My mom recently gave me an arrowhead shoot she transplanted from a mother plant she’s raised for the last 34 years. It’s the second time she’s entrusted this plant to me, the first being when she moved, albeit temporarily, back to the Midwest. It was a tough move for my family. My sisters, brother and I had never been without our mother, and certainly not with so many miles between us. Being the oldest in her brood of five, and the only one who demonstrated having even a slight green thumb, my dear mom asked if I would look after her beloved houseplants. She feared the move and the shock in climate would certainly destroy the years of love she had invested in their tender foliage. I agreed, hesitant only in knowing how much she cared for these living things, having witnessed my whole life the nurturing and love she bestowed on them. Certainly, I was proud to be the chosen one to look after her plants, and confident in my skills to not only keep such lovely things alive, but certain I could make them thrive.
Mind you, the way I saw it, I had been left as the matriarch of our family. As the oldest of the five of us and with our dad many miles away himself, I was obviously in charge. Initially, this proved easy for me: I initiated a tradition of every sibling having their own holiday to run. I’d have Christmas, one sister Easter, another thanksgiving. The youngest two didn’t have any holiday responsibilities, they were our babies now and were welcomed on our apron strings. We planned each holiday like it would be our last, making sure to get every detail right, probably to prove that we could actually pull off the whole parents-in-another-state thing. We banded together at first, and the distance between our parents and us left as newly adult children seemed to bring us closer.
Of course, the glitter settled, and while we succeeded in continuing our family traditions without our parental leaders, we were happy to see our mom when she came back to visit for the holidays and stay for the summer every year. Even though we were still getting the family events done just fine, it was so nice to have her back to prepare the favorite dishes only she could do just right, to see her and hug her and smell her familiar smell after so many months and miles between us. Every time my mom came back to visit, she’d check on the progress of her plants, and specifically the arrowhead. She had planted it when I was a baby, and it grew to a large, lush plant over the years. She even kept it in the original pot, which was still as clean as the day she started. It was beautiful. And in my hands, it slowly disintegrated one stalk at a time. My mom would give advice at first: how to keep the water level, where to place it for the best sun. Try as I might, I couldn’t maintain the life of this plant that I had once so admired. What was the problem? As much as I looked forward to my mother’s visits, I dreaded the show-and-tell of this plant each time she came back. There was no “thriving.” If anything, the fact that this poor plant was surviving with my unintended brutality was a feat in itself. I felt like such a failure, especially since I was doing everything that my mom had instructed and still, there was this dying plant.
Eventually, my mom had enough of the distance between her and her children, and she moved back. In her absence, we all sort of found our way, at least for the time. I married right before she moved, and I quickly settled into playing house and keeping track of my siblings. They didn’t much need me to at that point. Each of them continued on with their lives, growing up, experiencing being an adult in their own way. It was good to have her back, but I think we all felt like we’d found our independence and were proud to be working out our grown-up lives. She may have felt left out, but she never let on. In the meantime, the once beautiful arrowhead had dwindled down to one lonely, sickly little stalk. I couldn’t give this plant back to her fast enough, and she couldn’t hide her disappointment in its state. She clucked her tongue and said something along the lines of “Wow, Aim.” I was ashamed and scared of killing it altogether, and I remember being so relieved that she’d come back to save the day.
It’s rough for an oldest child sometimes. They are usually left in charge when parents are away and always told to sacrifice what they want for their siblings. Not in an all-out sort of way, but in the sense that the first child has everything to themselves for a while: their parents, their room, their toys, the attention of everyone around them. When sisters or brothers come, there is a lot of sharing involved, and rightfully so. And once the first-born is old enough, they are expected to help with their siblings, babysit, clean up after them, whatever it may be. For me, that never ended just because I grew up and moved out. While I may have resented it as a jealous three-year-old, I needed that maternal role in my family when I became an adult. Should I have? No, probably not. So when my mom moved away, while I was sad to see her go, I wasn’t scared to “be in charge.” My sisters and brother never asked me to be, but that was how I saw things. And when they did fine, and the arrowhead plant didn’t, I figured it out. They didn’t need me to survive. They didn’t need me to make things alright, to run the show. The damn plant, though, it was teaching me this lesson that I should probably pay more attention to my life, my home, my responsibilities. And really, the ultimate lesson I learned: Even though I was the oldest, playing house and pretending to be in charge of our family (that never asked me to be, by the way), I was not their mom. I was not the matriarch of this awesome family. They were not my responsibility. Even the plant knew this long before I did.
As I mentioned earlier, my mom recently gave me a shoot from the arrowhead plant that we both love so much. When she arrived with it, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I almost asked her not to trust me with it, to take it back so it would live. I was so relieved that she was able to bring the original plant back to life, that I hadn’t, in fact, destroyed it. It is currently doing so well that she had to trim it because it’s getting too big. She rooted those stems for me, and put two of them in a little pot before presenting them to me on a random day for no reason. Other than because she knows I can do it. She trusts I can make these tiny little stems grow. Her faith in me gets me all choked up. Over a plant, for pete’s sake!
As I type this, there are five stems on my plant, with one on the way. The first two leaves have grown so much, and it’s got great color. I have her sitting in a front window in our house, so every morning when I leave for work and every evening when I get home, I see her sitting there. Living. Growing. Surviving. No… Thriving. I smile, knowing that sometimes, you just have to work on letting yourself grow, stop focusing on being the oldest, and let your mom be the mom.