In 1949, my paternal grandparents celebrated their 35th anniversary. Out in the Pennsylvania coal country, there had been no fancy wedding--just a quiet ceremony in the parsonage parlor and company supper back at the bride's home.
There had been no silver celebration in 1939, the farm faltering, the crop of kids squabbling. But now, the grown children insisted, it was time to bake a cake, mark the day for Mum and Dad.
Martha Schurr, Mum's childhood girlfriend--they'd eat lunch buns together at the one-room school in Honey Hollow--brought a small gift. Just a token. Who knows what was in the box.
But the wrap. It's become a family legend: Instead of a ribbon bow, she topped the box with a red hibiscus flower, no ordinary bell-bloom but a layered double blossom bursting with petals, complemented by a few broad leaves.
Proud of her packaging, Martha planted a home gardener's suggestion: "Sometimes you can start a whole bush from a little branch."
By the next morning the blossom had withered, looking like a string mop dipped in blood and hung to dry. On her way back to her mundane chores, Mum snipped off the limp hip and stuck the stem with its wilted leaves in a glass of water. And weeks later into a pot of wet dirt, where it dug in.
That plant rooted itself in the house and our family lineage. In the parlor in the winter. On the front porch in the summer. Red blossoms, each lasting only one day, followed by fallow seasons. Mum kept the plant trimmed back, passing along branches to her children to propagate the species, share Martha's gift.
When I was in college, several years after Mum herself was buried in the ground, my dad took up the cause, confident of his farm-boy touch.
Well-watered, warmed, and fed, his hibiscus took on tree proportions, towering over the dining room, later defining the living room. Hardly a day dawned without a flower, as fat and red as the sun on a fair-weather morning. The blooms themselves he rarely gave away, but how he loved to present the potted twigs, rooted and waiting, to guests impressed with his green thumb and hopeful for theirs.
For 30 years, Dad, a preacher, sent the plants off as if they were sermons, with a wish and a prayer that they would flourish under a hand more tender than his own.
Now, 50 years after Martha's marvelous package, I ask him to survey the flower-gift's journey.
Its issue spans the country, gracing family rooms in Florida, Michigan, Kentucky, the dining room of an elder-care facility near Pittsburgh, keeping watch over a church sanctuary in the Finger Lakes, a doctor's office in the Catskills, a college lobby in Indiana.
Last spring, my nephew welcomed his firstborn--Mum's great-great-grandson. As if to celebrate the birth, that very day my nephew's newly rooted hibiscus--transplanted to California--broke forth its first bright blossom.
Recounting the destinations, my dad loses track. Hundreds, he says, and all on account of Martha's mark of a friend's special day.
And her remark that kept Mum from discarding the wilted stem:
"Sometimes you can start a whole bush from a little branch."