28 January 2021

Lydia's Violets

Note: This post was originally published on January 28, 2021. It was updated on February 3, 2021 after more negatives showing the violets were found and scanned.

Lydia Martel Schilling with her violets on their original plant stand taken in Bowdle, SD.

In the early 1940s, my Schilling grandparents retired from farming and moved their family into town, to Bowdle, South Dakota. Sometime after, a neighbor gave my grandma, Lydia, some African violets. She had those violets (or their descendants) for the next 40 years, the remainder of her life. The brass plant stand with eight arms, each holding a pot of violets, was always in front of the window in the living room. 

After Lydia died in the spring of 1988, my grandfather, Jake, put the violets in the chicken coop. And there they sat for three years. Jake turned 90 in 1991, and so late that summer, the whole family convened in Bowdle to celebrate. While I was there, Grandpa asked if I wanted Grandmas violets. Of course, I said yes. I had driven up from New Mexico with my eldest brother in his truck, so we put the stand and the pots in the bed and covered them with a tarp for the 1,300-mile drive back. 

When I got them home to Las Cruces, I saw that the violets were very crowded in the pots, clearly root bound, yellowed, and emaciated from lack of sun and water. My brother said they needed a monsoon—his reference to rain in Africa, but, in fact, the desert southwest has a pretty reliable monsoon season, too. I monsooned them first to loosen things up, and then carefully divided each plant, pulling off little ones from the mother plants. I put all the South Dakota dirt that came with them into a bucket and mixed it with New Mexico dirt from my garden. I thought it was important that each pot had a little bit of South Dakota to remind them where they came from. From the four mother plants, I got at least 14 more daughter plants. Some of them were very tiny, but they seemed determined.

When I was a little girl growing up in Santa Rosa, my room had three large windows facing east. I loved playing in the dirt (still do). Although I dont remember where the first plants came from, by the time I was nine or ten, Id managed to propagate many jade, philodendron, and spider plants, to the point where all three windowsills were full of containers of plants. I named them. I talked to them. I read to them. We listened to disco music out of Oklahoma City together late at night on my 7UP can-shaped radio. We were friends. 

First, I filled up the brass plant stand with the mother violets and then lined up the rest along the windowsills of my sunporch. I had even more window sills in my sunporch than in the bedroom of my childhood home. My new friends were home. They flourished in the Southern New Mexico sun. The leaves turned verdant and fuzzy, and soon they had clusters of single, icy lavender-colored blossoms. They continued to multiply at a somewhat alarming rate. If they had ever been a hybrid, they had certainly returned to their wild state in my care. Within a year, I gave a half dozen each to my brother and my mom. And eventually, I started giving them away to everyone I knew. It's your birthday? Heres a violet. Got a new job? Heres a violet. Feeling blue? Heres a violet. 

In the fall of 1994, I took a temp job in Wisconsin. I filled my car up with necessities, including some violets, and headed north. 

In the spring of 2000, I left New Mexico and moved to Northern Virginia. I shipped everything ahead of time, but I drove east across the country with two cats and a box of violets.  

In the late summer of 2001, the Schilling family convened in South Dakota to celebrate Jakes 100th birthday. I brought him pictures of the violets in bloom. He seemed happy to see them again. They were his Lydias violets. 

Each time I divided them, I always included a bit of dirt from the mix of South Dakota, New Mexico, and, by then, Virginia dirt. I had rigged up a couple of bakers racks with grow lights since my living space never had enough windowsills to accommodate them. Each time I visited Grandpa, he would ask about Grandmas violets. 

Over time, two racks became one. In March of 2008, the last of the violets were doing very poorly. It seemed there was nothing I could do to keep them going any longer. Turns out, Grandpa, who by then was 106 years and 6 months old, was in the same situation as Grandmas violets. The violets gave out just before the vernal equinox, and Grandpa followed suit on April 1. 

After the funeral service at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the burial at the cemetery, and the luncheon in the basement of church, my dad, his brother, and I were standing outside the church saying our goodbyes when my dad asked about Grandma's violets. You still got those? he asked. I hesitated for a moment and then told him that they died two weeks before Grandpa did. He looked at me, almost sad at first, but then he just smiled and said “Oh.”

Every time you uproot a plant, some of the soil still clings to the roots, no matter how hard you shake it. There is always a bit of where it came from going along with where it’s going. A piece of Germany. A chunk of Russia. A clod of South Dakota. A dusting of New Mexico. A lump of Virginia. 

Maybe there wasnt enough South Dakota dirt left in their pots after all those years to remind those violets where they came from. Maybe I was somehow keeping Grandpa alive by keeping Grandmas violets alive. Or maybe the other way around: Grandpa was keeping Grandmas violets alive. I'll never really know. But I do know this: I was happy to be their caretaker for 17 years. I havent had another violet since. 

Lydia sitting with her violets in her living room.