Three steps from the bottom of the staircase, I sat down to play with my doll. This vantage point gave me full view of the living room, the hallway leading to the back door and the kitchen. The phone rang. Mom picked up the receiver and said, “Hello?” After listening for a few seconds, she said, “I thought about you this morning, Katie. How are you feeling today? I hope you’re getting over your cold.” Clamping the doll upside down between my knees, I began threading the baby doll’s legs into a pair of under pants.
While jamming white plastic shoes on the baby’s pink plastic feet, I heard Mom brag to her friend, “Three blossoms opened up on my hibiscus today. You should see them! They’re each big enough to fully cover a coffee cup saucer.”
Mom loved plants. In the summer, every flowerbed around the house had dozens of flowers, each fighting for elbow room to blossom. Now, during the winter, she had plants near almost every window. The hibiscus was a big plant, almost as tall as me. It had a small brown trunk like a tree and big, double pink blossoms. Leaning forward, I peeked into the kitchen. The small tree stood in the far corner between two windows.
The hibiscus lived in our farmhouse for many years. As I aged Mom bought many other plants. At one time she had about a dozen African violets in the kitchen. Once, she raised a small lemon tree that produced one disproportionately large fruit, which she used to make a lemon meringue pie.
Zebra plants, Norfolk pines, and every known variety of house plant came to live with us at one time or another. Some lived and thrived, some didn’t, while others were given away. The pink, double-blossomed hibiscus was a constant, though. Mom called it a treasure.
Treasures are sometimes taken for granted, especially when you have them for a long time and they take up a lot of space. Mom’s solution to the space problem was to set her large plants outside on the back patio for the summer. Sometimes they didn’t make it back into the house before the first frost.
Mom put the big hibiscus on the back patio the summer I turned twelve. In the fall when the days became shorter and colder, she carried the large plant into the house. At first, she didn’t know where to put it. Then she decided that since my brother Billy was gone to the army, the hibiscus could winter in his upstairs bedroom. Setting the potted tree down on the rug next to Billy’s bed, she exclaimed, “This is perfect, it’ll get light from both the south and west windows!”
Out of sight meant out of mind. One day while rinsing a beef roast she planned to put in the oven, Mom remembered she needed to water the hibiscus. A pan in the bottom of the sink was full of the bloody water. Thinking how nutritious the beef-fortified water would be for the plant, she carried it upstairs and poured it into the plant’s arid potting soil.
Out of sight really meant out of mind. Mom didn’t remember to water or look at the hibiscus again for a long time after that. When she finally realized her neglect, I followed her to Billy’s bedroom. We found the arid soil under the hibiscus hard as a block of wood. On the rim of its pot, and on various places on the rug where it stood, were dried-crisp angleworms in various stages of escape, searching for water. The hibiscus tree stood stark and devoid of leaves or blossoms, beyond reviving.
If plants needed death certificates, I’m not sure what the cause of death for this one would read. Death by drought? Meat juice? Angleworms? Outliving our affection? Outgrowing its space?
Mom had once called our hibiscus tree a treasure, and it was for so many years. As an adult I have seen many small hibiscus trees since, but all of them had small, single blossoms and not a single pink variety!