All through my childhood, begonias grew unnoticed at the fringes of my attention. They started as a single plant in my grandmother's living room. But by the time I could count, the specimen had begun to spread. A coterie of the first offspring drifted toward the windows in Nanny's dining room and kitchen. Growing in number, they burst outdoors and summered in the courtyard. Soon they spilled down 51st Street and landed in windowboxes or in the hands of relatives in other states. The plant was too everpresent to spark a child's appreciation.
However, one autumn when I was newly married and living in my first house in Maine, Nanny came to visit. As she stepped from the car, I stared at the housewarming gift in her hands. Strangely familiar, the leathery green leaves dangled like elongated, lopsided hearts. Wrapping my fingers around the cold clay pot, I studied one particular leaf. Strewn with silver speckles, it reminded me of the folded wing of some fairy-tale bird. It made perfect sense when Nanny announced, "It's an angel-wing begonia.''
Over the long Maine winter, the begonia whetted my appetite for more live, green things indoors. I knew that Nanny had taken "cuttings'' from her begonias to produce new plants. But this seemed unnatural, even savage, compared with planting seeds. Despite my uneasiness, the knife blade in my hand felt along a leggy stem and severed it just below a leaf. Then I plunged the stem into a water glass and waited a week.
When the white strings of root fattened up, I pressed the stem into another pot of soil and welcomed a new plant. In this manner, multitudes of speckled growing things spread their wings throughout the house. I gave them to friends and sisters and cousins and total strangers.
Twenty years later, I no longer have my grandmother. But as I water the begonias, her memory seeps into my days with a distilled sweetness.
Sometimes this memory comes to teach - not so much about flowers - but about life. Today it clarifies the vague uneasiness of the young bride's hand that held the knife.
As the water streams from the pitcher, I imagine myself a begonia. I feel my branches stretch with preordained purpose: First, leaf upon leaf; then, small pink flowers shaped like castanets; finally, tiny beads that will fall on nearby soil to become new plants. In this perfect benign round, I cannot comprehend a need for cuttings.
We expect productive and purposeful lives to unfold like begonias - gently, according to the natural processes of growth. We tremble at the prospect of unnatural "cuttings'' - the bittersweet and sometimes difficult separations that force change on our lives.
Some divisions are expected - a child leaving home for school for the first time. Some are unexpected - the death or divorce of a dear friend. But there is a way to make a divided life whole again.
Years ago, I saw how the young, robust begonia cuttings wilted even when placed directly in water. And I noticed the time it took for the wet, fibrous wound on the parent plant to heal.
However, when the cutting grew its own roots, the stem became turgid, the leaf regained its posture. And when the mother plant's severed tip eventually toughened, a new, soft green nib sprouted below it. There was no stopping the growth.
When severed, the fibers in the angel-wing's stem can assume renewed form and purpose. They can develop into strong new roots. Or they can seal their tips, save all that was good and lasting, and allow this energy to produce new buds. The knife that cuts into our life can become the tool for growth.
Often, in the Old Testament, angels appeared with drawn swords. Even King David fled from such visions. But holy and unholy men alike learned the purpose of the angelic sword was always to promote growth, not to destroy wholeness.
The legacy of Nanny's legion of angel-wings is this: The lives that multiply themselves and spill over the world are those that exist to grow.
They do not tremble at knives or swords as threats to wholeness. And they persist until they glimpse the hand of the angel that holds the sword.