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TideWriters Tales
Cacti in My Life
By Catherine C. Brooks

     When my husband, Kirby, and I moved from my parents’ home into our own place, the outside still had days of work to be done before it looked like the intended garage for a car and trailer. Surely not a home. Yet, the inside was complete enough to move. The big day occurred in September 1948 at the beginning of harvest time. Actually, the rows, in which the soybeans had been planted in the spring of 1947, remained as part of the yard. We wanted our own place badly enough to complete the outside of the building and yard as money and time allowed. 
It took time and a bit of doing before we could think of a much needed garden. But before the spring of 1950, Kirby had ordered quite a few seed catalogs. He pondered over what we needed to plant for nights before we completed the order. I had grown to expect flowers next to the yard in any vegetable garden since that is what my parents had had for many years. We not only enjoyed them in the garden, but Momma saw that the dining room table always had fresh cut flowers in the center from early summer to late fall. I remembered well because I cut them several times a week for years. Therefore, the order included several packets of flower seed. Then Kirby asked I add one packet of cacti seed. 

     Momma had a large Christmas cactus and Kirby’s mother a Thanksgiving cactus. That is all I knew about the cactus family except for the Prickly Pear, of which our next-door neighbor had given us a cutting, which grew outside the back porch. I knew better than to touch it ever again after the first time. It pricked, leaving long thin thorns embedded in the flesh.

     After the seed came, Kirby planted the several varieties of cacti in a box that he’d prepared, placing it took on the back porch. Meanwhile, he had drawn plans to enlarge the kitchen window from a flat surface to a small bay with a seat for plants inset where he extended it out. I didn’t always envision his drawings, but I’d learned to enjoy any improvements that he made. 

     As the seed began to sprout, I’d never seen such queer shapes coming out of ground before though I’d lived on a farm all my life. When Kirby had completed the bay, Kirby transplanted the wee cacti in the tiny flowerpots we’d accumulated before placing them on a tray in the extended table-high window seat. I sat a colorful dish on either end to add color. Some of the plants died, but a few grew strong and healthy with little care. We just had to guard our fingers when watering or removing webs near the cacti.

     Five years later when we enlarged the house and kitchen, the bay disappeared since the new wall was well beyond it. But the cacti that grew strong needed to be repotted. One of the new rooms had two walls of windows except for a French style door in center on the eastern side. We found it a perfect place to sit two tall plants in decorative pots as time passed.

     I’m not sure what happened to either of our parents Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus of the 1940s, but Kirby brought a cutting of a Christmas cactus home one day. It came from a home between Hartfield and Hartyville in Middlesex County. We placed it in a glass of water in a window and before long the roots were ready for soil. Kirby or I potted the cactus, waiting two years before it bloomed. It sat in a small northeast window that seemed to be favorable to all of our plants. As years passed, we had to move it to a larger pot, but it never failed to bloom every winter, lasting for several months. A breath of spring in mid-winter. 

     In July 1973, Kirby had a fatal accident in our top-heavy van, for which he had ordered dual tires four days previously. The large Christmas cactus began to bloom that August—never had it been so early before. It continued flowering through the winter with my watering it lightly once a week. In the spring, blooms seemed even larger and more abundant. The vibrant display greeted me daily. By August, the blooms began t drop and the stalk swiveled little by little until by the end of the month, it had to be thrown out. I felt the cactus had celebrated the home going of its rightful owner.

     At the time of Kirby’s death, we were saving money to take a two-week trip with a Missionary Work Team to South America. Instead in 1976, I took the same type trip to Southwest Indian School in Peoria, Arizona. Knowing I was a short distance from Scottsdale, where a girl, with whom I graduated, lived, I got permission to call her and say, “Hello”. On the following Sunday afternoon, she picked me up, and we spent about two hours touring the Cacti Gardens in Phoenix before visiting her. I never dreamed there were so many and varied varieties of cacti, most with long life ranges.

     On a Sunday morning during the summer of 1974, Susan, who had just graduated from high school, screamed, ”Momma, come here”. I went to see what all the commotion was about, finding a worm was making its way up the stalk of one of our cactus, by then 24 years old. It had toppled over so we got the heavy pot of soil, with the remaining stalk in tact, out of the door in the yard. I killed the worm lest it get to the remaining plant. By the time it had reached that age, it stood almost 10 feet in the air.   It was a fat-briery straight stalk with leafy arms at intervals throughout the last 20 inches.

     When I sold the house and moved to my son’s home, I let my daughter take the remaining cactus to her house. By then, it had 10 more years of growth, reaching toward the cathedral ceiling. It broke into traveling from Winter Harbor to Windsor Road. So she planted the extra piece with the arms, making two cacti in one pot. Ten years later, she moved to the house that I had sold, taking the cacti with her, placing it back where it had originally sat after we built that room. When it was about 50 years old and taller than ever, the healthy cactus became a large meal for another worm. Actually, the critter climbed gradually up the wood-like stalk, hollowing it like a tube.

     When I finally unloaded stuff out of my wicker planter, I’d had covered with a hooked rug for some years, I asked for plant cuttings from time to time. Lyn Nutt, whose friendship I now treasure, moved to the county before I’d completed the task. She had a Thanksgiving cactus like the one my mother-in-law had had in the 1940s. Seeing it in bloom, I asked for a cutting when the blooms had died. She gave me the requested snip, and finally the old cactus since they couldn’t be home while traveling in the RV to tend plants. After two years in front of a southeast window, it bloomed so abundantly that it practically covered the planter. I took time to photograph the blooming beauty this time. But I’ve had to say, “Goodbye” to all those plants since the water softener over salted the water. I wasn’t drinking tap water, but watered the plants by habit, killing them. I’m sharing my picture with Chesapeake Style’s readers. 

© 2006 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved.

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