My Winter Friends

Fern the poinsettia and Max the cactus.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY P. SAVAGE

My husband came in one afternoon, looked at Fern, and asked, “How long are you going to keep that plant?” You’re probably wondering why a poinsettia was named Fern. I don’t know why, she just liked that name. It didn’t matter to me what she called herself. Besides, the important question was, “How long was I going to keep her?”

It was February and she was still sitting on our dining room table. I’ll admit she didn’t look good anymore. She was past her prime. She had several nice red leaves on top and a few green ones, but they were mostly curling. Her stems seemed so long, thin and frail. Ah, but she had been so beautiful in November and December. She enjoyed having me take her picture then.

Fern and I got along well. We would spend all day without either of us speaking.

Fern and I had a lot in common. We were both uprooted, relocated, hoping not only to survive but to make a home in a strange place. I grew up in a large, tight-knit family in Eastern Kentucky. My sisters and their families had homes on each side of us. People were always coming and going. When I moved three hours away to Frankfort, I left family, friends, a job, and familiar surroundings.

Fern understood that. She had been abruptly separated from her lovely companions at the nursery and placed in the middle of our dining room table, where she had no family, no friends, and no pets. I promptly befriended her. I, too, was now living among strangers. My husband was at work all day and the children were at school.

But Fern and I got by. She really brightened up the place. I kept the curtain open so she could get some sunlight and watch our neighbors passing by—and they could see how pretty she was. She really enjoyed that.
Fern and I got along well. We would spend all day without either of us speaking. And we looked forward to my husband and children returning. Then our home got loud and lively.

Fern joined us for supper each evening. Well, that’s not exactly true. I’d take her off the dining table so that we could see each other more easily; and then I’d help her back after the table was cleared. She liked to sit there while the children did their homework.

In February there were some warm pleasant days when I enjoyed taking a walk and talking to my neighbors. This new home was beginning to work for me and my family, but it didn’t seem to agree with Fern.

What do other people do with their Christmas poinsettias? I couldn’t dump Fern out with the torn wrapping paper and mashed-up bows. I thought about planting her outside one warm day, but she didn’t want to go. I didn’t blame her. The nights were still cold in Kentucky. When I opened the door to take out the garbage in the evenings, she felt that draft. She hated the cold air.

I hoped she could hold on for a few more weeks. Then I could take her out, spread her roots in the ground, give her lots of water, and wish her good luck. If no one was looking, I would even slip out at night and tell her that the children had finished their homework. But, alas, that didn’t happen. She passed away.

Fern didn’t survive beyond that first Winter in Kentucky, but she had helped to turn our house into a home and had kept me company until I had made friends with some wonderful neighbors.

So after Fern was gone, I decided to get another plant. I chose Max, a fine cactus who settled in on a sunny window ledge. Max was no easy-going poinsettia. Max was very prickly. He didn’t like to be fussed over, and, unexpectedly, he seemed to thrive on a bit of neglect, which was a good thing, since I took a few classes and got a job and proceeded to forget about him for days at a time.

At first, I wanted to make up for my neglect by giving him plenty of water when I did remember. But he let me know in no uncertain terms that he didn’t like that: “Watch it, lady!” I felt him snap. “Are you trying to drown me here?” I got the uneasy feeling that if I’d gotten close enough, he would’ve let me feel his spines.

Fortunately, I learned pretty quickly to give him water as needed and not too much at once; and Max learned to relax. He was a special plant in his own way. Underneath that rough exterior he had a loving heart. We eventually became good friends. He especially liked it when I visited with him in the evenings so he could report on what he had seen outside his window during the day. And I looked forward to sharing our home with the little guy not just for the winter, but for many seasons to come.

Plants—sometimes when you need a friend, they really are there for you.


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