I am not sure why my mother’s geraniums popped into my head last night. But they did. Gigantic, blindingly red (no subtlety of color here), and on stalks as thick as the trunks of fledgling trees.
When she was living in California, my mother didn’t just grow geraniums, she – what in the world did she do? – I think she magicked them into turning from wishy-washy, potted plants into … shrubs. Hedge-like, massive with bloom, and waist-high.
Let me tell you about myself and geraniums. We have a history, that bit of vegetation and I.
When I was just starting out as a writer, I knew that I had two major obstacles to overcome. One was the desire for comfort. Two was the longing for security. The Starving Young Artist stereotype is more reality than myth. Other than the “starving” part (I never went hungry), most of the accoutrements that accompany the struggle from anonymity to recognition haven’t changed since O. Henry wrote about them over a hundred years ago.
The buildings are old and dilapidated. The staircases are narrow and dark. And the neighbors are less quaint than creepy. I had to step over old Vinnie, who would pass out drunk in the cubicle between the outside and inside doors to my building (broken locks on both); and in the apartment above mine, I would hear a father beating his son every night until I anonymously called the police. I had a bathtub in my kitchen, a commode so antiquated it had an overhead gravity-fed tank, and other than an illegal open-flame gas unit in the kitchen, there was no heat. In the winter, snow would come through the loose window casings into my living room.
I was happy, because young people with dreams are always happy. But in some cold and lonely place deep in my bones, I remembered the beautiful Tudor house in a wonderful suburb of Chicago where I had grown up. Lots of bedrooms. Spanish tile on the piano room floor. Lush yards. A fireplace. Lead glass windows. A basement with a washer and dryer. Beautiful beaches only a bicycle ride away. And neighbors who, if they were child-abusers and alcoholics, has the good sense to do it out of earshot.
No cockroaches. No mice.
Just the sounds, scents, and unrelenting pleasure of safety and security in a big, beautiful home.
Well. Reveling in comfort and security is no way to forge a career in the arts. So … I bid goodbye to all that, and came to New York.
When I lived at home, my mother grew only tulips, daffodils, lily of the valley, peonies, and lilacs, so I don’t know why I came to consider geraniums the ultimate suburban flower. But I did. And I hated them. To me, they symbolized both domesticity (I did not want to get married and settle down), and security (I did not want to worry about saving money).
All I wanted to do was hone my craft. Focus on my goals. And write.
I did write. I do write. But oddly enough, somewhere along the line, I came to trust my commitment enough to get married, move to a pretty house, buy a washer and dryer (talk about domesticity!), and even plant a garden.
I know exactly when I stopped hating geraniums, too. I was still in my twenties, and it was long before I began the process of settling down. I was a merchandize coordinator at an advertising agency in Manhattan, and worked alongside, Jeannie, who also had Big Dreams and No Money. She and I covered for each other. Or, at least, she covered for me when I would sneak away to research articles or stories.
One day in the spring, Jeannie invited me to accompany her to Virginia, where she had grown up on her grandparents’ horse farm.
Over the next few days, I ate things I had never eaten before, met people straight out of a William Faulkner novel, and slept in a wonderful old Southern farmhouse. Jeanie’s grandmother even got me on a horse and taught me how to ride. The most memorable thing about that weekend, though, was a potted geranium that had been in the family for over three hundred years, and resided atop a cabinet in front of the living room window.
What amazed, stunned, and captivated me most about that huge plant – to the extent that I still think about it today – was the way the branches grew upward and became inextricably entwined with the slats of the window’s Venetian blind.
First of all, geraniums don’t climb.
Secondly, a Venetian blind is not a trellis.
That trip to Virginia was the beginning of the end of my hostility toward geraniums. My animosity was dealt a final blow at my mother’s house in California.
During my visits there, I tagged along as she dead-headed the giant geranium shrubs surrounding her house. If she was busy and I was bored, I would drift outside and dead-head the blossoms myself.
As a consequence, I not only fell in love with those enormous plants, I even forgave them for representing safety and security.
But…the story isn’t over!
My sister Selma has cuttings from Mom’s geraniums, which she gently tends while anxiously awaiting the Coming of the Blooms.
Jeannie’s grandmother, now teaching angel-people how to ride horses in heaven, also gave Jeannie cuttings from her plant.
Selma’s geraniums have not yet turned into monstrous shrubs; and Jeannie’s geranium has not yet fallen in love with a Venetian blind, but both live in optimistic anticipation.
As to your friendly former Starving (well, not really) Young Artist – I have had to re-think my attitude completely. I never considered geraniums beautiful, and I still don’t. But they are dependable, colorful, and pretty; and they are consistently cheerful in a world that badly needs cheering up.
To me, this omnipresent houseplant, which I once deemed tediously domestic, has come to symbolize stamina, breaking boundaries, and self-invention.
If a small garden flower can become a gargantuan shrub; and if a little potted plant can entwine its stem with an unyielding Venetian blind; well, then a writer with Big Dreams can pretty much go anywhere and do anything that she wants to.
I did. I do. And if the Gods are kind … I always will.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com