In appreciation for the beautiful sheva brachot my neighbors organized for our son and daughter-in-law, my husband and I decided to buy them a plant. We knew that while she made it look effortless, Dina* worked very hard to make sure everything was just perfect, so we wanted to get her the perfect gift. We went to the nursery and strolled around until we found just the right plant, green and leafy with a burst of color. Then we picked out a flower pot that would match the décor of their well-tended garden.
The worker transferred the plant to the pot and wrapped it up beautifully with decorative stones, sparkling cellophane, and brightly colored ribbon. It was gorgeous. Almost as an afterthought as we paid, I asked the worker how often the plant needs to be watered. As if plant owners typically spend their entire day watering, pruning, and lovingly hovering over their plants, he enthusiastically answered that this particular plant needs to be watered only twice a day. Twice a day?? We had wanted to give our neighbors a gift they would enjoy, not a chore or a burden. But there was no turning back at that point. I sheepishly presented Dina with the plant and apologized for giving her another thing to worry about. Dina wasn’t concerned at all. She loved the plant (it really was a beauty) and she didn’t mind having to water it, even twice a day. The only problem would be when her family goes away for six weeks in the summer. But that wasn’t a problem either, she added, since I could water it for her. Oh no! The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for her plant. I hate being in charge of people’s precious possessions. I couldn’t imagine her plant would stand a chance under my care, even if by some extraordinarily remote chance I did remember to water it. The fact that the plant didn’t die in the short time from when we bought it to the time I delivered it was itself an open miracle. This trouper of a plant was heading for the Botanical Hall of Fame! But how was I going to extricate myself from this self-inflicted mess?
As I stood at Dina’s doorway, a story that had happened years before immediately flashed through my mind. Chaya*, a neighbor from my old neighborhood, had asked if I could watch her fish while her family took a three-day vacation up north. What could be difficult about that request, you may ask. One fish. Three days. It’s not like she was asking me to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or anything. But I take my responsibility very seriously. And I worry that something will happen to my neighbors’ cherished treasures on my watch. I would feel absolutely terrible! Chaya brought over her fish bowl and gave me a quick tutorial on how to care for Goldy. She explained that fish eat miniscule amounts. The worst thing to do is to overfeed them. I hesitantly placed the fish on my dining room table, waved her off with a smile and good wishes for an enjoyable vacation, and hoped for the best. I followed her instructions meticulously, to the crumb. All was fine during that first day. Every time I passed by my dining room table, I took a peek at the fish. Goldy always looked happy and healthy, merrily swimming around in her aquatic paradise. But then very attuned as I was to Goldy’s welfare, I noticed an almost imperceptible change. She seemed to be swimming around just a tiny bit less than before. But maybe it was just my imagination. Or maybe taking in the new scenery of my home was just exhausting her. But by the next day, I knew something was definitely wrong. As a Jewish mother who believes that most, if not all, problems can be resolved with some delicious food, I resisted my primary instinct to give her even one extra flake. But what was I to do? She would swim to the top of the tank making sucking movements, seemingly looking for food. But I stood my ground and didn’t give in. The warning about overfeeding the fish echoed in my ears. Then things got even worse. Goldy was hardly swimming at all and began to lean progressively more on her side. I’d brought home enough goldfish in plastic bags from school and shul carnivals over the years to know what that meant. This was not good. My fear was about to be realized. Now I was in a quandary: Do I call Chaya to give her the heads-up about the deteriorating condition of her fish and possibly ruin her family’s vacation, or do I break the news when they come back and risk shocking them with the terrible news? I twisted and turned throughout the night trying to choose between bad option number one and bad option number two. I didn’t call. Somehow Goldy managed to hang on until the day my neighbors returned from the north. When Chaya showed up at my door, Goldy was literally laying on her last fin. Before Chaya could utter a word, I apologized profusely and told her that her precious fish whom she entrusted in my care was unfortunately moments away from death. But on the positive side, I told her she had come just in time to say goodbye. Chaya looked at me quizzically and asked what made me think her fish was dying. I explained that she had been laying on her side for days with almost no movement whatsoever. Chaya waved her hand dismissively and chuckled about how that was just Goldy’s personality. Personality? Fish have personality?? I hadn’t been warned about that. I didn’t realize that besides making sure not to overfeed Goldy, I also had to be sensitive to her temperament and disposition. Chaya walked right past me and straight over to my dining room table, picked up Goldy, and unequivocally proved her point when Goldy started swimming around the fish bowl as though she were competing against Mark Spitz in the 200-meter freestyle swimming race at the Olympics. My jaw dropped in the face of this instantaneous transformation, yet I breathed a sigh of relief that that I could return Goldy in a good state of health.
When Dina non-chalantly said if I could simply water her plant, I smiled. I told her that, of course, I would be happy to tend to her plant. But underneath that forced smile was a sense of panic generated by the fish incident, as well as the burning question of what I was thinking when I decided to buy her a plant. Would it have been so bad had I bought her a tray? A vase? A tablecloth? A jar of peanut butter? A box of steel wool? She offered to bring the plant to my garden, but I suggested we leave it exactly where she keeps it so there would be at least some potential of survival.
So, here I am four weeks in. I usually remember to water the plant, but not always. I will go out and water the plant at 1 a.m. if that’s when I remember to water it. Despite all that, bli ayin hara, I am happy to report that the plant can still be counted among the living. I’ve learned that in addition to physical care, temperament and personality need to always be considered. Maintenance need not be 100% perfect. It even builds resilience. All the worrying is a waste of time and energy. Hmmm. Maybe these lessons can be applied to other beings under my care as well…
*Name has been changed
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.