I am not scientific. I’m not detail oriented. My projects are hit or miss affairs. All passion and mistakes.
I have a small greenhouse. I am pretty sure we spent more to build this greenhouse than we could afford, and definitely more than my talent justifies. I can keep plants alive, usually. I can sometimes get them to bloom. I don’t even aspire to anything beyond that.
I have a motley assortment of plants, some donated, some that I don’t even like, that just won’t die, of nice things I couldn’t really afford, of plants that I am somehow wildly successful with. I can never tell ahead of time which ones those will be.
My greenhouse is on the second floor of our house, because it’s the only place we had room to build one. Having it up there creates its own set of problems; we have way more light than we need. Our floor was supposed to be totally waterproof and yet we’ve noticed some dark spots on the kitchen ceiling below. It can get so hot in there it’ll kill all the plants, so I leave the door open, and then we can’t raise the humidity. And yet I walk in there and I am in a different world. I feel my shoulders relax when I stand in there. It’s fall right now and things are still really really clean since I’ve just brought the plants back in, and it is just so, so beautiful. I am at peace in there. It’s not something you can explain to outsiders. There is nothing so decadently wonderful when you are stressed, as a cold, strong martini taken up to the greenhouse. You can look for bugs. You should look for bugs. Bug hunting is the best stress reliever there is! And it needs to be done, doesn’t it? Why not do it with a martini in your hand? (If you find bugs, the martini helps you cope.)
I bought my first orchid at the grocery store. I didn’t kill it. That was all it took. I plunged into orchids with both arms outstretched, with my heart wide open, with my rose colored glasses turned up full strength.
After years of study, I don’t think there’s anything on earth more beautiful than a cattleya in bloom. I tell myself I shouldn’t be so common and I try to like odd, offbeat little orchids, but when a catt comes into bloom, I turn to mush inside. I have a fragrant one in bloom right now, I moved it to my bedside table. I take pictures and show them to other people, but I don’t need to share my actual orchids with them. No one understands what goes into getting them to bloom.The kind of people who come to my greenhouse are happy with a geranium in bloom. Why waste the real thing?
I keep buying them and buying them, and they are just the ugliest things the rest of the year, but I watch them and wait, and when those new branches come out I look down in the center every day hoping for a bud to come bursting out. Like I say, I just blunder through gardening, without being in actual control. I battle the forces with my little store of moderate understanding and makeshift supplies, and every now and then the stars and the moon align, and the heavens shift, and I get an actual blossom and 7/8 of the time when I get the blossom, I’m home free! It’ll bloom. There is an even deeper need for martinis when a cattleya bud withers. Another whole year wasted. (They take that long to forgive.)
Other orchids bloom faithfully, and I appreciate them (I have lots of photos!) but for me, there is nothing like a cattleya.
I need to introduce my mother to you here. My mother was a very difficult person. She was always right. She was so right she didn’t feel the need to listen to anyone else’s ideas. Early on I developed the habit of leaping before I looked, because if I asked her what she thought of an idea, it was always wrong. Because it was my idea. I became a difficult child, but hey, you have to cope somehow. I felt as though I were smothering under her rule. I felt this desperate need to express myself somehow. I made mistakes, and every mistake proved to my mother anew that she was right and I was wrong.
I left home when I was 17, and I didn’t look back. I didn’t go very far, but I needed my own space. It naturally didn’t come easily, but I built a life for myself, a home, a family. I didn’t cut her off, but I kept her at a distance. It was the only way I could survive.
Her last 30 years, after my dad died, she was depressed and shut-in and afraid the rest of the world would do something evil if she let anyone get close to her. I lived only 20 miles away so I was the one she turned to for everything. The older she got the worse it was. Dementia, paranoia, obsessive compulsiveness. Added on to her heart condition, diabetes, and many other health things. I was the one who had to make decisions and then face her wrath because she wasn’t able to understand why I did the stuff I did. It had always been a difficult relationship and in the end it was pretty awful. I had to put her against her will in assisted living facility. I had to sell her house to pay for it. Lots of martinis needed.
I am a book person. I love books; I am obsessed by them. I have shelves stuffed with them. Nero Wolfe introduced me to orchids. I don’t think it was the orchids themselves, so much as it was the sacred time he spent in his greenhouse, in a world of his own. When I bought my first orchid, I was amazed I was able to keep it alive. I had always grown plants, had always had window sills crowded with greenery, a grow light in my basement, glass shelves built in front of windows. The greenhouse wasn’t that big a step. Orchids began to obsess me. I think cattleyas make me feel like I am a real success. I am not a gifted grower.
My first cattleya success was a plant purchased, belive it or not, at a flea market. On my budget, I had to buy tiny plants and wait 5 years or so till they were blooming size (some I’m still waiting on and I’ve lost track of how old they are). I go to lots of flea markets and auctions because my day job (the one that has to support the greenhouse) is to buy and sell old books (a natural progression from reading them). At one I spotted two big catts, and I bought them. The booth proprieters (I have no idea what kind of things they really sold), had orchids at home and had to sell some to make some space. These were two big healthy plants. They used peanut shells in their potting mix. I’ve never run across these people again, (and I’ve looked!) but those two plants were just gorgeous when they bloomed, and if I did find them, I’d give them both a big kiss for letting me own such wonderful things.
A few years back things were getting really stressful with my mom. I did my best to keep my real life going the way it was supposed to, the bookstore, my plants, my family, the band I was in, but I got pretty stretched out. To make things worse, I had this feeling like my dad was always watching over my shoulder to see how well I was taking care of my mom. He died years and years ago, so it was his ghost I imagined, I guess. It was actually pretty comforting. My mom and dad were so close that my sister and I always felt we were unneeded. Like they loved each other so much there wasn’t enough left for anyone else. My mom wasn’t an easy person before he died, but afterwards her whole world fell apart. At this point in the story, however, she had an infection and was on some medication that made her so ill she had to be hospitalized. She was in a skilled nursing section of a nursing home, and she was cantankerous and uncooperative, and the nurses hated dealing with her, and I would slink in apologetically to visit. And then hold imaginary conversations with my dad in the car on my way home.
One day in the greenhouse, there was a huge bud on one of my big gorgeous flea market cattleyas. I was sure it hadn’t been there before. Like I said before, I keep them under close surveylance. It was like a miracle. I thought my dad had something to do with it to help me get through. It bloomed a few days later and it was so, so wonderful. I can’t tell you how it brightened up my life. The thought then occurred to me that if I was a normal daughter of a normal mother, I would be taking that plant to brighten up her hospital room. Sometimes I get depressed thinking how it’s not fair that I never had a normal mother. The what did I do to deserve this kind of thing. My first reaction was that there was no way I would ever give my best orchid to my mother. The second reaction was guilt that I was the kind of person to have the first reaction. That night I had the little devil on one shoulder and the little angel on the other kind of dilemma with one telling me how I would act if I were a good person and the other telling me what I wanted to hear. And then the feeling of my dad standing in the corner watching it all. He won, of course. I couldn’t let my dad down. He was a good guy.
I took the orchid. I put it on her bedside table. I said, here Mother this is a plant that just bloomed I thought would cheer up your room. She didn’t even really look at it.
I think it was called Show Business. I remember it as pink. It really was spectacular. That I know. As I drove home I didn’t have any conversation with my dad. I didn’t have anything to say to him. I figured I’d never see that orchid again. The flower would fall off and they’d throw it away. My mother would try to get out of bed and knock it over and break it. They wouldn’t water it and it had no natural light and no humidity and it would wither away. Someone would swipe it.
The next day when I went in to visit, my mother was actually in a good mood. She actually mentioned my orchid and said that it was really nice. A nurse came in and smiled and made a big fuss about it. Evidentally ever since I took it in, people had been remarking on it and treating my mom like she was something special. She liked that. She actually was nice back to them. She was actually getting better care because of that orchid sitting there. I apologized to my dad on the way home. He was right. It was worth it. It was a good thing.
But my greenhouse seemed very empty. It’s not as though I am the kind of gardener who has a vast collection of blooming plants (or even two) to give away left and right. I felt sorry for myself even as I told myself I was doing a good thing. But magic happened twice. The other big plant sprouted a bud. It was December. They aren’t supposed to bloom in December. The second orchid was called Hazel Somebody’s Sunset. Pink and purple with yellow in its throat. I’ve managed to find my photo of that one. A fuzzy polaroid, but proof, in case anyone needs it.
Now it is 4 or 5 years later, and I am looking back skeptically on the ghost thing, kind of embarrassed to admit out loud that I thought that my dead dad was helping me get through a difficult time, even though I would like very much to believe that after we’re dead, something of us sticks around, and is able to help people out. But I am looking at this logically now. I was really stressed out then, really scared, and really did not want to be the person in charge of an uncooperative (and that is putting it mildly) mother. I was seeing things I wanted to see. I was reading things into situations with a simple logical answer.
My mother didn’t get better. Things got worse and worse and worse until she finally died. It was the dementia. They couldn’t tell up front exactly what was wrong and what would happen with her. I hoped it was alzheimer’s, because she would forget who I was, and not blame everything on me. I am not sure how I hung in there, but I did. I’m ok now. But here is the ending of this story, the final bit of weirdness in the whole thing: Like I said, I am pretty well able to keep plants alive. Show Business bloomed again for me the next year. It looked gorgeous and healthy. My mind wandered a bit during this time and perhaps my plants didn’t get the best of care. But that one orchid, after she died, began looking frail and within a few months was totally dead. My other plants were ok. Explain that to me.
So now, like I say, I have this deep purple cattleya blooming. We’ve moved on. It still turns my insides to mush. The greenhouse is still a place where I step through into another world, but there aren’t any ghosts anywhere. I am still a third rate orchid grower. I would never want an expert to come in and see how I do things. I don’t mind. I can cope. I won’t invite you up to my bedroom to look at my lovely, lovely catt, but hey, I can send pictures.
And that’s my story.