I originally thought it was just a quirky thing my grandmother did when I was little. But eventually I noticed my aunt and my mother doing it, too. Still, I thought it was just them. That it was some sort of miserly act passed along their bloodline as they rose from poverty and old world necessity.
But, a few days ago, walking down a quiet street with my dear ninety year old friend I realized it was not a habit reserved exclusively for my southern Italian relatives.
The act of taking slips is apparently more prolific than I knew.
If you’re a gardener, a lover of plants or just someone who appreciates those varieties of vegetation that grow easily from a small section of their branch, you know what a slip is.
It can be a single leaf of a succulent, or a two inch piece of stem from a pelargonium or a geranium, containing some form of magic that allows it to grow vigorously when placed in damp soil.
It’s a method of propagation where by garden clubbers, neighbors and old Italian women essentially steal just enough of someone’s plant to have their own.
My grandmother’s method was premeditated. She carried a plastic bag in her purse at all times, just in case opportunity presented itself to pinch a piece of a variety she didn’t have or a shade of bloom that would go well in her beds.
It was not stealing, according to her, when I confronted her about her stealthy action as a precocious child, righteous and emboldened with a new sense of authority, having completed a year of catechism where the boundary between right and wrong were clearly defined for me at six years old.
It doesn’t hurt the plant and I’m only taking what is extra. They’ll never even notice, was her defense. Her position seemed reasonable, but still left me with some confusion regarding her morals, especially since she looked cautiously in all directions before reaching for the stems.
But what is truly interesting to me now, decades later, as I am approaching the age she was that day, is the optimism and hopefulness these women possess.
At 90 years old, my friend is placing a tiny start in a pot of rich soil, tending its need for shelter, water and nourishment and waiting patiently, hoping it will take.
She, like my grandmother, is willing to invest her energy and love into something that may take years to bloom and may only show its full potential once it has outlived her.
Taking slips is truly an act of faith, one I’m convinced is developed only when a woman has herself survived enough hardship and sorrow that she understand the likelihood of success can be a narrow margin, but still remains an investment worth the reward.
They know how to wait. They possess the patience and tenacity that allows them to venture out week upon week to search for a sign their vegetative ward has sprouted roots and will survive. Or even more courageously, to dispense with a fail effort and try again.
At this stage in my life, when things seem more uncertain than ever, I look to these women for guidance. They offer it, sometimes in very subtle ways, like the glint of excitement in their eyes as the delicately pinch that slip and stow it away for the future.