SOMETHING, SOMEWHERE, IS BLOOMING. NOW.
IT MAY NOT BE THE PLANT YOU WANTED OR EXPECTED. ITS TIMING MAY BE OFF, OR ODD, OR MYSTERIOUS.
BUT BEFORE YOU GIVE OVER TO DESPAIR, — EASY, IN THESE DIFFICULT AND UNENDINGLY STRESSFUL TIMES — LOOK FOR THE BUD, THE BLOSSOM.
IF IT CAN FLOWER IMPROBABLY, SO CAN YOU.
2012 was the last full year my late mother, Charlotte Zolotow, spent on earth.
That year, her much-loved front-hall Christmas cactus burst into the most extravagant blossoming I had ever seen, a showering of multiple tender coral-pink blooms, all exuberant celebration.
The following November, in 2013, she died. Just after that, in December, it bloomed again.
But during that year, the year of her death, the Christmas cactus restrained itself.
It offered just and only one single blossom.
SOMETIMES, IT LOOKS LIKE YOU JUST CAN’T CATCH A BREAK
The week of my mother’s death, while I began what Emily Dickinson called “the solemnest of industries“, I remained at her home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, the same home in which I had grown up and in which she died.
While I was there, the pipes in my then-home in Vermont froze, then exploded, then flooded the old 1808 farmhouse, rendering it unlivable.
I wound up staying in my mother’s home, achingly absent her, for several months. Meanwhile, back in Vermont, the insurance and contractors bickered, negotiated, and finally did mitigation, mold abatement, repairs and reconstruction on the farmhouse.
I remained in Hastings, more or less, until I had my mother’s house emptied, cleaned and sold.
Or I would have had not a second death taken place there, the following March: my then-partner, David Koff, whose death was self-chosen and self-inflicted. I never spent another night in my mother’s home after finding David’s body in her old basement laundry room.
Instead, I rented a small apartment in Hastings, working by day at the cleaning out and assortment of her stuff, and by night returning to sleepless, disoriented, uneasy nights in the apartment. (It didn’t help that the landlord was a little creepy).
UNUSUAL TRAVEL COMPANIONS
By late April 2014, the Vermont house was livable, and with some trepidation I headed back north to re-inhabit the farm.
I repeated, one more time, the trip I had made so often, from my mother’s house to mine: four to six hours, through the early slow returning of spring in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, to Vermont.
But one thing made that particular iteration of the journey I had taken so many times different. Besides ‘stuff’ , I had three traveling companions: Charlotte’s ashes, David’s ashes, and – still alive – Charlotte’s Christmas cactus, the one that had thrown a single blossom the previous winter.
The Christmas cactus thrived in my home in Vermont. But I was still in and out a lot at that time, back and forth to New York, and exploring the possibility of moving, maybe back to Arkansas. I worried about keeping the plant alive and safe, with enough light and warmth and water to survive.
And so I looked around for someone to plant-sit. I finally asked a neighborhood couple, friendly though not close friends. I thought they’d have no problem being responsible for it (they had a greenhouse and were professional organic farmers). They kindly agreed, and I brought the double-potted Christmas cactus to them. I was grateful and relieved: I loved that cactus, and I knew it was in good hands with the Prussacks.
Indeed, they took good care of it for nearly a year, even sending me a picture when it bloomed around my late November birthday later that same year.
Still, I was and have remained sad that I lost my mother’s cactus. Not big-time sad, but regretful.
The lastingness of this has surprised me.
That was seven years ago.
Seven years that have included my selling the home in Vermont, and moving to Arkansas.
That have included my falling in love with and remarrying the second great love of my life, Mark Graff.
That have included our buying a new-to-us home, in the Washington-Willow Historic District of Fayetteville, Arkansas (a 1903 house, of almost identical vintage as my mother’s house), and adopting a six-year-old tabby-cat.
This has surprised me too. More lastingness: the regenerative power, even late in life, of resilience, reinvention, and love.
LITTLE ROCK, AND A DEAR OCTOGENARIAN HOT-RODDER
Last August, I left Fayetteville briefly to take the opportunity to house-sit a friend’s condo in Little Rock, planning to use the time as a writing retreat. But I took a break one night to join my longtime dear pal Kelli Jo Zumwalt and her sweet feisty chic mama, Joan Zumwalt, for dinner. This was at Joan’s elegant, comfortable home in Jacksonville, Arkansas (next to the home where KJ spent her wild and woolly teenage years; about 20 miles from where I was housesitting).
That evening was a pleasure, privilege, and pure delight. The three of us had a gorgeous summer-rich dinner. KJ is a fabulous cook, who knows the the trick of allowing things to taste like themselves.
And our conversation unfolded and meandered and embraced all of us, as good conversations over good food so often do, and it was my first time to see the home and garden Joan had designed and loved and in which she had entertained.
As I had done with Charlotte, KJ was traveling regularly down from her home in the northern part of the state to spend time with her mother. Where I traveled once a month, staying with Charlotte ten days to two weeks each time, KJ came down every single weekend.
But, the night of my visit to them, I had gotten lost and a little stressed driving over to KJ’s mama’s house. There’s a lot of construction going on in the Jacksonville area, and my GPS for no discernible reason stopped giving audible directions. I had to glance down at it, which was harrowing. And I have reached the age where my night-vision is untrustworthy.
So KJ and Joan kindly helped me get back home to the condo where I was housesitting. KJ drove my car and Joan, 86, drove hers. Good Lord, that woman ruled the road!
I found the fact that they were willing to this beyond generous.
They wouldn’t even let me feel shame about being such a wuss automotively!
On the way out, just before we left Joan’s house, I noticed her office (she was an entrepreneurial woman, and also, quietly, a generous and visionary philanthropist).
And I noticed an enormous plant, as large as a small armchair.
I took a second look and said, “Wow, is that a Christmas cactus?”
“It is, “said Joan.
And then she told me, “I am the fourth generation this Christmas cactus has been handed down to.”
I was beyond amazed.
I said, “Would you break me off a branch for a start?”
Joan kindly did, and KJ wrapped it in a wet towel at Joan’s suggestion, and, after being kindly chauffeured, I carried it off to where I was staying.
During that week housesitting my friend’s condo, I was working on a memoir (I still am). The table at my friend’s house, where I worked, was covered with books by and letters from both of my parents. I was deep into the mysteries of family – my own and in general.
Of loss and presence.
Of perplexity and contradiction.
Of how things look at the time and how they look in retrospect.
Of all the ways that people who sincerely love each other sometimes also fail each other. And sometimes forgive each other.
Of how resilient we are, as well as how resilient love itself is.
Of the part memory, persistent and often unreliable, plays.
Of the families we are given, and the families we choose, through friendship.
Especially in this context, that start of Joan’s fourth generation Christmas cactus was a fine, dimensional gift.
It was not my mother’s cactus, may it rest in peace, but my friend’s mother’s cactus, and her mother’s and grandmother’s and great grandmother’s before her. That is more than enough provenance and connection for me.
I took that start home, rooted it, and eventually planted it.
I happen to know what day this I planted it, because Joan had been feeling poorly for several weeks. After several misdiagnoses, and interminable hours in waiting rooms, and many tests, the medical professionals finally had a definitive answer.
Cancer. Throughout Joan’s body. She chose not to do chemo or radiation. She wanted to go home.
I sent a picture of the now-potted Christmas cactus start to KJ to show her mother, if she thought it might please her.
KJ texted me, “Just showed this pic to mom and she smiled so BIG.”
About a week after her diagnosis, Joan died.
I write these words on Christmas Eve. I have just gotten back from Little Rock. I went down for Joan’s memorial.
I kept thinking about our visit in August. About how KJ and Joan and I had no idea that it would be our last time together.
About how much we don’t and can’t know about our future, which remains ever hidden behind an opaque screen.
The afternoon before the memorial, I realized that I was already anticipatorily angsting about the drive to Jacksonville. I was annoyed at myself about this, but I did not want to arrive at the church the next day all driving-rattled, at the very moment that I wished to be a steady loving presence with and for KJ (as she had been for me, at my mother’s memorial, years earlier).
So I made what was really my first official foray into “I cannot duck the fact that I am getting older and there are some things I need help with.” I called Logan West, the grown-up son of two other long-time dear friends, George West and Starr Mitchell. I have long been “Cres-Aunt” to Logan and his brother Cane, and I adore both of them, as well as Logan’s wife, Joyce (I made wedding cakes for both George and Starr and Logan and Joyce).
But still. It was hard to ask. Hard to admit that, at 69, the old dragon ain’t what she used to be… at least when it comes to driving to Jacksonville. I needed, or at least wanted, help.
Logan’s yes was instantaneous. He drove my car, while Joyce followed in theirs. (Jacksonville was just as screwy to get into and around as I had remembered. I was so relieved to not be contending with it before the service. Plus, I got to catch up with Logan’s current life in Houston). At the church, we parked, I got out, and Logan rejoined Joyce and took off.
I went into the memorial, learning even more about Joan’s extraordinary determination and generosity. Aching with and for KJ, and her fierce, loving fiancee, Sarah.
Remembering my own mother’s last years and eventual death, and my own realization that no one would or could ever love me as she, my mother, had. That my subjective world and my life in it had shifted profoundly. As KJ’s was now doing.
Every bit of it, even asking Logan’s help, all; the pieces were somehow further iterations of the story I am trying to write.
Love, loss. The families we are given, and the families we choose. Resilience. The turning of the circle. The roles we move into and out of. The bearing of what is unbearable. The accepting of what is outrageous and unacceptable. Grief. Change. Cycles. KJ. Joan here, then gone. Charlotte. David. Me, of the generation that coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” one year away from being 70. Baby Logan a grown-up!
I don’t think, as the hymn goes, that the circle will be unbroken. I think it breaks, continually, and then slowly, like the points of a starfish are said to do, it grows back. Different, yet connected, reconnected. Whole. Not unbroken, but strong, as Hemingway said, in the broken places.
After the memorial, I headed home, driving back to Fayetteville. It was easier leaving than coming into Jacksonville, especially since there were no time constraints.
I passed the military museum in Jacksonville, with the helicopter outside it, which I had just learned that Joan had founded.
I kept feeling for and thinking about KJ and Sarah.
I kept thinking about how strange it was that I made my first assistance-needed crossover into “old” on the day of Joan’s funeral.
And yet, what a bad-ass fearless driver she had been, at 86, in August, when I had last seen her! Driving that immaculate shiny black 2021 550 SL Benz like she owned the damn road!
I shook my head, alone in the car, remembering. In wonder.
I got home before dark, delighted to fall into Mark’s arms and, later, hear the comforting frequency of the cat’s purrs.
I made us a simple dinner (pasta, lemon-spinach-garlic sauced).
And then, as Mark washed the dishes, I watered the plants.
And there, on the potted start of the Christmas cactus Joan had given me, was a bud.