Monday, November 10, 2014
November's Letter from Harrisburg
I almost gave up on the camellia bush.
As one of those determined, low-maintenance plants that makes people like me look like far better gardeners than we are, the camellia bush filled my office window with a view of sturdy branches and thick, shiny leaves. As I recall, the leaves never dropped off in all the 14 years we’ve lived here, even as the plant grew some 12 feet tall. It bloomed in an explosion of pink early every spring. It reassured me that if, God forbid, our daughter Jenny or any other child fell from the upstairs window, they would land safely in those dense branches instead of on the ground.
Independent, reliable, pretty and multipurpose — that was the sort of bush I wanted for a friend.
Last December we had a cold snap, the temperature dropping into unheard-of frigidity — single digits, then zero, then seven below.
Well into January, with the weather back to normal, I noticed that the camellia leaves were dropping off the bush, making a thick layer of dull leaves with curled-up sides, shrunken and sad.
Surely this was a normal response to extreme cold, I thought, Nature taking care of her own, and the bush would revive and bloom in February like always.
I saw one bud in February. It snapped off when I touched it, a dead relic of the previous spring. The bare branches scratched my window through March and April and May.
Was it dead, or not? Brittle twigs broke off in my fingers. The only green on the entire bush was a bit of moss. A dark eyesore on the north side of the house, stark and naked among all the greenery and growth around it.
But I had a horror of cutting it down if there was any chance it would revive. So I waited.
Meanwhile, daffodils and tulips bloomed, and lilacs and fuchsias and daisies.
Surely it was dead and ruined, and we might as well cut it down, burn it, replace it with a new shrub. But I still had an inner urge: wait.
Give it time.
I think it was August when I saw the most improbable sight. All around the thickest part of the trunks and up into a few limbs, stiff green leaves were pushing out, point first, through solid wood. They kept growing, emerging whole and fresh, followed by stems and still more leaves.
It was soon obvious that every branch over an inch thick had survived, so I whacked off everything smaller. Then I watched it through the office window, an increasing green, a growing population of leaves.
I was so glad I had waited.
Looking up from the computer at the camellia bush’s progress, I would think of other dilemmas, most of them far more significant than shrubbery, and this recurring decision.
Do I give up or keep hoping? Am I waiting on something impossible? When does hanging on become ridiculous? When is a situation all rattly branches that will never bloom again? How long do I wait to find out? Is it time to saw that difficult relationship off at the roots? Should I ask the failing student to drop the class? Is the troubled young person a lost cause? Will I ever influence this organization? Will that person ever understand?
And, less weighty but still of import: Should I give the maddening smartphone to one of the children, give up on technology and go back to being Amish?
The smartphone was a hand-me-down from our oldest son, Matt, who is an engineer for the Navy and relentlessly optimistic about my tech-learning capabilities. He has coaxed and coached me through cutting and pasting paragraphs, opening new windows online, backing up documents, signing up for Facebook, and a hundred other screeny skills I never dreamt I was capable of grasping.
And countless times, when I was in complete despair, he calmly told me to turn the computer off and back on again, and then everything turned out all right.
Despite Matt’s optimism, I’m almost ready to give up on the smartphone. How can such a nifty device take five separate steps to call my husband, when my old flip-phone took only two, with only one hand, and I didn’t even have to look — that’s what I wonder.
As my daughter Emily says, “It’s like you buy a new Kitchen–Aid mixer, but then you get rid of all your spoons, and then all you want is to mix up some scrambled eggs.”
“Give it time,” my friends say. “Pretty soon you’ll think you can’t live without it.”
Matt, as always, believes in me. “Just keep using it,” he says, cheerful and confident.
It’s an interesting message from a son who once seemed hopeless. A mom is never supposed to give up on her children, but I remember a dark stage when I was sure that my relationship with Matt was doomed to disaster and so was his life. He was 13, angry and irritable, fighting me on every front. I was, I realize now, far too obsessive and picky. We were constantly in conflict.
Our lowest moment was when Matt and his dad left for a weeklong trip, and Matt refused to hug me goodbye. I was sure he had been born to the wrong mom, I was a failure, and all my hopes were frozen leaves dropping in a wilted pile.
How could I have seen, back then, the green shoots pushing impossibly from a black bough just a few short years later?
I remember a Christmas party when Matt was a junior in high school. He came up behind me and tilted my chair back to scare me, and we laughed together, a moment of healing and success and hope restored.
Matt was my guinea pig, I tell him now, and his five siblings benefited from everything I learned at his expense. He forgives me, he says, and adds, “I was a tough kid to raise.” Then he shows me how to back up my email account.
It’s OK to give up on the zucchini recipe that won’t work for this family and the hot-glue-and-coffee-filter project that will never resemble the Pinterest original.
It might even be healthy to give the smartphone to an eager teenager and go back to a flip phone and a good pen.
But with people — family, students, friends, and the many who circle into my life for a season — I sense an inner urge to wait.
Give them time, don’t give up yet, keep hoping.
We see only bare and black and hear the breaking snap of twigs, but there may be fresh green leaves about to push triumphantly from hard dead wood.