Watering The Plants
Guest Post by Jane Ehrenfeld
As far back as I can remember, Friday afternoon after work was the time when my father watered the plants (and cared for the turtles and the snake, but that’s a different story). Our house was lovely with green, all due to my father’s efforts, which no doubt were heightened not only by a natural green thumb, but also his work as a conservation biologist and meticulous attention to the rhythms and patterns of the plants he cared for (in the house and in his garden). A huge, hanging staghorn fern filled the window at the top of the stairs, although it benevolently allowed some light to pass to the stand of plants below it.
There was also a spiky-fronded plant that I never really noticed so had forgotten about, but somehow I inherited it when we sold my parents’ house. And now I've learned the hard way that it has a bad attitude and will stab anyone who tries to water it. (I’m not surprised my dad liked it. For a time, he kept a highly ornery snapping turtle named Jasper as a pet in his office.)
I do remember, though, my dad’s affection for a gorgeous amaryllis that he somehow managed to coax into bloom every year, right around Passover. Having tried to grow amaryllises (amarylli?) myself, I have no shortage of awe for his feat. And there were a variety of other plants as well, none of which I remember particularly vividly, but all of which thrived with my father’s careful attention.
I have always had plants in my home, ever since my very first post-college apartment, and I kept plants in my classroom as well (aloe, in particular, for the little injuries that my students suffered). But my approach to plants has historically been decidedly laissez-faire. I have favored hard-to-kill varieties, such as pothos, philodendron, and African violet, and have watered them sporadically, mostly when I noticed them looking sickly. Certainly, I haven’t carried on my father’s ritual and tradition.
But that all changed when my personal world suffered a series of earthquake-sized tremors at the same time the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, and for reasons I can’t fully explain, I became obsessed with adding plants to my home and with nurturing the plants I already had. My dear friend – whose traumas this past year have dwarfed mine – similarly amped up her acquisition of houseplants, and together we ran a bit wild. Our text threads were overwhelmed with talk of cuttings, nurseries, and propagation tips, and every new purchase was a victory. I started telling my kids that they had to chaperone me on any trip to a store where plants were for sale, but they failed miserably in their task, possibly because I haven’t been above bribing them by letting them pick out plants themselves.
Things are getting a little crazy in my house, and all of the surfaces are filling, but it seems to sate a need in me. If I had to say, I imagine in a year filled with news of death, the death of relationships and dreams, and endless grief, one doesn’t have to dig too deep to figure out what the meaning of this new obsession may be.
There are downsides though to my plant odyssey, including a plague of fungus gnats (which at least keep my two new carnivorous plants well-fed), and a somewhat problematic effect on my budget. But those challenges are canceled out by the benefits: my house has never looked prettier, my girls are learning to care for living things (we also got a COVID pup, which adds to that important set of lessons), and, best of all, I have finally learned the meaning and value of my father’s ritual of watering the plants.
I stumbled on this lesson by accident. Having new and finicky plants meant that I had to be more attentive to caring for them, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep them alive if I didn’t block off time every week to attend to their needs. As a point of nostalgia, I picked Friday afternoons at 5, set a calendar reminder, and committed myself to being a better plant mama.
A few weeks in, I noticed two wonderful things. First, I had started looking forward to my Friday afternoon watering time. Where before I had put off watering as long as possible, now I found myself starting to overwater my growing beauties, out of sheer enthusiasm. My watering time is contemplative and soothing – a lovely period of calm routine in the midst of the chaos of life. Everything else fades away when I’m making my rounds, and I’m entirely focused on thinking about what each plant requires that week. In that way, it is more powerful even than my somewhat weak meditation practice, when focus can be a challenge.
When I asked my dad about what the ritual meant for him, he described “communing” with the plants, and the sweet feeling of giving something living what it needs to grow and thrive, which is just what I feel as well. For him, it also preceded the Sabbath, which we celebrated for most of my childhood, not with an orthodox fidelity to rabbinical rules, but as a period of gentle rest. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to carve out more than a little time for the same kind of sabbath. In the meantime, these weekly minutes are a balm.
The second wonder I’ve discovered is that my kids have started to enjoy helping me with my watering. Not all of them all the time, but enough that I can see them starting to realize the value and joy involved in the ritual. One of the most important things I’ve learned from over two decades of working and being with children is that kids – especially the younger ones – crave and need routine in their lives. When the routine gets disrupted, the destabilizing force for a child is much much greater than for an adult. And I’m certain too that children recognize that they have to depend mostly on adults to establish and define their rituals for them, which puts them at the mercy of other humans, whose actions can be arbitrary and unpredictable at times.
I don’t think my dad intentionally set up his routine as a stabilizing force in our home, but for me, that’s exactly what it was.
My kids have been through a tremendous amount of upheaval in this past year, and, between the pandemic and the divorce, they have lost more rituals than I can count. I am very lucky to have a decent, collaborative relationship with their dad. We’ve worked hard to ensure we keep some routines the same between houses, and that we establish new and comforting routines for the girls. But, of course, it’s all been hard on them.
I don’t think my dad intentionally set up his routine as a stabilizing force in our home, but for me, that’s exactly what it was. It makes sense that now it has become a way to keep my family’s boat from rocking too hard in the tidal waves we’ve been navigating, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of my children.
And so, when the years have passed, and my girls are looking back at their childhood, I hope they regard my new Friday ritual with the same sweet affection and deep gratitude I feel when I summon the image of my father, walking from room to room in our house on Friday afternoon, watering the plants.
Jane Ehrenfeld is an educator, lawyer, writer, mediator, single mom to three girls, and a daughter, among other things. She currently works for Baltimore City Public Schools as Director of Fair Practices and Compliance. She has published nonfiction essays in The Washington Post, Quartz, and The Huffington Post; satirical essays in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Slackjaw; and poetry and short fiction in Prometheus Dreaming, Beyond Words, and The Dillydoun Review (forthcoming). You can find more of her writing at https://whimsyandpique.substack.com/.