My mom and I don’t always see eye to eye on things, especially when it comes to family heirlooms. Her home—the house where I grew up—is full of knick-knacks she has inherited from relatives. The past few times I’ve been home, she has been expressing worry about things like whether I will one day place her 100-year-old clock, which once belonged to her grandmother, on the mantel of my own fireplace. She’s even gone so far as to detail how she wants me to drink a glass of wine while spreading her ashes on the hiking trail in the back of the house. My brother and I always brush these comments aside—maybe it’s just me, but I guess I don’t like to spend too much time pondering over the logistics of death.
I know there’s history behind each piece of furniture or picture or figurine she has collected, a history that ties her to the family and makes the object itself special. And it’s not that I don’t think it’s important to remember the important relationships we’ve had—I would just rather maintain the connection through memories and photographs than, say, an antique desk which wouldn’t match my Ikea-influenced living room.
My mom, having been close with my recently deceased grandmother and great aunts, has inherited quite a few items over the past few years. Since I generally try to avoid the topic of future family death planning, I was a little behind on my knowledge of the knick-knacks (I mean heirlooms) in my mom’s house. This meant that when my friend Eva came to visit for a family party a few months ago, I got a refresher course as my mom gave her a tour of the house, retelling family stories and explaining who was who in the many photographs on display in the living room. As I listened to my mom enthusiastically share these stories, my eyes traveled around the room, eventually settling on the waxy dark green leaves of the plant by the corner of the dining room table.
I lack any kind of a green thumb and always like to say that my gardeners (also known as the New York City Parks and Rec workers) do a great job taking care of my backyard (also known as Central Park) without me needing to get my hands dirty. But I was able to recognize these as begonia leaves after having curated a selection of photos for a HipLatina article on different types of begonias to decorate your home and garden.
My mom began detailing the story of this plant, which I had noticed in the background most of my life, but usually ignored. I had always thought of it as just another plant in my mom’s vast collection. Placed on a free-standing wooden column in our living room, she reminded me of where it came from, in my great-aunt’s house to the left of the bay windows on that same column. It was a plant that I ran past as I threw wooden apples around the house during my visits. It was a plant that she recalled seeing during her childhood when her grandmother, who lived in that same house, would bake pies on Saturdays.
As we talked about the begonia, we began to unravel some family history. I had no idea how old it was, and until then didn’t realize that it had been a part of my mom’s childhood as well. It had been a fixture of her grandmother’s house since before she was born. Given to my great-grandmother by a friend of hers who died in 1939, the begonia was thought to be close to 100 years old. Eva and I were in shock, and didn’t realize that a houseplant like this could have survived so long.
Close to ten years ago, my mom brought the plant home from my great aunt’s house, when it became harder for her to care for. In a family of five siblings and twelve nieces and nephews, this didn’t go unnoticed. One of my cousins was a bit jealous that it was my mom who brought the plant to her home. The quarrels only got more intense when my great aunts passed away and there was competition among my mom and her siblings for who would inherit their many belongings.
A few Christmases ago, my mom took clippings from the original begonia and potted six new plants—five for her siblings and one for my cousin who had always wanted the original. This was a living memory of the family history, which didn’t result in any fights over who inherited what because it could be so easily shared. While many of our loved ones have passed on, the plants continue to thrive and embody their legacy.
Today, most of the offshoots of the original plant are still alive, and my cousin who had always wanted the original begonia luckily ended up with the only plant to blossom and flower.
Eva and I stood teary-eyed listening to my mom finish telling the story. My mom cried too, and I think for a moment we got beyond proving how much we cared about people by how much of their stuff we wanted to keep.
Since then I’ve been thinking: While the antique clock on the mantel might not be quite my style, my own begonia plant potted in a vase from Ikea’s newest collection would fit right into my living room.