Tom and I have now lived together for a little over two months (Saturday, June 13th was the first official day we lived in the new apartment) and contrary to what friends see (or how I paint the picture), we are both quite “domestic” in our own ways. I did not expect Tom to “nest” so enthusiastically but he’s invested considerably more thought and energy into our new home than I, who mostly make the tea and sandwiches.
Tom is quite handy. He’s done most of the furniture assembling and leveling and other small repairs and also wanted, to my surprise, a small forest’s worth of live plants. I would have been happy with an orchid here and a farmer’s market bouquet there, but I recalled the lush warmth of my parent’s house and also the plant-filled living room of our friends’ – another young couple’s – new apartment and agreed: our white-walled, light-filled apartment could use some green.
We now have not one but five potted plants flourishing in our apartment, and more on the way.
The first of these was a money tree, purchased for ten dollars at the bodega across the street. As though to make up in leafy symbolism the funds that were no longer incoming, it began to flourish after I was fired, quickly outgrowing its small plastic pot, leaning precariously in one direction so that it threatened to tip over. Tom insisted it be repotted.
I am the daughter of two green thumbs, but my own hands have managed to remain dirt-free for most of my life, thanks to my more willing father and brother, who when we were growing up, would spend hours in the backyard helping my mother haul bags of dirt to and from her garden while I watched from the cool interior of our kitchen. Larger jobs – like reseeding the lawn or replanting the flowerbeds all around our house – were left to our friendly team of gardeners. My parents would go to Home Depot or the local nursery, return with the annuals they liked, and leave them in the front yard. I would see them on the cement as I left for school and by the time I came home, the flowers would be peering at me from their new dirt beds, happy to have settled down for good.
The extent of my involvement with my mother’s garden was to water the plants when she left for long trips. But even that simple, dirt-less, task I did half-heartedly, if at all. When her plants died – and a few inevitably did – I felt only a smidgen of guilt. They could, after all, be easily replaced by another trip to Home Depot. And they were, after all, not my plants.
So when Tom noticed the money tree outgrowing its pot and said, “That needs to be moved into a bigger pot. We’ll have to buy some dirt,” I gave him a strange look.
We were in New York City. Where does one buy dirt? Wasn’t there some task-rabbit service we could call? Perhaps leave it on the fire escape over night and find it the next morning magically ensconced in a bigger pot by the hands of a fairy gardener who lived on the roof?
“Home Depot,” Tom said, shrugging as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, “We’ll just get a bag of dirt there.”
My strange look remained. We had no car. Did Tom expect us to haul a bag of dirt home on the subway? In the middle of summer? Or pay for dirt and a taxi? That sounded exhausting and seemed to go against the fiscal wisdom the money tree was supposed to represent.
I hoped it was one of those things Tom would forget about, or would do himself while I was out. But as the term of my unemployment grew, so did the braided trunk of the money tree. It seemed cruel to keep its roots cooped up in the small, plastic and rather cheap container, but still, the thought of leaving our air-conditioned apartment to buy dirt made me tired. So I kept quiet.
Until one rainy afternoon, when Tom worked from home. After lunch I thought to water the money tree. I did so in the sink and commented on the amount of dirt that was washing away and worried for the money tree’s health.
“Alright,” I said to Tom, “Let’s re-pot it.”
We had purchased terra cotta planters at Ikea the week before and that afternoon, bought a small bag of dirt for $3.99 (more than dirt should cost, I think) not from Home Depot but a little family-owned hardware store a few blocks uptown. Back in the large sink of our tiny kitchen, we “gardened” like millennials would, first Googling, “how to repot a plant” and repotted the money tree. It was much easier than I had anticipated and I was surprised to find I liked the feeling of soil on my hands.
In less than five minutes the money tree was relocated and the plastic pot put aside. The money tree looked instantly happier and I felt the faintest flush of pride. I could now understand my mother’s satisfaction with having an entire backyard of plants she successfully repotted and grew herself. What a powerful, purposeful feeling! It occurred to me too, how often she must have wanted to strangle me for letting countless of her darlings wither and die.
I am no botanist, but I estimated that within a year, perhaps six months even, the money tree might outgrow even this new, roomier pot and require not one but two small bags of dirt. I eyeballed the top of its still tiny trunk, wondering if it would continue braiding itself skyward and if, at some point, we’d have to loosen the ties the nursery had placed around the top of the braid.
Tom had suggested the repotting and of the two of us, seemed to know about these things. Indeed the money tree seem more relaxed and confident. It stood straight now and indeed to newest leaves seemed to glow greener than the rest. Tom would know.
I asked him to assess the tree, predict its future. Should we cut the ties and let it grow however it wished? Or should we keep it bound?
Tom glanced at the tree, his work was finished. He shrugged again.
“I don’t know, but I’m not going to tell the money tree how to live its life.”
Indeed, indeed. I nodded in the way one ought to in the presence of a wise and eloquent being, then went to water the money tree.