Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy birthday, Mom


I was going through some old photos last night and came across this one from my high school graduation in 1980.  I really like this photo because we all look so happy, and I especially love my mom's smile.  It's hard to believe that in this photo from 34 years ago, my parents are both younger than I am now.

Last November, shortly after my father had a stroke, I wrote about his influence on me as I was growing up, and how I can trace my love of plants and gardening back to him (see The roots of a gardener).  But that's only half the story.  My father may have been in charge of the gardens, but my mother always grew plants indoors and these were her domain.  One of my earliest memories--we were still living in Syracuse, so I had to be 4 or 5 years old--is of a ponderosa lemon plant on the windowsill in our den, a single comically large lemon weighting down the branch bearing it.

My mother grew african violets as far back as I can remember, but I'm not sure she ever bought one.  She brought home african violet leaves that her friends had shared with her, and showed me how to grow a whole new plant from a single leaf.  Plants began to accumulate on the windowsills until my father hung a fluorescent light fixture from the basement ceiling.  Of course that was just an invitation to grow even more plants!  As a teenager I took this area over, growing plants of all different kinds, and one of my own african violets, a perfectly symmetrical and fabulously variegated plant--from a leaf my mom had brought home of course--won me a blue ribbon at the Erie County Fair, although the judges questioned me rather closely, not quite believing that a young kid could have grown such a perfect plant himself.  I learned to pollinate the flowers and started crossing plants and growing out the seedlings, leading to a lifelong interest in plant breeding.  African violets led to other gesneriads, the group that many years later became my research specialty as a botanist.

My mom always encouraged her kids to do and try new things.  She enrolled me in 4-H when a new group started in our area, and this ended up having a huge influence on my life.  My 4-H club was dedicated to insect collecting, and I took to it with such a passion that I went on to study entomology at Cornell.  4-H introduced me to public speaking, and I appeared on the Commander Tom Show, a local television show for kids, to show off my bugs not once but twice.  But plants were never far in the background, and my club's adult leaders had a wonderful garden and sent me home with divisions of siberian irises and other plants.

My mother is strong-willed, yet she gave all of her kids the freedom to find their own way in life.  I can see now that she both encouraged and indulged us in ways that many other parents wouldn't have.  She gave us opportunities she never had herself, while putting up with snakes, frogs, mice, tropical fish, and bugs of all kinds (although she'll never let me forget the praying mantis eggs that hatched in my dresser drawer!).  I'll have to save some of the stories for another time--for example our trip to Italy in 1978, where we visited the tiny town near Bari where her own parents had grown up--and I need to get some photos of the enormous Christmas cacti she's been growing for over 30 years, that bloom so gloriously every year and of which she is so justifiably proud.  And which, of course, she grew from cuttings she got from her friends.

After my father's stroke, my mother set about doing what needed to be done, juggling an onslaught of medical, financial, and legal details and decisions.  I know it hasn't been easy for her, but she has handled it far better than I think I could myself.  I don't think I've ever told my mom how much I admire and respect her for being such a smart, strong, and capable woman.  My husband often says she should have gone into business.  I say she should have run for office.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since 1980, including a time when our relationship was strained, but those days are far behind us because above all else, family has always been important to my mother.  I'm sorry I can't be with my mom on her 80th birthday, but I'm looking forward to my family's annual get-together in Buffalo this summer, when we'll all come together to celebrate the birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones that we've celebrated separately.  And food will be a big part of this family gathering, because that's one more thing we all got from her: a love and appreciation for food of all kinds.


Fast forward quite a few years, to February 2008, for a bonus "Throwback Thursday" photo.  This shows Dan and me during one of our visits to Florida with my parents and my aunt (my mother's younger sister), who spend their winters in Naples.  A friend of theirs had recommended a restaurant, which turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall an hour's drive away, but we had fun anyway.  Dan and I spend a few days every winter in Ft. Lauderdale, taking a day trip across the state to visit my parents and aunt on the other coast, and we always enjoy these visits.  We missed that visit this year as my parents couldn't travel after my father's stroke.  But who knows, we just might be able to do it again next year.


  1. A beautiful tribute to your wonderful mother! Class of '80 rules! How could 34 years have gone by so quickly?

    1. Yes, hard to believe 1980 was so long ago! Where has all the time gone...

  2. What a lovely, heart warming tribute to your mother John!

    1. Thanks, and I expect to write more blog posts examining my early influences! In addition to my parents, my 4-H leaders and my neighbors--all of whom were into gardening--had a big influence on me as a kid.

  3. Thanks for sharing, John. You uplift by your example and word of knowledge and love.
    Randy Montes Kerr