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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

My mother claimed that almost nothing is lost forever. Easy for her to say; she never had to live through a pandemic.

There’s been lots of talk about loss lately: lost jobs, lost family time, lost travel, lost education. The list goes on and we wonder how we’ll recover everything. It got me thinking about loss in general and then lost physical items, such as my orange ski sweater. But mostly, I think about my beloved German ivy. Four decades later, I still remember the details about that one.

I loved the pot of German ivy from the minute it was given to me and it took pride of place on a hook on the veranda. I named it Lotte, because I name everything. I hummed German ditties as I watered and fussed. Passersby admired her, and I felt some rare green-thumb pride.

Then, just a few days later, Lotte went missing. I noticed the empty hook as soon as we came home from a walk to the mailbox. We’d only been gone a few minutes, so this had been quick work indeed.

I decided to call the police. I could feel my family’s eyes rolling behind me as I dialled the number, but nobody dared say a word. I was on a mission to find the culprit.

The officer who arrived turned out to be a former student of mine, who seemed far more interested in reminiscing about elementary school than he was about The Kidnapping. Finally, after I made him a cup of tea and gestured to a kitchen chair, he settled down to business.

He took out his notebook and pencil (with a bit of an exaggerated flourish, I thought) and proceeded to ask me a few questions in a full-throated voice that reminded me why he’d been a soloist in my school choir. After jotting down some notes, he clapped the notebook shut, but not before I had shamelessly read, upside down: “Plant, green leaves, stolen 7 to 7:20 p.m., hook on porch.” Such skimpy information would probably never lead to solving the crime.

Months passed, filled with summer fun and travel, and Lotte all but faded from my memory, although her hook remained as a fitting memorial.

Labour Day arrived and with it a curt message on the answering machine, instructing one Judith Butler to report to the local police headquarters as soon as possible. Puzzled, we all piled into the car and drove to the police station, everyone trying to guess what offence I had committed. Caught by a speed camera? Forgot to pay at the gas station? Ran over a cat? I approached the front desk with some trepidation.

“Your family may take a seat,” a poker-faced receptionist instructed, “while you go with Constable Jones.” Constable Jones led me away.

Wordlessly, the constable pushed the elevator button for the basement floor and then escorted me through a number of heavy, locked doors to a row of cells filled with what looked and smelled like dishevelled weekend revellers. I was totally bewildered. It wasn’t until the constable unlocked the small, dark cell at the end of the corridor that I saw why I was there: Lotte! Perched on a high stool, there she was, very green and very much alive.

My instinct was to grab her, but Constable Jones held up his hand. Turns out it’s much trickier to claim a stolen plant than report it missing. There were dozens of questions to be answered, supervisors and notebooks to be consulted, things to be signed. Constable Jones kept leaving me while he photocopied forms and made phone calls, but eventually, he returned with Lotte. He then instructed me to hold her up by her macramé hanger and have my picture taken. “Should I smile or be serious?” I wondered. Glasses on or off? And how’s my hair?

Gradually, the details of Lotte’s adventures were revealed.

The night before, a house in the city had been raided and tens of thousands of dollars of stolen electronic equipment had been recovered. As an inventory of the house contents was being taken, one of the officers noticed a lush, well-kept plant hanging in the window, incongruous amidst the rooms full of TVs and stereos and keyboards and car radios. He suggested to the thieves, who were handcuffed and ready to be shipped off to a place with no indoor gardening, that they might as well admit where the plant came from. One of the men came clean: he and his wife had been out one evening in the spring and were stopped at an intersection beside a house with a white veranda. His wife had admired the lush hanging ivy. The husband hopped out, grabbed it for her and made it back to the truck before the light changed. Such a doting husband, Constable Jones noted wryly.

With the mystery of the missing plant finally solved, Lotte and I were free to leave.

“You know,” I said to Constable Jones, “I don’t remember my plant having this nice macramé hanger.” “Wait a minute,” he said and turned on his heel, once again leaving me alone. The plant was so long and heavy, I had to find some muscles to lift the hanger way above my head so it wouldn’t drag on the floor.

Constable Jones returned from his visit to the cells with some news. “Apparently, the wife made the hanger especially for the plant,” he said, “and the guy says it’s yours with their compliments.” Chuckling, I went down to the lobby to meet my astonished family.

Lotte, triumphantly returned to her hook in the macrame hanger, was living proof that my mother was right: it is hard to lose something forever. Going forward, I’m going to apply the same philosophy to our pandemic. I’m planning to recoup all my losses, one by one by one, no matter how much time and effort it will take.

And on that note, if you found an orange ski sweater in Jasper, Alta., circa February 1968, it’s mine. I still miss it.

Judith Butler lives in Toronto.

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