The Plant Queen

Part One

We noticed when the plants began to die. The fern turned brown at the edges. “It’s hard to kill a fern,” Mama always said. We thought at first that perhaps she was just putting that to the test. “You practically have to light it on fire,” she’d remark.

About anything, really. The fern, the vacuum, the subway, the IRS. She had these cryptic, pat answers that seemed to address everything and nothing at the same time. It was the timing and the inflection that you had to watch to decode the particulars. In the case of the plants dying, it was simply a dismissal.

When the green jelly monster started drooping, it became evident there was deliberate neglect at play. Perhaps even with malice. The green jelly monster was “a rescue plant,” as Mama liked to remark to real-estate brokers when she’d put the house on the market, perennially. Mama had discovered it on the steps to the incinerator with a note attached to a lavender strip of ribbon wrapped around it’s twisty, gnarled stalk.
It read simply, “Feed me.”

“I haven’t a clue what to feed a plant,” said Mama. She placed her hands on her hip and looked around at us children for affirmation.
“Try plant food,” said Iris, rolling her eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes to the ceiling, missy, you’ll get no help from there,” Mama said, automatically, while whisking Max’s jello from her highchair.

Max had been assembling what looked to be boogers and raisins into the middle where a lone straw was stuck.
“Who gave her raisins, for god sakes? She could choke,” Mama complained. “Here you go.” She plunked the mess on to the plant, followed by Max’s apple juice.
“Mine!” Max extended her arms plaintively.
“You are done feeding now, young lady. When you play with your food, you pay with your food.”

Mama lifted Max out of the chair and carried her to the kitchen sink where she propped her up by leaning into the adjacent dishwasher. She sprayed Max’s hands and face lightly, then clapped her hands, “all clean,” as Max beamed.

No one touched the plant. Over the course of the week, fuzz accumulated around the blob and the rest of us were directed to use the plant as a sort of ad hoc, garbage disposal.
“Just liquids,” Mama directed. “A thimble’s worth.”

As if any of us knew what a thimble was.

She looked at our blank faces. “Enough to fill a buttercup.”
We’d seen illustrations of that, some with fairies, and so leftover milk, runny spaghetti sauce and even vodka made its way to the plant, which, to everyone’s surprise but Mama’s, blossomed.

“See,” she said. “It looks like you’re just willy-nilly tossing it scraps, but instinctively you’re picking up on its needs. Its guiding you, like children do.”

Books on herbs and plants abounded in the house. Some served as plant stands as Mama began to minister to the sick and spindly. First plants and then people. “Mr. Jackleman needs some sassafras.” Mama spoke to herself while dispensing the medicinals which were all pre-measured and labeled, courtesy of me as having the best handwriting and weakest boundaries.

Her clients were delighted and honored to be among the anointed; their troubles having gone ignored by both traditional and alternative medicine. Mr. Jackleman, for instance, wanted to purify his third eye.

“I fill a niche,” Mama would say proudly. “And since I am a trailblazer, no one can question the science.”
“Because there isn’t any.” Iris was the objector.
“Damn tooting!” said Mama, “it’s wizardry. Witches do no one any good really, or any bad, for that matter. Poof magic.”

As far as we were concerned, wizard was more of an acceptable profession than “management consultant,” which was what Mamma called herself when doing feng shui for offices, prior to her calling to the healing arts, on account of the miracle green jelly monster.

Mama was also a dog groomer and an Avon calling. Mama thought that Avon was a good company but the title, “Avon lady” was up there with “witch.” And since everything Mama did, she claimed the result of a calling, the pun suited her just fine.

She even landed some big accounts, including a couple of truck-stop kiosks until her career was toppled by Emmy Lou Millgram, a three-year-old, who had an anaphylactic reaction to Avon’s eyelash adhesive.

Avon had neglected to check its toxicity for ingestion, assuming the disclaimer in the directions, “not for oral consumption,” was sufficient, but Mama hadn’t considered that when she affixed a strip of babydoll lashes to Emmy Lou’s upper lip, fashioning a moustache.

“Doesn’t she look like Hitler?” Mama had asked us, while the child’s German-speaking grandmother was in the washing room. Max wanted to know if Hitler was one of the Beetles but Emmy Lou had broken out into hives and was projectile vomiting before Mama could launch into a child’s primer on the Holocaust, which she would have done with relish.

For what should have been a QC technicality, Avon had shot the messenger, was how Mama saw the inevitable delivery of the fatal pink slip on scented paper, brushing it off as a cross that misunderstood artists must bare.