African violets, my Granddad told me, needed to be in a window with eastern exposure. They needed early light--not the late light of the afternoon when the sun is too direct and would burn their leaves. Also, never water the center of the plant, that leaves it susceptible to rot. And don't over water or underwater.
He'd tell me these things in letters and whenever we were in his dining room--where he had his gorgeous array of violets on an old stereo turned into a plant rack in his window with the Eastern exposure.
Always, with those violets, my Granddad.
Once I tried to grow African violets at my old house--the craftsman bungalow with a southern exposure dining room window. It didn't work. They never quite bloomed enough and really, I just gave up attempting to make it work and let them die. Then, we moved to Eldridge and wouldn't you know: my dining room has an eastern exposure, just perfect for some African violets. I just procured my first batch and put them in the window--and the blooms are just as I remember my Granddad's.
It always struck me as odd that he loved African violets so much. They are such a delicate plant--reminiscent of ladies powder rooms and tea parlors. He was not a man who gave much to his more delicate side--he was the hunter, master vegetable gardener, fisher, opinionated man who always used to advise me "When in doubt, vote Republican!" (I've never been in doubt; which I am sure would be much to his disappointment.)
Maybe it is their complicated and specific needs that appealed to him. He was such a complicated, often difficult man. He grew up with an alcoholic father, who often was not there and a child of divorce and spend time at his Aunt's house more than home, I think. My Granddad adored me, this much was so obvious, always to me, but he also often rejected my brother or would make some snide remark to my cousins. Even as a little girl, I knew what I was dealing with--he was not a cuddly grandpa--he was something a little sharper, but also not entirely inaccessible.
Sometimes, I wonder if he recognized a lit bit of brokenness in me, too. My parents were wonderful and stable and present. But, what happened to my brother broke me a bit early on--I think I spent my childhood grieving the typical brother I would never have.
He shared things with me--I am pretty sure my love of tomatoes was sometimes the key to unlocking his heart. By the time I was born he had endured surgery for a bleeding ulcer and tomatoes (and all raw or acidic vegetables) were hard for him to eat. So, I guess, I was his pinch hitter (in the tomato department).
He always told me how to do things--how tomatoes never needed much water when the season was rainy--and a little drought and August sun was sometimes, the best thing for a tomato. He showed me how to grow lettuce in the shady spots of the garden where the August sun would be filtered. And how things like horseradish were a perennial and not simply a condiment on a shelf. He also showed me how to make a Shirley Temple and an Old Fashioned. He showed me how to bet on horses. He taught me how to have after dinner talk with the grown-ups. He showed me how to write a letter, long before I had that lesson in school and suggested I pick a signature salutation--his suggestion was "Sincerely" and I landed on "Cheers," (a result of my Happy Hour training). Whenever my Nana traveled, he'd write to me, almost everyday and how I loved writing back.
He also showed me how complicated love could be. Those moments I mentioned--with my brother--those are moments that are truly awful and unacceptable. But, the thing is, I love my Granddad. I didn't always like him. I didn't always enjoy him. I very often disagreed with him. But love is something more than liking and enjoying and even admiring or adoring. It is something that is only possible with a lot of forgiveness and picking the right way to love someone.
Some of us can bloom in the direct sun and others of us can only bloom with the right conditions--the filtered eastern light, just like those African violets.