There will be no cure for my father. He will never seek help. I will never make him, or allow my siblings to do so. He doesn’t believe in therapy or neurotic psychological disorders. I won’t tell him he is a textbook hoarder. I won’t explain how collecting things gives him control, even if it’s over objects, how my mother’s death made him feel helpless, how that would have made anyone feel helpless. That none of this is his fault.
If I did, if I told him all of this, he would start muttering, only the word “bullshit” audible. He’d grow remote, maybe wander outside, leave me standing in the kitchen, open-mouthed and regretful. At this point, the only thing for me to do is throw things away here and there, to keep him company when I visit home, to call at least once a week to see how he is and tell him I love him. To actually and achingly love him.
After I graduated from high school I began to keep houseplants. My mother never had; nurturing half a dozen children had been enough, but something about plants’ happy countenance and the rich blackness of potting soil appealed to me. I liked waking up in the morning and seeing them drinking in the early light, the earthy smell of dirt and terra cotta, watering them and talking to them, giving them names and encouragement. A few weeks into my new hobby, my bedroom became hard to move around in. The plants took up the entire middle of the floor, but that’s where the best light was.
I moved to Georgia to live with my sister Kristin and took my plants with me. I bought more. Kristin complained. I took to sneaking them in, hoping she wouldn’t notice. I was no longer satisfied with just owning ivy and spider plants and philodendron. I branched out into spiky cacti, tropical prayer plants, curling bamboo, African violets, rubbery succulents. They filled the kitchen and the living room, the front porch and the back deck, even the bathroom sink.
I moved back to New York. I filled my car and the nooks of the moving van with plants. The ones that wouldn’t fit were adopted by my sister, who had grown to like them. A mother-in-law’s tongue went to live at her office. An elephant ear took up a corner of her living room. She kept three African violets and a small ficus tree, and she looked after them carefully. She said plants, like children and lady bugs, were much nicer in small quantities.
I moved to West Virginia for graduate school, but my new apartment was small and could not accommodate all my fleshy green darlings. My father agreed to keep some. They now fill his sun porch and dining room, sitting happily amongst junk mail or nestled in cardboard boxes. Three plants, a red-hot poker and two small trees, perch on top of an industrial sewing machine in the living room. One philodendron’s vines stretch across the archway between the living room and dining room and back again. My father has started to screw hooks into the walls, and says he is going to hang the vines up until they reach all over the house in every direction. When I offered to find room for some of the plants at friends’ houses, Dad told me they were fine where they were and that he’d thank me not to move them. He’s adopted these plants fully, embracing them as another collection, and he faithfully waters them every few days with a giant to-go coffee cup full of room temperature water. He fills jugs and leaves them on the counter for this purpose, claiming the plants don’t like the shock of cold water. He even knows to water the African violets from the bottom, and to rotate all the plants every couple of weeks so that they grow straight and even. He calls me when the kalanchoe blooms.
I save glass jars for vases—most plant cuttings will root in water. Then I can repot them and give them to friends as gifts. African violets, spider plants, and purple heart seem to propagate the fastest.
Anything remotely bucket-shaped will serve as a planter. If it has no holes in the bottom for drainage, you can drill some in, or fill the bottom of the pot with gravel or packing peanuts. Five gallon buckets are great for outdoor tomato or pepper plants in the summer. Large coffee cups or deep bowls can be used for small rooted plant cuttings. These make lovely gifts. Heavy ceramic cookie jars work well for plants that love water and aren’t prone to rot, like spider plants or Wandering Jew. But don’t use these for succulents, since they like well-drained soil. Popsicle sticks make great plant markers. Just write on them with a thin-tipped Sharpie and stick them in the dirt.
Last winter my dad and I were driving back to his house from a restaurant in Hamburg. I was riding shotgun in his recently-purchased ‘95 Buick station wagon, maroon with wood siding. We’d gone to Root Five, a swanky bar and grill on Lake Erie, with two of my brothers and my uncles. I was a little bit drunk, and though Dad was less drunk, he wasn’t sober. We were in the middle of a conversation about how much more we liked my brother Dan before he became a born-again Baptist, when I spotted a white wicker loveseat on the curb.
“Dad, look at that!”
“Do you think we can fit it in the back?”
“Gosh, that’s a nice piece. I wonder why they’re getting rid of it?”
“It would match the rocking chair I’m storing in your shed.”
“I’ll pull over. Hop out and get it.”
It took both of us to lift the loveseat and cram it into the station wagon. I crouched in the backseat as Dad drove, holding onto a wicker armrest with one hand and covering the dome light with the other, since it wouldn’t shut off with the hatch open. A few feet of loveseat hung over the bumper, and the whole thing threatened to fall out with every turn, swaying dangerously and making my skinny arm ache with the effort of holding it in.
When we got to his house, we lifted it out, set it on the driveway and examined it in the headlights. It had a broken leg and no cushion, and the white paint was rubbed off in some spots. Dad assured me he could fix it; the leg just needed to be braced with a thin metal rod. Spray paint would have it looking like new. Cushions are easy enough to make.
I made him promise not to tell my boyfriend that we’d picked it up. Joel’s patience had already been stretched by the two plant stands, barbeque grill, and old-fashioned metal lawn chair I’ve retrieved from other people’s garbage. I understand his frustration, since one of the plant stands is technically an old wooden high chair, and the other plant stand required sanding and repainting. The metal lawn chair was also in need of complete refurbishment, with lots more sanding, priming and painting involved. Joel did all the work on both of my finds. But they look great now, and like I tell Joel, you just can’t find items like that in a store.
The wicker rocking chair and loveseat are also going to look great, eventually. I’m going to sew matching cushions for them, and maybe a few throw pillows. I can picture them already, looking pretty on the front porch we’ll have someday, with makeshift planters of ferns and small palm trees nearby. I’ll relax out there and read a book, comfortable and lazy, glad I kept the loveseat for when I needed it, glad for my father who braced its broken leg, and glad for the rusting station wagon that carried it home.