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first person

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Illustration by Joy Kim

I was in foul humour, that evening in late January. I was tempted to postpone my appointment. But that would be rude – not least since I was being granted a great favour. So I put Violet in a box, and together we set out into the bitter cold.

Violet is the name I gave to the African violet that has pride of place on the living room windowsill in my apartment. She is one of the daughters of a prolific plant that belonged to my late mother, who kept violets in our family home for as long as I can remember. My Violet had taken ill, and I’d made a half-hearted attempt at repotting her in response. But her condition continued to deteriorate: she needed to be repotted, but properly this time.

Though I’m not one to fuss with plants, for sentimental reasons I was willing to go to considerable lengths to keep this one alive. The trouble was, the Internet was unanimous about the correct method of repotting African violets – a harrowing process that includes removing all of the flowers, most of the leaves and about half of the roots, and lightly shaving the stem. I didn’t have the nerve for it and felt I needed the guidance of an expert.

I’d been referred to an expert by the Toronto African Violet and Gesneriad Society. (It’s one of the pleasures of living in a big city, that we have such an organization. And I discovered that in fact there are three, in our wider megalopolis.) He and his wife are pillars of the Society, I was told, and though they are retired, they might be available to advise. So I called, and to my surprise, he invited me to their home, where they would perform the procedure themselves.

I was grateful, but I dreaded the trip. It involved a subway, a GO Train to terra incognita, a bus and then a walk. I also felt awkward, imposing on the kindly couple as a complete stranger. And it had been one of those days – work had been busy but unproductive, my errands all ended in frustration, and people on the sidewalk kept zigging when I zagged.

It was still rush hour, so for a good portion of the trip, I had to stand, while jostling with commuters and trying to protect Violet from injury. Every time I transferred, going from the Arctic outdoors to a heated vehicle, I started sweating and quickly felt clammy against the lining of my coat. On the final leg, the driver barked at me when I asked for confirmation that I’d taken the right bus.

Once off the bus, I struggled to navigate the vast, arterial intersection before me, increasingly anxious that I would arrive late, and that Violet would freeze to death in the meantime. After several wrong turns, at last I found the street I was looking for. It led to a compact neighbourhood of townhouses, 1970s brown-brick-and-shingle-style, artfully arranged in narrow lanes. The trees, mostly pines, had grown to maturity and gave me a feeling of shelter as I walked (less hunched now, I noticed). The pavement had been shovelled, neatly and recently. But the snow, dry and fine, kept swirling into sparkling new drifts, some in shades of blue where the houses were dark and others golden where the windows glowed.

I spotted my destination. The place was dark, and I remembered that I was in a bad mood. I knocked on the door, lightly and waited. I almost hoped they’d forgotten our appointment as if that would give me an excuse to go home and put Violet out of her misery. I knocked again, firmly this time, and waited again. Just as I was about to turn back, a light came on and a woman answered the door. I introduced myself. She welcomed me and called her husband. Then she took my coat and ushered me into the basement.

The basement was small, low-ceilinged and unfinished. Except for a sink and a potting bench along one wall, it was filled by three or four short rows of open metal shelves. Under grow lights on each shelf, there were violets – violets of every size, variety and colour; many familiar, several quite exotic; some being nursed, others in magnificent rude health. And arrayed along every ceiling joist, like the leaves under the balcony of the Winter Garden Theatre, there were ribbons – mostly blue or red, plus a few white and some gold – from African violet competitions across North America and beyond, reaching back more than 40 years.

Promptly after a few pleasantries, my hosts set to work on my ailing plant. I winced, seeing Violet reduced to a small fraction of her size, but clearly she was in the safest of safe hands. I made sure to return to the potting bench to observe key stages, but otherwise, I perused the rows of shelves, marvelling at the specimens upon them. The kindly couple alternated between narrating the repotting procedure and answering my questions about their own plants, each finishing the other’s sentences and moving about in the efficient, intuitive way of a half-century marriage.

The procedure done, we chatted about their travels and they showed me one of their most prized plants – their own cultivar, with startling red flowers. They advised me on their formula for potting mix and gave me a tub of violet food, a custom blend from Massachusetts. I gave them a little gift that I’d brought, and thanked them warmly for their extraordinary generosity, elaborating on Violet’s origin story and saying how much it meant to me that she now had a fighting chance.

Violet was in shock for the next few weeks. But then, just as her surgeons had assured me, she roused herself. Two months later, she was bigger than ever. And ever since, she’s been covered almost continuously in a crown of purple glory. I wrote to her rescuers to let them know how well Violet was doing and to thank them again. In the intervening years, twice I’ve repotted her, successfully on my own.

And once a week, when I bring Violet to the kitchen for a drink and to tend to whatever needs tending, I think of the kindly couple, and that harried, howling-cold but magical evening when my beloved plant was given a new lease on life.

David Curtin lives in Toronto.