I'm not saying my grandmother didn't love us, only that she loved her African violets more. Hers was a life devoted to their fragile purple blooms, and our lives were too, reluctantly. She made us re-pot and fertilize them, often, herself enjoying a mostly supervisory role in this after-school activity. "More fertilizer. More soil. I SAID MORE FERTILIZER!"
But violets were just a fraction of the vast domain of childhood servitude to flora that unfolded under grandmother's rule. A leisurely backyard session of "the ground is lava" would often escalate, dangerously, vertically, illegally. "While you're in that tree, grab a mango. Not that one. Find a ripe one. Higher, there! Oh please, it's not THAT high... What? I can't hear your whining from all the way up there. Got it? Great. Now hurry and get down here, I need you to grab an avocado from Ruth's yard before she gets home!"
In second grade, Mrs. Prem had us all grow bean sprouts. I brought home the result, a clear plastic cup stuffed with soggy cotton balls and a lima bean seedling. And grandmother spoiled it: "It'll die soon." So she insisted we do it right. We foraged her cabinets for bags of Goya, cleared and fertilized a small area next to the hibiscus, and carefully planted a handful of kidneys, blacks and pintos. We labored all spring, me by way of sweat and dirty fingernails, and she in her own way, from the porch: "Just a little more, Tony. But while you've got the water running, would you mind hosing the pepper plants, and the roses, and your grandfather's Lincoln? Here's a sponge and soap."
Not long after grandma died, I grew a plant of my own using a cutting of one of hers (she'd taught me how). That was almost 5 years ago. Last week, it bloomed for the first time. Maybe that's normal and violets need 5 years to mature and bloom. Or maybe it's because, about a month ago, I looked over at my violetless violet plant and thought of my grandmother, and it finally occurred to me that "MORE FERTILIZER" wouldn't hurt. #TonyTells
Photo and story by Tony Ruiz. To check out more of Tony's work, visit his instagram page at tonytypes.