pick and plop the ripe berries in her mouth, encouraging me and my sister to do the same. During summer breaks, she’d take us to local farms and orchards, where we’d pick peaches and apples, filling wooden crates with more fruit than we’d ever be able to eat ourselves.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say she had a green thumb—all her houseplants were fake—but she was often out in her yard putting her hyperactivity to work, pulling up weeds and tidying flower beds. I vividly remember watching her kneeling on her foam gardening knee pad, digging holes for tulip bulbs in the fall and trimming back bushes when they grew too unruly. She wore gardening gloves, yet she somehow always managed to give herself a bad poison ivy rash. I’ve never met someone so allergic to the weed. One summer, her eyes nearly swelled shut after she wiped them mid-gardening. But that didn’t stop her from tending to her yard.
My aunt recently reminded me that Mom-Mom liked to vacuum up the acorns that fell on her lawn. It was an unconventional approach to yard maintenance, yes, but that was Mom-Mom. She always kept a tidy yard, like a good Virgo, no matter the method.
When she died last year, we were all still living in the scary early days of the pandemic, when hugs were very much off limits. As a sympathy gift, my friend Deena sent me a plant. I named my new silver satin pothos Rita, after Mom-Mom, and poured my grief into caring for it. Unlike Mom-Mom, I don’t have a yard or any outdoor space to tend to. So, taking care of my collection of houseplants has become what I throw my nurturing energy into.
Rita the plant.
Rita the plant has continued to grow in the absence of Rita the grandmother, slowly branching out with fresh and full stems. It’s been refreshing to nourish something and watch it grow, despite all the loss the world has experienced over the last year, and despite all the grief and mourning I’ve moved through.
I recently noticed some yellowing and browning on a few of Rita’s leaves, as well as general stunted growth. That’s a sign the plant is root-bound and needs a larger pot so all the roots can continue absorbing nutrients and water. I’ve been waiting for Earth Day to rehome the plant, as a way to honor my grandmother while also recognizing the annual environmental event. So today, I’ll move the satin pothos to its new larger pot, a blue- and green-hued planter I selected with Mom-Mom in mind.
Perhaps next year she’ll even have grown large enough for me to take clippings to propagate. That way, the rest of our family can have pieces of Rita (the plant) in their homes, too.