“Pretty babies, bella babies, how are you today?” My grandmother singing to her African violets was better than an alarm clock on summer morning when I was a kid. She would hold a mister or watering can in her deep olive hands and pet the undersides of the soft leaves. (You never touch the tops, no matter how tantalizing the deep green velvet might seem.)
The table was oval with a marble top and a dark wood center support that split into feet. You’ve probably seen tables like it in home decorating magazines. Most people, these days, paint the wood white.
On top is where the African violets lived, center stage in the living room, right in front of the picture window. In my entire life, I never saw that window without draperies, or at least sheer curtains to filter the light, and I have vague recollections of it being covered in sheets of plastic during the winter – but I might be remembering wrong.
The violets, though, the African violets, are indelibly drawn in my brain and my heart. The deep purple flowers may have been dainty, but my grandmother kept them alive through year after year, and while they may have begun merely as flowers to her, and to all of us, they became a universal constant.
Through grief and loss, through joy and delight, in summer and winter, heat, humidity, rain, snow, and ice, those flowers kept blooming under my grandmother’s tender care.
It was the same care she offered to me, and to all of my cousins, whenever we stayed in her house. I joke about her penchant for cursing at us in Italian or threatening us with wooden spoons when we tried her patience (spoons that never once came into contact with any child). I laughingly recall some of her pet phrases the ones my cousins and I refer to as ‘Estherisms.’
“Oh, you’ve got a mad on.” when I was in a snit.
“You’re a miserable wretch,” when I was being a complete brat. (Okay, you have to admit, that one’s kind of fun to say.”
“I need a little something,” when she was Jonesing for a cookie and afternoon coffee.
But the same voice that would let a string of Italian (which I cannot begin to spell) roll off her tongue when she was annoyed would also be the one to coax you into laughter by reciting poetry:
“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
and what can the use of him is more can I can see.”
Or sing a lullaby to soothe away tears:
“Lula lula lula lula-baby
Do you want the stars to play with?”
And at some point, in my head, the purple flowers became not just something my grandmother loved, but something that represented her presence, even after she was no longer living on this Earth.
Most people don’t realize that violets have a kind of tease built into their scent. When you first smell them, they actually numb your olfactory senses, so instead of a continuous flow of their earthy-sweet aroma, you get little bursts of perfume.
Knowing this, I think I can be forgiven if, when I wake in the middle of the night to a sky so dark it may as well be purple, I feel like I can catch the faintest wisp of my grandmother’s presence, feel the echo of her cool hand against my forehead, hear the ghost of her sing-songing greetings to her violets.
“Pretty babies, baby bellas… how are you today?”
Links & References:
- Dog Days of Podcasting
- “My Shadow,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, can be found in A Child’s Garden of Verses
- Lula-Baby is a folk lullaby, attribution unknown, though Paul Robeson did record a song with similar lyrics (“My Curly-Headed Baby” – there are LOTS of different versions.
- The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Tub is written and produced by Melissa A. Bartell, and is recorded and produced using the BossJock iPad app and Audacity.
- Bathtub Mermaid album art was created by Rebecca Moran of Moran Media
- Music used for the opening and closing is David Popper’s “Village Song” as performed by Cello Journey. This music came from the podsafe music archive at Mevio’s Music Alley, which site is now defunct.