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玉 (yù)

by Isabel Acevedo

One of my earliest memories of my Ama, my mother’s mother, is of her wrist: impossibly smooth skin always enclosed by a solid jade bracelet. The simple stone bangle would shine gently, a sea of emerald and pale turquoise gazing out at me from its glassy surface. I recall asking my mother why Ama never took it off, and she said that Ama had worn it so long that her hand had grown and it wouldn’t come off anymore; she could have it broken off, but she didn’t want to.

Jade was precious. My mother wore jade jewelry too, but mostly on special occasions. She had a pendant in an odd shape I couldn’t identify, some dangly earrings, a few more pieces here and there. She told me that when I was older, I could have some jade to wear too. Jade was prized by my Chinese family as it has been for centuries of Chinese civilization, a traditional symbol of compassion, wisdom, beauty, and virtue. People would wear jade for good fortune, spiritual healing, and protection from negative forces, and mothers would pass that protection on to their daughters. Some even said that the jade absorbed malevolent energies, its green color growing foggy as it did so.

As doctors my parents lead incredibly busy lives, working hard non-stop at the hospital and at home: two difficult jobs and two difficult daughters were more than enough for them to handle, and as such, there was little time to care for plants when my sister and I were little. My mom would try to grow pots of herbs for her kitchen and inevitably forget to water them, always proclaiming that she’d just never had a green thumb. Now I look back and wish we’d had a vegetable garden or something, but I know that none of us had much time or energy to care for those sad herbs, let alone to battle weeds and pests and deer every day in the backyard.

One day we went to visit my mom’s good friend and co-worker in her garden, a beautiful hillside of brightly colored flowers overlooking a pond. She proudly showed us her greenhouse, a corner of which was all but engulfed by what seemed to me like a bonsai that had gotten out of hand – an enormous, branched succulent. I’d never before seen leaves so thick and firm, so waxy and glossy that the sun coming into the greenhouse made them glisten, and I looked in awe at the way the trunk-like stems seemed to burst over the edges of the pot.

I was running my fingers over the leaves, admiring the smoothness and the striking deep green color, when I caught a snatch of my mother’s conversation: this was a jade plant. Dr. Fisher was happy to give us one of the smaller plants she had propagated using cuttings from her giant in the corner, so we went home one jade plant richer.

We had a bit more hope for this particular plant than for our wilting basil, banking on its low-maintenance resilience and our desire to keep the succulent’s beauty alive. But the jade’s survival ended up relying on just the person I’d never once seen care for a plant: my quiet, hard-working father, who probably had the least time to spare of us all. Somehow the jade plant fell under his care and he happily tended to it in his free time, dutifully watering and checking its growth, and moving it around the house to find the best temperature and light conditions.

The plant flourished in our sunroom and quickly outgrew its pot a few times, at which point my dad would diligently transplant it to larger and larger stone jars. Soon he began to trim branches that grew over the edge and towards the ground, using the cuttings to propagate new plants until there was a tiny new jade in every spot in the house where he liked to work. It wasn’t long before I noticed that he was talking to his jade plants, thinking aloud as he pored over them or offering a struggling transplant some words of encouragement.

I wondered if he chatted in their direction while he worked the same way he sometimes did if my sister or I were sitting in the corner of his study with a book. When I brought it up to him, he told me very simply and matter-of-factly that if he didn’t talk to the plants, they wouldn’t grow. My dad has always had a scientific mind, and he approached most things logically and systematically. Yet he tended to his jade plants not only with soil and sunlight and water, but with intuition and tender care. They weren’t to be left alone on a windowsill somewhere, even if they could survive. They were friends that you could talk to, and if you did they would do more than just survive: they would live, they would grow. Just as I take after my father in so many other aspects of life, from the shape of my nose to our shared passion for photography, I picked up his philosophy for plant care.

When I received a pair of cacti as a gift, I soon had them each endearingly named – Jesús and Pepe – and set up next to the window by my bed where I could easily chatter at them. They quickly became confidants for my teenage problems, a way for me to vent, process my angst, and expel some negativity, all within the confines of my room; they were exceptionally good listeners! And though the conditions in my bedroom were likely less than ideal for those poor cacti, grow they did.

Years later, during my second semester of sophomore year, I began to work with a local seafood shack that was just starting up and hoping to start growing some of its own produce on reclaimed land, for its environmental message as well as consumer appeal. Along with designing and budgeting the garden space, my partner and I worked hard to seed, cultivate, and transplant dozens of different herbs and vegetables in the greenhouse on campus. I was certainly pleased to come in one day and find her leaning over one of the trays of new seedlings, very seriously telling one of the little guys that she knew he could make it.

When we both headed home for spring break, I asked a friend who was staying at school to water the plants in our absence – but neglected to tell her to talk to them. Sure enough, we returned a week later to a few trays of sad, drooping seedlings beginning to wilt. My partner said that perhaps they’d been watered too much or not enough, but I knew somewhere in me that it was love and attention they’d been thirsting for. The herbs and veggies were ultimately moved into the garden plot, but it was even harder than I’d expected to see my plant friends go.

In teaching me to talk to the plants that I love, Crassula ovata has truly been my jade: an amulet of protection drawing away negative energies; a symbol of my father’s wisdom, of simple and lively beauty, and of compassion for even the tiniest, greenest friends; and something incredibly precious that I’ll wear on my wrist for the rest of my life rather than break away.

Isabel is 20 years old, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and currently attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she studies Environmental Science and Visual Art. She loves film photography, hiking, books, gardening, botanical illustration, Filipino food, and late-night heart to hearts with her potted plants.


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