Crash. It still echoes loudly in my head. Or maybe it’s just the 50 years that have passed that have amplified it to an epic volume in my brain. Either way, it was not good. Just home from the party at my Aunt’s house on that frigid December night, the whole family had just started unloading the car full of opened presents. As Mom was rushing back to warn us kids that nobody but her should touch Grandma’s just passed down family heirloom vase, the box slipped out of my brother’s frozen hands and smashed on the slick icy driveway. Crash.
Mom would never purposefully emotionally hurt one of her children but her cries of upset shock sent shivers far more biting than those of the frigid weather. Still very young, I just stood there feeling helpless and all these decades later as so many other memories fade I remember that moment with strange clarity. I was not used to seeing Mom upset. Before she had time to think of the ramifications her angry words escaped into the frozen air like the visible vapor of her breath, then flipped from fiery accusatory to consoling in seconds. But it was too late and the sharpness of her words hurt my brother, who I also was not used to seeing upset.
They both quickly got over it but I obviously held onto that vignette like a small forgotten scar that when occasionally noticed takes you right back to the time of injury. I was the baby of the family who at that point was still either oblivious to or shielded from the real world. In the scheme of all the heartbreak life regularly doles out, a smashed vase is pretty minor but I remember it. And the crash reverberates in my head. And it tinkers with my perspective. And it affects how I see things. And it still alters my behavior. Crash.
More than 30 years later I was living with the woman that would eventually become my wife when her Father unexpectedly passed away. They were extraordinarily close and I remember her shocked cry when we got the horrible call. That sound too is forever etched in my head. The weeks that followed were not good as everyone worked hard to get her Mother out of the house where she so desperately no longer wanted to live. Crash.
In the basement of their old Iowa home was a large jade plant.I don’t think anyone recalls when or how it originally appeared but apparently, the plant had been a permanent fixture as my wife grew up and out of the house. It had changed rooms and locations over the years but no matter where it was, it kept growing. Ignored or pampered, in the living room sun or the dank basement, the thing thrived. At some point during those chaotic weeks of readying the house for sale, the idea surfaced that we should take home some clippings and continue the family tradition of having a Jade plant in the house.
As opposed to my wife’s father, who could make things grow as fast and hardy as Jack’s magical beanstalk, I grew up with Jewish city folk who were more comfortable pitching a fit then using a pitchfork. You don’t see a lot of New York Jew farmers. You can’t blame us, the smog and concrete does not offer much in planting opportunities and remember, historically my people did spend a lot of time in deserts.
Growing up we were not completely without greenery; there was a small patch of grass and hedges in front of our old house that the dog was very comfortable watering. Also, when I lived in a Miami during High School weeds started growing out of the swatch of astroturf my Dad plopped down on our 5th-floor condo balcony but I think that was due to the tropical conditions versus anybody’s greenish thumb shade.
During the 15 years, I was on the road for work, I frequently purchased a houseplant for my corporate apartment or hotel. As most of my old girlfriends would admit, you had to be strong and independent to live with me. So whenever I took on a plant-y roommate I never watered them the first week. It kinda tested their strength and taught them who’s boss. I had better luck convincing plants I was in control than humans who mostly emotionally stomped all over me. My plants usually thrived but like most of my relationships, they often did not last long. I usually gave them away before I left town, so I can’t attest to their long-term health and heartiness.
All these events combined in my head when my not-yet-fiance showed up with a half dozen tiny clipping’s from her Dad’s jade snipped from its branches before they gave the now behemoth sized tree away. Thinking of my Mom’s pain of losing a family heirloom and my wife’s agony mourning her Dad, I approached these tiny little plants like they were precious treasures. With the most careful kid gloves, I planned to coddle and coax these little two-inch jade nubs to strong maturity. These were inestimable irreplaceable prized artifacts of family history that were being placed in my care. In my head they were as important and precious in lore and love as the Shroud of Turin, the Buddha’s Tooth, the Ark Of The Covenant or the Holy Grail. I was not going to be the lout that destroyed a slice of history. Hell, I had already purchased an engagement ring; I was not going to be cast out of the family for sacrilegious violations before I even joined it.
The tiny plant pieces looked sad but I was determined to raise them to maturity with the loving care of Mother Theresa and the innovative skills of George Washington Carver. I took something of a crash course in crassulaceae, researching how to best handle them in our climate and region. I placed them in their own individual little pots. I slightly varied the amount of water and sun each received to learn what would be the optimum way to nurse them to adulthood. I was going to be this century’s Theophrastus. Dan, king of the jade botanists and upholder of family lore. Descendants will tell the tale of the mysterious Jade Ninja of the 2000s who stepped into the scene just in time to save the family’s traditions.
Not long after they entered my care, the second largest of the jade nubbins had a misadventure with one of our cats that apparently decided it not only shouldn’t be on the windowsill but also needed some chomp mark customization. I did not have the heart to tell my not yet wife so I dug through the dozens of specimens at the largest local plant store and obtained a rouge substitute jade clipping of extremely similar size and appearance.
Over the next few months, one of the jade babies got over-watered and turned a scary shriveled brown while the others stayed basically the exact same. They did not grow, nor did they die. They sprouted no roots. They just were. But I never relented on my attentiveness. Then one day I came home from work and my future wife had decided they needed a little more sun so she put them outside in the blazing Texas summer heat. Within a week I was faced with the dilemma of either telling her she killed the jades, getting five more stand-in substitute sprouts or throwing myself on the horticulturist’s sword taking the blame for being a family heirloom killer so she would not be upset with herself. There was no good option. My Jade Ninja dreams crashed.
In comparison to everything else she had recently gone through the dead jades turned out to be no big deal but it was decided that we should always have a jade plant. We made a big deal of it on one of our weekend shopping trips and together purchased a nice hardy new one to start fresh. This was OUR jade plant with no clouded memories or baggage. A new tradition took root. Until a few years later when the plant shriveled and died. As did the next one…um, and the next one. And well, frankly, I have lost track of how many Jade plants we have gone through… but our idea has not crashed and burned. Since we have been married my wife and I have strictly followed our tradition and always have had A jade plant in the house… just not the same jade plant.