My husband and I got away for an hour or so Saturday morning to take a quick walk through the nursery fair on the grounds of the old psychiatric hospital, a gorgeous spread of property that fills up part of a hillside leading down into Trieste from the Carsic plateau just outside the city. It’s a complex of buildings, most with painted ceramic accents and decorated tiling under the eaves.
I put on a new headscarf. I had just completed the third of six treatments and by now my head was nearly bald. A tumor and other complications were found in my right breast earlier in the year. After 2 operations and 12 days in the hospital, I was well into the second phase of my ordeal, the chemotherapy. My body felt weak in my sweat-suit and I was still nauseous so driving was tricky. I rolled down the windows in the car and enjoyed the sunshine.
The fair was packed. We were lucky and found a parking space across from the old chapel – Mary and Jesus still visible in the archway over the entrance. Yes. These were our people. Couples couples and more couples discussing this and that angle, bloom time, lighting needs, what works, doesn’t work. It was an older crowd. What is it about being together that brings out the gardener in us? Maybe the fun of a mutual observation point when watching things grow? Colour was everywhere. Iris specialists, orchids, lavender products, herbs. I saw the rose bushes, the climbing plants like the Bougainvillea and the Clematis. Trestle pieces. There was a hedge carving demonstration with various instruments displayed. The plant book booth. The fruit trees, the dogwoods, magnolias, camellias. There was one booth selling all that stuff you find in the fields on your way to our property. How funny to see it all in pots. We took in a deep breath. The new season’s buzz was in the air and we were a part of it.
Then we spotted something very new – the carnivorous plants – small plants with little pink dinosaur tickets sticking out of the pots, with little tags that read “Hi, I eat insects.” My stomach was still turning cartwheels from all the movement so I took a seat on the curb side while my husband, Maurizio, investigated the new scene. I can see the look in his eyes when he’s captivated. It would do no or little good to say, “come on honey, let’s keep walking.”
The best thing at moments like that and if Italy (and Maurizio) have not taught me anything else, it is to sit back and enjoy the wait. Maurizio had spotted the many versions of insect-eating plants and had an idea of how to control some of the insects in the summertime. He also thought our young sons would get a kick out of it. The salesman, in fine Italian fashion, started talking about the problems involved in indigestion – not to feed it too many insects at a time, or not to place fingers too close to the leaves for fear the plant will hold open its leaf and get the equivalent of dry mouth. I just kept my place on the curb and eyed the miniature sunflowers, snapdragons, and forget-me-nots. The last advice was for full sun and lots of water. The sale was made and down the walkway, we continued.
Our basket of goods was filling up. Marigolds for the garden borders, petunias for the flower boxes, a nasturtium, daisies, pansies, two dahlia plants. That would be enough for today. We slowly made our way back toward the car. As we were walking we saw another couple walking toward the exit. We all smiled at one another and I made a joke about carrying home our treasures. I asked if I could see inside their basket. They had one plant only, a watermelon size cactus with fine spikes sticking out all over. I giggled and asked if it had a name. The man responded in a droll Italian, “the Mother in Law Pillow.”
We knew the boys would be interested in our purchases but we had no idea how interested. It was like bringing home a pet. When we picked them up at the babysitters’ house we explained what was in the trunk. They both stared at us as if we had made a heist. When the back door was opened they both peered in like a monster was going to jump out.
The plant and the pink dinosaur label quickly got centre table status outside at our property. The boys started collecting dead insects and leaving them about. We filled the saucer around the vase with water. The boys squeaked with excitement trying to touch this leaf and that. My husband was full of satisfaction with the idea of purchasing an environmentally friendly insect repellent.
We were busy all afternoon planting impatients in the raised soil area between the elms we made last year. We also made a lot of progress on our, slowly developing shady area of rhododendrons, azaleas, and hydrangeas. Plus we planted the bell peppers and the rest of the huckleberry shrubs. By the end of the day, our carnivorous plant was encircled with donated bugs and water. It looked comfortable. One of his little …..what do you call it…claws…had opened slightly and you could indeed see a bug just resting in there. I guess he was just starting to…ah…digest. The boys said they wanted the plant on their bedroom windowsill and fought over who would carry it home.
Once we were all tucked in for the night with the lights out, we heard our younger son, Gilbert tip toe out of bed and come into our room. “Pappi,” he said, “um, can you take the plant out of our room? I’m afraid. The plant may come eat me.” My husband has a rather laid back style. He often hesitates at the boys’ first requests, wanting to see if they are sincere in their questions or just chatting. But in the middle of the night when one of the boys say he’s scared, Maurizio knows to respond. He got out of bed, got the plant, put it in the kitchen and then put Gilbert back into his lower bunkbed. This morning Gilbert was up before dawn asking Pappi again if he could put the plant back in their room. The sun was out. I suppose it put courage back in the air.
We were doing our best to keep the boys’ fears at bay. But still we noticed Gilbert from one day to the next refused to enter water. And our older son, then 7 years old, suddenly displayed an acute phobia for elevators. Our throats caught our hearts one evening when Gilbert asked in the middle of dinner, “Mamma, if I die, are you still our mother?” We tried our best to camouflage the chemotherapy sessions with activities for the boys, anything to keep them out of ears’ range for the 2-3 day period that followed each session with frequent vomiting.
I stepped out on the balcony. I knew how to select scarves that would hide my bare scalp but let the sun warm my head. The begonias needed pruning. The geraniums were filled with new leaves and looked ready to spout flowers. The cherry blossoms in the garden had mostly blown away. The tulips and daffodils were done for the year. All the roses looked healthy and ready to bloom. I smelled the star jasmine and wisteria in the courtyard. Spring was with me. Gilbert was in staring at the carnivorous plant. He seemed determined to study the object of his fear in hopes it would dissipate. I would follow his lead and do the same.