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Observations

Mama’s Christmas Cactus

I couldn’t leave the plant for strangers; it belonged with us

After Mama passed away, we sadly sold her small, white, frame house in the community of Bryans Mill and cleared it out for new owners. As I slowly prepared to close the house that held such wonderful memories for me and my family, I saw it: Mama’s Christmas cactus. I just couldn’t bear to throw it out like so many of her other things.

My mama had been so proud of that plant. As I sat there alone in the empty kitchen, with tears welling up in my eyes, I thought about Mama. She was Margie Fae Abston Lee, born into a pioneer Cass County family in 1923 in Bryans Mill. She had lived in that area all her life—as a small child, housewife and mother, and then as a widow. Her claim to fame was her wonderful cooking and her unconditional love for her family. She had married the love of her life, my dad, J.D. (Buddy) Lee, more than 50 years before, and together they created a simple life in the carefree country setting they both loved so much. I was their only child, and I learned so much from both of them.

She was a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. At every Christmas lunch, she would ask, “Did you all see the pretty Christmas cactus? It is blooming again.” And we would quickly say, “Oh yeah, it’s pretty,” thinking more about her special chicken and dressing and her chocolate pie baked in that flaky crust that was coming soon. We should have taken more time to appreciate that blooming gem. She had forced it to bloom for us at just the right time. But Mama never showed any disappointment in our lack of interest; she was just so happy that all her babies were there with her on this special day.

This precious old green plant had been in her simple kitchen on an old metal TV tray under the window air conditioner for as long as I could remember.

Mama had a green thumb. She cultivated blooming flowers in front of her house for passing drivers to see. After my father died, her passion for gardening helped fill her lonely days without him. She enjoyed sharing with her neighbors the large red tomatoes, the yellow crookneck squash and the spicy hot peppers that grew on either side of the concrete doorsteps leading up to her back porch. She always saved that first tomato of the season for me.

So, I took that dusty old cactus. It had lacked care and attention in the past months with Mama being sick and then with her death. I couldn’t throw it out. And I didn’t want to leave it there for strangers; it belonged with us. Driving from Bryans Mill to my home in Texarkana that late Sunday afternoon, I decided that I would try my best to keep Mama’s tradition alive and hoped that I could appreciate what Mama had for so many years. 

Today, with the joyous Christmas season approaching and a chilling winter wind blowing outside, I took the old plant out of our guest room’s dark closet. I had read, or perhaps Mama had told me, that for a Christmas cactus to bloom, it should be placed in darkness for several weeks. After a period without light, I retrieved the plant, decorated its pot in shiny red paper and tied a large green bow around it. When I put it on our family’s dining room table, it seemed to come alive. Soon it was full of pinkish-red buds, just bursting to bloom for us, as it had so many times before for Mama.  I whispered quietly, “Mama, do you see your Christmas cactus? It’s blooming again.”

I’ll be so proud and happy to show off Mama’s plant to our friends and neighbors who stop by during the holidays, and I’ll share with them the precious memories associated with it. Christmas should be a time for families and friends to share their wonderful memories and to anticipate their dreams for the future while we celebrate the glorious birth of our Savior on that first Christmas so many years ago.

Thanks, Mama, for the precious memories.

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Pat Lee Mathews is a retired schoolteacher and member of Bowie-Cass Electric Cooperative. This is her first published work.