Death by African Violet

My roommate and I hang out on our narrow dorm cots with their East Indian bedspreads. Incense burns, and we are speaking wisdoms when they strike us as we drink Tyrolia Pineapple Wine and smoke Newports. We are talking about who we have become, at least for this time. We have just recently learned to smoke. Not easy, but we persevered and we succeeded. We have also learned to drink Black Russians and shots of tequila straight, after licking Morton’s salt off the back of our left hands, with no choking squinting grunting before we get to plunge the saving slice of lemon in between our front teeth and bite down hard. That biting of lemon reminds us of the women we see late night in old movies, fuzzy on our black and white, biting their own hands to silence the agonies of childbirth lest they and all with them be murdered by Union soldiers or Pawnees, lest they be shamed by older women who have been there and who look down from their years to deny younger women the truths of their experiences. We know about these older women already. Two live down the hall, our Resident Advisers, and they have denied us our homesickness and our problems with learning chemistry in an auditorium of 500. The 30 of us freshmen, except for weeping Sue Ann, who will become a Mormon and move to Brigham Young next year, began avoiding the RAs in week three. Now, they prowl the halls, sniffing at doors for eau de maryjane, listening for male baritones after 1 a.m, keeping note of all our vices however best they can. We wonder who they report to, who advises them. We contemplate them as we lie there puffing rings and trying to enjoy the sharp slice of menthol against the backs of our throats.

My roommate wonders why they have pushed their cots together. I wonder how they will ever get through college if they keep trying to catch 30 people doing things they shouldn’t, which we all do, all the time and with great variety. I mean, what are they going to do if they catch us? But we figure if the RAs haven’t caught us feeding the four, 100 percent male, bluegrass band members our hall of women tends, like favorite pets, in the empty room across the hall from our room, they are not going to catch us at much. “The guys” have lived across the hall since November after the two women who had the room both decided to drop out. Most of us who chose to stick it out have become adept at stealing male quantities of food from the cafeteria in the basement of Sadler Hall. The 30 of us on our hall take turns. We cover up the noise of their talk and instruments with blasts of Led Zeppelin and J. Geils Band. If there is not strength in numbers, there is at least confusion. Grateful Dead.

In return, the band members help with our personal growth. My roommate and I have even learned to eat the worms in the tequila bottles. We don’t chew, but we do down the hatch. I mean, we are cool. We are good friends. Forever and all that. We are also probably the only virgins left on the hall, and we are not cool enough to be embarrassed into silence by that fact.

On a normal Saturday afternoon, there’s usually no trouble finding something to do, but this very still Saturday afternoon, there’s no place we can think of where we want to go and we can’t think of anything we want to do. A lot of people have ditched out for the weekend. Our band is playing a gig in Albany. Nothings happening on campus except Clint Eastwood and Hillel. Always the independent thinker, I have boycotted the former. My roommate, free at last, boycotts the latter. There’s nothing to do but open our books and study, but it’s Saturday and Saturdays, sacred as they are, we feel are better spent hanging out on our cots, contemplating astral projection and the life and love lines on our palms, spouting geysers of smoke like Old Faithful does steam, discussing people’s auras as if we can really see them, listening to Leon Russell and Pure Prairie League, to Sandy Denny and Gary Burton, and talking as if we really know it all. I mean, like, really. We are wise. So wise. We are also, at 3:30 on this particular Saturday afternoon, a little fucked up.

So, of course, in the hall beyond our dorm room door, the Sadler Floor 1 phone shrills. Usually; as the ones who live in the room next to the phone, we get stuck answering. But recently we’ve rebelled. We aren’t, after all, in college to become our dormmates’ answering service. And right now, today, we don’t want to move. We say with bravado to the ceiling, “Fuck it! Fuck them!” as only two semi-drunk, nouveau nicotined virgins can say on a sunny late April afternoon. Spring is just beginning to green the tips of the grass in the field beyond our dorm room window and tint the wine red flowering Judas buds and the pale fern green shadow of minute leafing on the trees that mark the far side of the field and the beginning of the wooded, ancient graveyard that curls around two sides of Syracuse’s campus.

Amy throws open our door without knocking. “Phone for you, Betsy,” she announces and then leaves as quickly, slamming the door.

“We shoulda locked it,” my roommate sighs, pouting smoke rings towards the water-stained ceiling. “She is such a hitch. “

I rise, with a little stagger, take a cigarette from the turquoise-and-white Newports pack and light it as I walk slowly from the room. Not only have I learned to smoke, I can light a cigarette in the middle of Sadler field in a 30-mile-per-hour wind. I am a wonder. “Yeah,” I say, closing the door behind me.

It could be Johno or Danno or Toad. But it’s my mother. Saturday afternoon. Forbidden call time. And she’s crying. Clear, but crying. It’s my grandmother. She’s dead. It’s a serious phone call, and the Tyrolia fights me for self control. I ask, articulating carefully, “How did she die, Mom?” My mother does not speak for what seems a long time. She is sobbing. I don’t know what to say. It seems to me that there should be a prepackaged set of appropriate responses and emotions with which to internalize this news and embrace her obvious distress, but I can’t locate it in my repertoire of responses. So I ask again, carefully, “How did she die Mom?” I had not thought of my grandmother dying. She was certainly old enough, and she’d been ill in some nonspecific ways. But dead. That makes me want to cry, too, not because I love her, loved her, but I was believing that after 18 years of trying like crazy to do something right just once to get on her good side, I was believing that we were making progress. I mean, the last three years, my mom has taken me with her when she returned from Pennsylvania to visit her mother. Once a month at least Mom made this drive, and I would go along because she was afraid of 1-95, but she took it to get the down-and-back over with as fast as possible. Recently, my grandmother has been confiding in me about her life as a young woman, about the tragedy of love. I think she has been telling me things even my mom does not know. And now she’s dead. “How did she die, Mom?”

Recently she has told me over and over about her past, particularly about the boy she really loved who shot himself in the woods. I imagine deep sapling woods with eerie sunlight splintering here and there, flickering, dappled shade. í imagine the boy (as Jon Voigt) slender, his face looking upward, but his eyes are pinched closed with emotional distress. His back against a thin trunk, slenderly he slips down the tree to sit, knees pulled to chest, forehead pressed to knees, golden streaked hair, slightly long, glinting precious in the fragments of sun, till finally—tears tracking through the dust on his cheeks, the dust from getting there to that tree to that seat—till finally, he pulls a derringer, silver, from his jacket pocket and with unreasonable calm puts the trigger to his temple and there I stop imagining until I imagine her, young and graceful, dressed in organdy, gauzy, long-skirted, coming out to investigate the shot. Who knows how it really happened?

My grandmother tells this story in tandem with the story of her meeting my grandfather at a swimming party, on someone’s boat in the Chesapeake. He caught her underwater and kissed her. “Oh that man. That sassy awful man. “ He kissed without asking. He stole her kiss. And somehow she ended up married to him. She always tells me these two stories as though she never loved my grandfather, which I know is hard to do, but he was there and her true love was dead. Still, I cannot make the connection, figure how one man led to the next. I can imagine the long white dress and her horror in the woods, but I cannot imagine her A) as a girl in a bathing suit, B) diving off someone’s yacht, C) swimming so fluently that she would be under water to be caught. Sometime, I will ask my mother about this, but not now. She is on the other end of a wire, crying. “How did she die, Mom?”

During recent visits my grandmother has invited me to feel her bones. She is particularly impressed that she herself can feel her ribs and her hip points. It’s not that she was ever fat in my memory, though it took a lot of fat for kids to notice fat in my day. But I guess like most adults she has been, well, padded. Midriff bulge. “If you can squeeze an inch . . .” Feeling her bones has been one of those things I don’t want anyone to know about. Scary. Even, well, sort of unclean in some way. But after our history of natural antagonism, I find myself willing to prostitute myself in this way, running my finger over the ridges of ribs, “Yes, Grandmommy, yes. I can feel the ribs real well. They are real sharp. “ Pressing my fingers down on the points of hip bone where they jut out evenly, pulling her crepe skin snug across them. “Yes, I can, yes, I can feel your hip bones.” Perhaps it is the dark rooms of her house, but when I go out to the kitchen where Mom fixes casseroles and other meals easily thawed and cooked for dinners, I have been embarrassed. Embarrassed like I’d feel coming home from a date and feeling that, whether it was true or not, my parents silently assumed I’d been necking. Perhaps they did, perhaps not. Perhaps, I think now, she has been more ill than I understood.

My roommate comes out of our room with a tea mug full of Tyrolia. I take it, not wanting it, not drinking it. Back in our room, she cranks my old suitcase stereo and Leon Russell howls, “I’m up on a tight wire. One’s side’s ice, the other fire.” I pour the wine out of the open window that slants inward by the phone, watching Tyrolia dribble in piss-yellow streams down the slanted glass. The cigarette butt follows. On the phone with my mom, with home, I revert to the decent girl I was in August when they dropped me off. I am suddenly younger, less sure, and I want to be there, crawl into the phone, slip through the wire. Be there. My mother’s grief makes me rue the day that I went so far from home to see the world, particularly on days like today when I ponder that world through smoke and cheap wine in the squares of our pressed acoustic tile dormroom ceiling.

“Your grandfather threw her African violet through the dining room window,” she finally gasps. Enraged. The tears are mixed, sorrow and fury. Ice and fire.

Carefully, now, I ask, “Through the window? But how come?” I ask. “How did that make her die?” Not the right question perhaps. It seems cold, but I mean, hey, why would anyone want to throw African violets through a dining room window and why was that a fatal thing for him to have done so far as my grandmother is/was concerned?

“Because she loved them,” my mother says, as if I should know that. But then, I guess I do.

My grandmother and I had what í have come to think of as African Violet Wars, though after the early battles, the violets were involved more symbolically than actually. But our wars began with those violets, those Tanganyikan (now Tanzanian) velvet-leafed plants of such delicate beauty, plants that either punished their tenders for too little or too much, be it light, moisture, food, humidity or rewarded the same with endless profusions of flowers year-round. And oh, those flowers, their many colors and complexities, their lustrous glimmer of silver specks and veins.

My early crimes against them were brought up again and again as if to explain my more varied and numerous crimes as I grew toward adolescence. All my life, all of my mother’s life, my grandmother had an impressive collection of violets, many shades from white to midnight violet. Indigo. Swirling mixtures of color. Leaves like velvet. They grew and bloomed on the wide ledge of the deep bay window in her dining room. When I was ledge height, I saw them as a cloud of pinks and blues and purples, whites and deep greens. In the beginning, it was enough to just look up through the forest of violets out the window to blue sky. At first, it was enough to learn who each was. Each violet had a fancy name and most had a history—Gisela, Dominica, Monique and Decennie—Strike Me Pink, Double Pink, Fringed Snow Prince, Blue Pom, Purple Ruffles, Midnight Star, and magically so on. Some of the violets stemmed from cuttings of plants so far back that I imagined the originals traveling in style via ship from Scotland and England with ancestors.

Even very young, I knew the violets were far more than plants in pots and, after a while, it was no longer enough just to look. î couldn’t keep my hands where they belonged. I loved to finger their leaves, thick and firm, silky. My grandmother and mother plucked flowers, so I did too.

I loved the many different pots, crowded together for maximum profusion. Whether terra cotta or ceramic, large or small, all the pots had watering holes. I learned early on that African violets, unlike backyard violets, did not like water to touch their furry leaves. “Those holes aren’t for you to put your fingers in, Betsy! And don’t touch those leaves! They don’t like your fingers anymore than they like water!” But the holes fit so well. And touching the leaves was like touching the incredibly soft muzzle of a horse. It was inevitable, though, that my fingers would find that hole that was a bit too snug. It was as inevitable too that that particular hole would be in the pot of that oldest and most royal of the violets, a plant passed from generation to generation through carefully nurtured cuttings, for so long that it was a plant that went further back than civilization, it seemed. Perhaps it was the original African violet.

It was inevitable that, stuck, my efforts to withdraw my finger before anyone caught it where it had no business being would result in the most heinous murder of the best and the oldest. The shattering of its ancient porcelain pot “My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s” was as loud as any death scream. White petals, brown earth and peach fragments would cover the floor and the murderer as telltale as blood. The peach porcelain shards and slivers my grandmother cleaned away in tears. The rest was left to me, 6 and humbled, but not so humbled that I did not secret velvet leaves in my pants pocket whenever my grandmother directed her anger in my mothers direction. “What are you going to do with this child? She’s just impossible.”

I realized later that the plant could have been salvaged, if not largely whole, then at least in part. The leaves in my pocket I handed over in guilt to my mother who asked me far more gently, “What are we going to do with you, Betsy?” and who turned those leaves she could into cuttings. Cuttings. But the plant itself went into the compost bin and withered accusingly at me and my evening offerings for days until the cold snap hit and it died a black twisted death. I remember little terra cotta pots lining the sills of our kitchen as my mother began the next generation of this violet. That story of loss became one my grandmother told almost every time someone commented on her violets. I knew it by heart. And perhaps that is why I think of the strife between my grandmother and me as our African Violet Wars, in truth, there were only so many things one child could inadvertently do to African violets. As I say; the crimes I recall that dealt directly with her violets are few.

When I hit the beginning of that age when many grandchildren lose some of their charm for grandparents, someone gave her a violet called a Betsy Bee. I took this addition personally. I thought it might be a sign of her forgiveness. For a while, I even thought it was named after me.

My grandmother got this violet the year I could not be good to save myself. í was 9 going on 10 and could not stay out of trouble no matter how hard I tried, and I did try, particularly where my grandmother was concerned. I truly did try, but 9, for me, was an age when my attention span only allowed me to process the first half of any sentence. I became sort of semi-deaf in some odd way. Like “Betsy, I want you to go to Gossman’s and get a stick of butter synapse hut I don’t want you taking your bike beyond Benfield Road.” Or “Betsy, yes, you can clean out the fireplace synapse hut wait till your father and I get back and the coals are completely out.” I missed the conditional so often and got caught missing that conditional so often that each day 1 promised myself that I would be careful, listen, make sure. But I could never seem to carry through. My mother, realizing she needed something more than a stick of butter, would in all innocence follow my route to Gossman’s Grocery only to find my bike leaning against the stucco wall. My parents, after a Saturday matinee in Annapolis, would come home just as the smoldering coals caught and flames flared in my arms, just in time to help me get the grocery bag of fireplace ash out of the house with minimal damage. These things happened every day. It was that kind of year, a bad one.

It was the year I named my favorite plastic horse Louise only to find out that Louise was my grandmother’s middle name and that she was not as flattered as I was by the Betsy Bee. It was the year I tried adult psychology, child version, on my mother and told her that if she did not get me a blow-up raft, all my friends (not that many, really) would think she was mean. It was the year that my friends Tommy and Pat and I found this wrecked car down over a cliff and, with a crow’s appreciation for the brighter things in life, we stuffed the shattered safety glass from the windshield in our pants pockets, hoarding it like jewels. Safety is relative, though, and by the time we hiked the three or four miles home, we had odd and nasty little cuts wherever the front and back pockets of our pants pressed against our bodies—more of a problem for Pat and Tommy than me. It was also the year that they dared me to bike the tennis court nets at Severn School for Boys like the net poles were barrels in a quarter horse neck-reining competition. I caught my right bicep on a net pole, split my arm open and we had to come up with some convincing lie before they would let me go home to get fixed. They told me to say that a car had just tapped the back wheel of my bike and thrown me into a hug with a telephone pole. “It is the only other way it could have happened, “ they said. But none of us was old enough, aware enough to know that cars hitting bikes and leaving the scenes of such accidents was a serious serious crime. They did not know that a telephone pole would leave a different sort of gash and a more extensive one at that. They did not know the kinds of questions parents can think up that make a lie harder and harder to hold on to.

It was also the year when I realized that my friend Stevie’s older brother wasn’t normal, and when I asked his mother what was wrong with him, he answered and said, “I had polio.” It was the year when we first filed into a building at the Severn School for Boys and ate sugar cubes, red with sweet polio vaccine that had come too late for Hugh. It was the year my cousin Billy threatened the blow-up raft that my mother eventually had bought with his pen knife and I bit him, blackmailing through clenched jaw, “Throw the knife away. Throw the knife away.”  I clenched like a pit bull and as he just pressed the shiny steel blade closer to the tender blue plastic, I clenched deeper, drawing blood. He screamed. Adults came from everywhere. I sat, startled as if by bright light, blood dripping down my chin from my teeth and my lower lip and he, the angel, the saint, the perfect boy, the only grandson, was coddled back to my grandparents’ and kept away from me, the heathen, the vicious child, the “What’s wrong with that girl?” girl. Later he told me he had had to have a tetanus shot, that his doctor said there was no mouth on earth dirtier than a human mouth, “particularly a girl’s mouth.’} I believed him and felt more soiled than usual.

Ah, bad girl. It was the year when our parakeet, Peter the Parakeet, took to leaving his perennially open cage at dinner time and landing by my plate, near the green beans or corn or black eyed peas, muttering, “Dirty Betsy. Dirty Betsy. Bad Betsy. Shut up, Betsy. Bad Betsy. “ Peter would move from the table cloth to the edge of my plate, cursing me under his breath as he went, and no one but me quite heard what he said. My sisters would look on with envy at his attention. I would wonder later who taught him these curses. I would suspect my older sister, and I would suspect my grandmother.

Ah, bad and clumsy girl. I sank the skiff. I got stranded twice across the river in the sailing canoe even though my mother said she had told me not to cross the river. It was the year, fascinated by the myth of Icarus, that I took to making wings and test-piloting them on Pat. It was the year I led Tommy along a short cut I’d found through the Round Bay woods to go soft crabbing. I jumped a few feet down to a big log and he followed and the log was teeming with yellow jackets. I got bitten 36 times. He got 18 bites. I was sore, but hardy. He was allergic and nearly died. I got him home somehow, and he got what he needed not to die, but I, the villain, the ruffian, the “What’s-with-you-girl?” was not allowed near him for a year. By then, he was beginning to hate girls anyway, though he and his friend would play with them if they would take their shirts off. And I would not. Besides, in the intervening year of solitude, while Tommy’s housekeeper forgot the bees and Pat’s broken arm healed well, I had learned to enjoy my time with myself.

But it was one of those years when nothing goes right, not even school. It was a year when, as usual, I got straight As, but I also quite effectively dripped poster paints down John W’s back during a film. He was always trying to grab me and kiss me when the teacher turned out the lights for movies or something, but she always made us sit together and in the back because we were a good head taller than most of our peers. “Sprouting like field corn,” Doc Doolin the janitor would say when some of us walked by.

One afternoon, in our darkened classroom when John W put his arm over my shoulders and pulled me against him, I acted on good womanly instinct. I tenderly touched his back for the rest of the film, stroking it gently with poster paints from the jars behind us where we sat on the art table. There was no question as to who’d done it. And my motive was not of interest to my teacher or the principal. Under Mrs. Martins glare, I wrote a letter to his mother apologizing for damaging his shirt and promising to replace it if the paint wouldn’t wash out. I used the word “unsalvageable” several times because Ms. Martin, in an effort to make the letter-writing a learning experience, gave me five words to use—one word was “unsalvageable.” Another was “unforgivable.” My P.S. (I always added at least one P.S. to every letter I wrote) read, “But he always tries to kiss me when the lights are out for movies and I hate him.” My teacher let that pass through. I don’t think she really read the finished letter carefully, and I’d put the P.S. on the back of the last page. To bring closure to her punishment, I was the one who sealed the confession in its envelope which she’d addressed. Then she marched me to a corner mailbox and watched me mail it. I think that was the first time I felt the finality of the slam of a letter box in the pit of my stomach.

At John’s school birthday party a few months later, his mom ruffled the hair on the top of my head when she found out who I was. She said, “You gotta paint ‘em as you see ‘em, hon. It came out easy. Water soluble.” Water soluble. I can’t say I understood then, but I still remember her sharply—thin, tight jeans, gauze shirt, long black hair—Indian, I thought.

My problem was that I just couldn’t recognize trouble when I saw it. Life was an unposted mine field across which I joyfully danced, explosions all around, never understanding what had happened or why. Piaget or Vygotsky must describe some stage involving this phenomenon of not understanding the connectedness of thought to action to response to social sanction. I left third grade with a bad reputation. It was the year I spent most of the recesses either up in the maple in the first-grade playground or the pine in the main playground. The recess teachers would find me, stand below and call me down as if they’d never climbed a tree. I only came down after a while when the recess teachers invoked Mrs. Baylus, matron of the Safeties. For my last three years of grade school, Safeties called out, rather with the same tone as our parakeet, the dreaded summons, “Three-thirty Monday, Hodges” announcing to anyone in earshot that I was a trouble-maker, a rule-breaker, a bad girl.

I did not understand the teachers. I did not understand why I could not travel my own way home without waiting for the Safety Crossing when between the hours of 3 p.m. and 8 a.m. and on weekends I crossed the same road on my own. ï did not understand a lot. I did not understand my grandmother. And she did not particularly understand or like me. And now she is dead and I am arranging with my father how to get home, my first plane flight.

The odd thing is, I am a lot like my grandmother. But I arn also a lot like her sister with whom my grandmother fought whenever proximity allowed it. Perhaps I am the nexus of them, the point of their conflict. I look back 21 years to that me who sat on my dorm cot, my roommate gone for breakfast, my duffle packed, waiting for the desk to buzz my room to signal that the cab had arrived to ferry me to the airport. And I wish. I wish. I don’t know. I guess I wish my grandmother and I had been close, had loved each other. No, I wish we had liked each other. I remember a song from grade school “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmothers house we go. The horse knows the way, to pull the sleigh, across the blanket of snow.” My grandmother lived right beside me until I was 14. My grandmother did not have a wood stove, round cherry cheeks, or a fat silver bun. My grandmother was too close to her only daughter s children, all of us, to see us the same way she saw the cousins who lived an hour away. But my older sister was turning into a young woman of marriageable age, thus interesting, and my younger sister was a toddler, cute and precocious. And I just was—big for my age, clumsy, blunt cut straight hair, styleless.

She saw me more than enough every day and found me frustrating. I read too much. I was not interested in womanly interests— refused to learn to knit, sew, crochet, needlepoint. I was interested in sharks pianos snakes cellos horses blue claw crabs Mozart China math muskmelons National Geographies all wild animals cats dreams school college oceanography writing. I was going to be a doctor who made it so no one died and an oceanographer who explored the Mariana Trench (with dolphins), a concert pianist and a jockey, a world traveler and an essayist and a large-animal vet. I was going ride in the Olympics and the Kentucky Derby. My heros were Nancy Drew and Alec Ramsey and Robin Hood and Fess Parker and Amelia Earhart. And I was never going to marry, but if I had to, I’d have two sets of identical twins—first girls, then boys. And I would have my own house, he his. These things I knew for sure by the time I was 10 going on 11.

The girl spends too much time in fantasy worlds.” When she caught me spread eagle in the field behind my house, trying to transport my essence through the earth to trade places with a counterpart I was sure was there in China, she threw up her hands, particularly when she found out the counterpart was a boy my age. We would just trade bodies and languages, just for a little while, a few days perhaps, to see each others homes and schools. I could imagine this earth journey so clearly, my essence, spread eagle, moving steadily through rock and roots and rabbit warrens. My inner-earth vision was drawn right from Alice s adventures underground. My interest in China was motivated by passages of Oriental-sounding pieces my piano teacher had me playing and by mementos passed down to my mother by her Great Aunt Fan, the deaf spinster and world traveler. And the boy part—well boys got around more and I was sure it was worse to be a girl in China where their feet were bound and stayed so tiny that that they couldn’t move fast if they had to.

When my grandmother first got the Betsy Bee African violet, I was charmed. I took it as an unspoken apology on her part. It was not much of a violet, really, a faded out lavender with lighter than usual leaves. But its name was my name. I mean, she couldn’t come right out and tell me that she was sorry she’d disliked me all these years, could she? Doing so, she would have to admit the fact and since grandmothers should only love grandchildren, going public with her dislike would have been risking too much. As it was, only she and I knew. I asked my mother once why my grandmother did not like me and my mother said I was mistaken. My father said that my grandmother had had a hard life and was tired and angry, but not at me. My older sister told me it was because no one liked children until they reached 15. Then they became people.

The Betsy Bee was proof to me that she had in fact disliked me and things were going to get better. And I was more than willing to help things get better. I remember being suffused with a kind of passion for my grandmother that truly was not unlike the kind of passion I would feel for my first real serious boyfriend eight years later. Both had a common problem with me, actually. “Don’t tell me you love me! Show me!” For a while, I snuck the violet extra water, but it soon showed unmistakable signs of drowning. My culpability obvious, I received a lecture on African violets, their need for water, carefully administered. I promised not to water it and later snuck it outside to dry out, forgot it, and nearly fried it. Once it recovered, owing nothing to me, I picked some blooms and gave them to my grandmother—a miniature bouquet. 1 crept up behind her as she vacuumed, extended the hand that held the bouquet, and cried out, “Boo!”

As I flushed her toilet the blossoms swirled down in a purple spiral. My cheek smarted from the palm of her hand. The Betsy Bee was not named after me, she said. “It is a very common looking violet. Louise, the ironin’ woman, gave it to me. She crossed to get it. Sometimes you cross and get a good one, sometimes not.

By the time we moved to Pennsylvania and I was making regular trips back to Maryland with my mother, my sister’s prophecy had seemingly proved true. At 15, though I was not her favorite, my grandmother did not dislike me. She told me her stories, stories she’d only told my mother—about the boy she loved, about the husband she may not have loved, about her dreams deferred. But in a very real way, nothing was ever resolved between us. I was left on my own to reconcile our differences and to give up believing in magic of any kind, in momentous changes in people’s ways of seeing.

In the end I knew there could be resolution only amongst me, the selves I have been, and the selves I would be along my way. That Betsy, always clumsy and blunt, who stepped on Janie Gregor’s mothers tiny foot and broke two bones, who dreamed and forgot, who could not stay out of trouble in spite of herself. Some memories remain sharp like razors, making cuttings deep and enduring. But then, African violets stem from cuttings, and it is through the crossing of plants that the original two have produced thousands of varietals, hybrids and mutants, which promise even greater possibilities as time goes. African violets are wounded in order to grow and bloom. They are valued for their histories and for their futures.

About the Author

Elizabeth Hodges

Elizabeth Hodges is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University where she teaches nonfiction writing at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and is one of two people who directs the Composition and Rhetoric Program.

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