The Plant Queen
Mama went through what she explained as episodic changes. Her moods, her likes and dislikes, even her taste in fashion, ebbed and flowed, manifesting as different creative periods.
“I’m like Picasso,” Mama would say.
What exactly her art was, no one was sure. Iris claimed that she had asked Mama that very question and that Mama’s answer was longer than the the Gettysburg Address. All Iris could remember was something about an old dancer named Isadora Duncan and the joie de vivre within Mama’s soul.
“And I had to go and look that up,” Iris said indignantly, as though she had been forced to walk ten miles to school in the snow. “I tell you, if she’s thinking she’s gonna get any joie de vivre out of that soul now, she better sew it on to herself, like Peter Pan did with his shadow.”
“Wendy did that,” I said, knowing which one of us was going to have to play seamstress for the Emperor’s new clothes if Iris got it into her head to suggest this to Mama and I told Iris that I had read that suggesting something delusional to someone who could be delusional, could backfire.
“Duh!” said Iris. “Also, even Mama knows that would be crazy because the soul is illusive.” Then she added, “You’re stupid.”
I held my tongue because clearly Iris, who had just revealed falling hook, line and sinker for one of Mama’s oracles about the soul, was the one who was stupid.
For someone so practical, many of Iris’s beliefs were lodged in Mama’s down-homey, swooping generalizations regarding the esoteric (and the practical, for that matter), that she had pulled out of the ether of an array of uncited sources; ancient universal truths, degrees in psychology and philosophy and Reader’s Digest, to name a few. Sometimes I would remind Iris of this — not in so many words, and she’d be right there with me.
“Don’t forget about Bugs Bunny,” she’d say.
On Saturday mornings Mama would watch cartoons with us, serving up comparatives and partially burnt scones during the commercials. Bugs, represented a modern-day “Puck” from “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Puck of course being, Pan, Cupid, the Trickster
“Don’t underestimate Looney Tunes, girls,” she’d say, “it can be quite intellectual.”
Iris would argue, but secretly lap it up, “Not everything is intellectual, Mama.”
“It is if you are,” was Mama’s reply.
Mama was too crafty to refer to God other than within the confines of an expletive. Her maxims, which we called “mamaisms,” were offhandedly delivered, as if indisputable and sometimes even backed by invented statistics.
“ Did you know,” She might say, “that 85% of higher-educated people who were taught to think independently have been unjustly fired at least once?” And then, as if the information had originated elsewhere she would speculate, “And I imagine the number gets even higher for women.”
Sometimes I would challenge her. “What about black people?”
“That is a given. Can’t be factored.” As though Mama knew what was quantifiable and what wasn’t. And, as if she could read my mind, she’d explain, “No funding for studying racial discrimination. The numbers are too large and the establishment could give two licks, unfortunately.”
When Mama talked like this, when I was younger, I’d tear up so, she’d do something like hug me or raise her fist and say, “But you girls are going to help make it change.”
Mama always had an answer and usually a solution. It’s just that what she termed as workability, waxed and waned depending on how she heard the question. Or whether one had been asked.
“Can I keep the change after I make it?” I’d say.
Iris would look pained but Mama knew when I was kidding. We shared a sense of humor, but as far as Iris’s went, the jury was still out.
“It’s a crap shoot with that one,” Mama would say.
There was something innately magic about Mama separate and apart from just her saying so. I knew that this magic or art or eccentricity that Mama claimed as a gift was the host, and the waxing and waning that propelled her, the parasite. The cultural and medical mores that held that is was the other way around, was what lead to downfalls.
Mama did not like the term “breakdown.” “Emotional upset is not engine trouble,” she’d say “and we’re not made of china, no matter how beautiful and precious we may be.”
It wasn’t that Mama couldn’t withstand a downfall, which was, after all, what she considered just a tumble from somewhere higher up - to somewhere lower, down.” We just didn’t know how many she had left.
The one we named “Avon Falling” marked the onset of what became known as Mama’s “Blue Period,” as an homage to Picasso and because her moods spiraled, no longer bolstered by the upthrusts in her swing era.
When the plants ceased to flourish, Mama had entered the realm of discordant jazz. And then she just waned.
“I think the plants need more sun,” I said one day, when the Green Monster’s droop began to look like more of a wilt.
“They don’t care for Coltrane,” Mama said, “You have to develop an affinity for this type of music.” She looked at me pointedly, as Iris had taken to wearing the unplugged stereo headset as a sound buffer.
“And if you don’t, well, it’s survival of the fittest. Not to sound harsh,” Mama added. She was still smarting from the blows of criticism for “the improper use of beauty supplies,” which she was in the process of reconfiguring as a parting over artistic differences.
It was Iris who suggested we water the plants. “It’s the least we can do,” she said, “and if there’s some additional component that they need that we don’t know about, I guess Mama will tell us and at least until then, they won’t die.” I didn’t tell her about Mama’s sink or swim acoustical selections. I was afraid that Iris would perceive the situation as getting out of control and want to do something about it.
So Iris and I and sometimes even Max, watered the plants more often than Mama, which at this point was never. Nonetheless, the fern’s edges turned yellowish and the brown spread.