For years, I had a ficus tree that was delicate and fragile. I lived in Connecticut at the time, and the ficus might have been an indoor tree, but it could see what was going on outside and react. As winter shortened the days, the ficus would throw off leaves faster than a matron in menopause sheds layers of sweaters.
If it was too close to a heat vent, it threw off more leaves. Too close to a door? More bad news. I fussed and cossetted that ficus to a long, slow decline. Eventually, I could not take the silent, leafless reproach and sent it to the mulch pile.
The year we moved to D.C., I moved down first and lived in an apartment while Kent stayed behind to make his own transition. He came to visit for Christmas. It was a surprise and I didn’t have a tree. He went out and returned with lights, tinsel and a ficus. A group of scrawny trees had been put outside on the sidewalk of a store that was going out of business. He figured it would last long enough to do its duty as a Christmas tree.
The small ficus did a good job, but it had spent the night in freezing weather, never a good idea for man or tropical plant. Before the lights came off it, it was shedding leaves. I knew this story, so after the holidays, I put the tree on the small patio until the next large trash pickup. When I went to haul it to the curb, small green leaves were stubbling every branch. Instead of the curb, I brought it inside. In a week, it was making a comeback.
The ficus represented my own struggle to fit this career step into my life. The job I had moved for was a bad fit, but I was stubborn. Kent joined me in the apartment, taking a demanding job that required him to get up at 3:30 a.m. The ficus thrived in the apartment in the only place it fit–in front of a window that leaked and in the blast of a heat vent. No leaves littered the floor for the year we lived there.
We bought a house and moved the ficus. We moved it to the South window in the winter and the East
window in the summer. The tree was happy in either place. It grew and thrived. Every year, it became the Christmas tree, holding a few more ornaments each year.
When we moved again, I thought the tree would give in. The only space for it was in front of a window facing a courtyard. Not a lot of light, but enough. Another move and the ficus sat in a Northwest facing window, the least propitious direction for any houseplant. The tree didn’t care. It had light and a view, and after a year, I needed to trim it to fit into the small living room. That was fine, too. In December, it took three strands of lights and a new box or ornaments.
When we moved cross-country, I gave away almost all of my plants. I kept a few hardy ones, and the ficus, too big for the car, got packed into a moving van and spent six days traveling across the country in the dark, the last two days in heat over 100 degrees. We unloaded it and I noticed the dropped leaves and drooping branches. But it didn’t die. It recovered and thrived. I repotted it and trimmed it and watched it glow green in first the living room, then the kitchen. It was the toughest ficus I had every seen.
If you are expecting a sad ending, I’m about to disappoint you. We moved the ficus into the condo with us, putting it in front of a North-facing slider. The light is bright, although not direct, and the ficus did throw off about two dozen leaves the first week. Then it re-thought its position and the leaves quit falling. This morning, I saw new green growth.
The tree has been with us 22 years now. It’s seen my life change so much, it probably thinks it’s had four owners. In this location, it will be allowed to grow taller, but not wider. I think of what the tree has been through, and what it has witnessed, and occasionally I think about how much it surprised me when I wanted to discard it 22 years ago. Life can surprise us that way, if you let it.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing, creativity coach and naturalist who believes that given time and space, we can all thrive where we are planted.