Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Christmas Cactus

At the top of the stairs in my grandmother’s rambling old farmhouse sat a huge stainless steel container. It was the top chamber from an old milk and cream separator that Granddad had used on his farm. The raw milk had to be poured into the top bowl and a centrifuge would separate the milk from the cream as it flowed through the machine; milk to drink and cream to be churned into butter.
The shiny metal bowl was nearly thirty inches in diameter and eighteen inches high. It sat squarely in the center of a large wooden desk. The desk was built in the style of Shaker or Mission Oak, designed to look like a library table with open shelves on each side and a wide desk drawer in the center.

The steep wooden stairs with its long curved handrail climbed the distance of twelve feet from the first floor to disappear into the dark reaches of the second floor where Grandma kept her Christmas cactus. The large stainless steel container was converted to be the planter for that old Christmas cactus. The plant had long ago filled the creamery pot container and had eventually spilled over its full rounded sides, cascading in long green streams. It was an enormous growth like a queen sitting on her throne and ruling the one end of the hallway.
It was cool and dark where the plant was located on the desk. The window behind the desk and cactus was covered by a green, room-darkening shade that Grandma kept pulled nearly all the way down allowing a small amount to light to slip through the eight inch space.

This monstrous sized plant had started its life as a snippet shortly after my grandparents wedding. Year after year it grew and grandma would transplant it into larger and larger containers. The progression of the containers matched the growth of the cactus.
The last and only container that I can remember as I grew older and made visits to Grandma’s farm house was the enormous stainless steel, cream separator. As the plant grew its stems became thick and gnarled paralleling the thickening and gnarling of my grandmother’s arthritic, feet, hands and fingers.

The flat-green, oval-shaped, ripple-edged leaves tumbled in thick masses over the edge of the steel separator pot and flowed down its sides in waves. The leaves almost hid the entire container beneath its thick foliage.
Just before Christmas, that dark corner of the hallway would suddenly explode into color. The cactus would spill its blossoms in colorful waterfalls that floated on a sea of green. Each bloom looked like a series of colorful trumpets stuck one inside on another. The colors ran the gamut of hues from a deep watermelon pink through a hot orange-red, and even into a pale yellow. They looked like small fiery torches blazing in a dark green sky.
The myriad of colorful blossoms would only last for several days. One by one they bloomed, showed the glory of their beauty, and would then slowly wilt and drop to the floor like a plague of dead insects, their colors fading to a ghostly white. They waited until Grandma would sweep them up and toss them into a trash grave.

When my grandmother could no longer take care of her large rambling farm house, she decided to have an auction to get rid of all the things that would not fit into the mobile home she had bought. I am not sure who bought the massive Christmas cactus, but I hope that it still fills another person’s home with its beauty each Christmas season.

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