This yellow bloom inspired a story that has been waiting nearly twenty years for me to write.
Yesterday morning, much to my relief and delight, one of my three new Hibiscus plants, the one I had been anguishing far too much about, finally decided to bloom.
While its peach and pink brethren were prolific in launching large, boastful blooms, the yellow-petaled Hibiscus was holding out.
No matter what I did, yellow said no.
I couldn't understand why.
I was giving all three plants equal amounts of direct sun, water and attention.
Weeks after planting, still no bloom.
Just as I was pondering where to relocate the stubborn Hibiscus, it finally happened.
Yellow came in from behind in her own time.
I was unprepared for the range of emotions I experienced over this flower bloom.
It took me some time to recognize it for what it was.
Another message from mom?
* * *
I never had much interest in gardening until recently.
But now, I am finally beginning to understand the satisfaction and pleasure mom derived from it.
My prior gardening was done begrudgingly.
A summer must-do to add a splash of color here, and there.
Another task to complete, but not to enjoy.
Still, I'm a pedestrian gardener.
Mom, on the other hand, was a natural-born, master gardener.
Everything she touched flourished under her knowing, loving hands.
She took great pride in rescuing nearly-dead plants from the grocery store, bargaining to buy the desperate things for pennies, and then nursing them back to unexpected glory.
It's hard to believe she's been gone for almost twenty years.
I know she would be proud to see what's become of me and my "black thumb."
A name that stuck years ago following her routine inspection of my houseplants.
"Joni, too much water!"
"This one needs pruning!"
And then there was the cocked-head, dreaded hands-on-hips mom stare of despair.
"Oh Joni...this one's dead!"
"Sorry, mom," I would say. "I may have a black thumb, but my priority is keeping our two daughters alive."
Mom's frown would turn to a quick smile, but her eyes told me she was almost heartbroken by my unapologetic disinterest in plants or gardening.
She so wanted me to share her passion for digging in the dirt.
This daughter of an urban-forester and wildlife conservationist, to whom gardening and all things nature came to her naturally by DNA, could not fathom my lack of interest.
* * *
Unfortunately, time was not on mom's side in waiting me out to be the gardener she hoped I could be.
Before she was able to get into her garden on a beautiful Sunday in June, mom suffered a fatal heart attack at age 75.
She was as efficient dying as she was living, leaving us within a half hour of her arrival to the emergency room.
* * *
As I exited the hospital on that otherwise beautiful summer day all I could think about was mom's houseplants and her gardens that didn't yet know.
I made a beeline to her now unoccupied house.
Pulling into her driveway, I passed mom's lavish flower gardens, and then, her potted tomatoes by the back door.
They were so unnaturally large and ripe I alternately admired and feared them.
Mom was a MiracleGro aficionado, and it showed.
Inside the house, I took inventory of mom's houseplants with dread; there were so many. Too many.
I could at least count on Mother Nature to assist in keeping mom's flower gardens happy and hydrated.
But those Godforsaken houseplants, they were now in my unfortunate care.
Not knowing what else to do, I gathered up every potted plant and placed them together in one room that took in plenty of light.
They needed each other, and I needed them to be in one place so I wouldn't have to roam from room to room when I stopped by to care for them.
I sat on the floor and stared at this mournful gathering of houseplants.
I wasn't prepared for mom to leave us, and I certainly wasn't equipped to take on the care of her garden and plants.
I reassured myself with a phrase I summon anytime I'm faced with a seemingly impossible task.
"How hard could it be?"
* * *
After a few days of bereavement leave, I returned to my office.
As I was playing catch up with paperwork and phone calls, I noticed one of our admins hovering at my office door.
It was Mary, and it didn't take any special powers of perception on my part to note that she was behaving out of sorts.
"Something wrong, Mary? Did you want to... talk? I inquired from my desk.
"Oh no," Mary replied. "I just wanted to tell you again how sorry I am about your mom. I know it's still a sensitive subject," she said.
"Of course not, Mary, it's actually very comforting to talk about my mom, come on in," I said with a welcoming smile.
Mary remained at my door. My response apparently failed to engender any sense of comfort in her.
There was a minute or two of silence as Mary struggled to work up the courage to say something she didn't quite know how to say.
She finally got the words out. "I have something I need to tell you, but I don't want to upset you."
That certainly piqued my interest.
"Do tell me, Mary! I'm sure you won't upset me," I said.
Mary hesitantly spoke.
"I had a dream, Mary said. "It was your mom, Mrs. DeVito, I only met her once but vividly remember her face, and, her German accent."
"My mom appeared in your dream?" I asked, unable to suppress my intrigue and, admittedly, a little resentment.
Mom hadn't, as of yet, appeared in any of my dreams, but she was showing up in Mary's?
"Well, yes," Mary said. "Your mom came to my door and when I answered she asked me to relay a message to you."
Now, Mary was accustomed to taking and relaying phone messages to all of us, but this of course, was not in her job description.
My mind raced as I thought, "Is Mary now delivering messages from the Other Side?"
"Ok. What's the message?" I asked, stone faced.
"Well, your mom asked me to tell you to water the African Violet."
"She asked you what??" I asked in an incredulous voice.
Mary repeated herself, "I guess your mom wants you to water the African Violet."
My face flushed and I probed my unfortunate messenger with curiosity: "So that's it? My mom comes to your door and asks you to tell me to water an African Violet and nothing else?"
"Yes, that was it, so there it is" Mary said, unburdening herself of this duty to return to her other duties.
Mary was now out of sight, but I still felt the need to mutter to no one in particular, "Well, not that I need to answer to this, but I happen to be taking very good care of your plants, all of them."
* * *
Several hours later during my lunch break I visited mom's house to check in on her orphaned plants.
Remarkably, they were doing fine, including her African Violet.
Before leaving I looked in on each room, and when I got to my father's former study, I noticed an accumulation of dust on the windowsill.
As I yanked back the heavy drape that coughed up a cloud of dust, I was stunned by what I saw.
At the far end of the windowsill, hidden from view behind the drape, sat a very sad and fully wilted African Violet.
I swept it up, but instead of placing it with the other plants I had staged in the foyer, I decided it was coming back to the office with me.
I delivered it straight to Mary, firmly plunking the plant down on her desk.
"Well, here's the African Violet. And now it's all yours."
Feeling both the weight of pressure and out of her depth to care for a plant in need of expert resuscitation, Mary turned it over to a co-worker known for her collection of and prowess in the care of African Violets.
And in no time, mom's African Violet, the one she had to visit Mary in a dream to tell me I had left behind, once again thrived.
Mom made sure of it.
* * *
I've told this story over the years to a few friends but was never able to write it until now, eighteen years since it happened.
Of all things, it was inspired by the delayed opening of a gorgeous yellow Hibiscus bloom.
I would like to take it as another message from mom.
She was once able to get my attention to save her dying African Violet.
So why couldn't she deliver a metaphor straight to my garden to remind me she was still watching?
Her late-blooming gardener daughter and the Hibiscus she wouldn't give up on.
Just like mom never gave up on me getting into the garden.
I'll take it as her green thumbs-up.