Bigger than a dog, smaller than a car, the fern is a fuzzy green orb looking soft from afar, brittle when you’re peering up its skirt while sitting on the couch underneath. The plastic green tray is held to the bottom of the plastic hanging pot with clear tape.
The plant was a bereavement gift to my grandma after my grandpa died 25 years ago.
Under the fern is a humble tan mid-century sofa that sits low to the ground, quietly shaming the overstuffed couch from the 1990s on the other side of the room for its extravagance. (In truth, the older couch is nicer to sleep on.)
On the back of that couch hangs a heavy maroon felt blanket the color of the university for which my grandfather played basketball. The blanket outlasted the name of the school, though my parents both graduated from there before the school donned a more prestigious title.
But it’s not that blanket that keeps me warm when I come here.
Sometimes, when I come home to visit Mom and Dad, I sleep under a moose blanket that my parents splurged on in Jackson Hole during an epic vacation out West in 1994 or 1995. (That blanket turned out to be one of the most useful souvenirs purchased in the history of souvenirs purchased in the greater Yellowstone region.)
Sometimes, when I come home to visit Mom and Dad, I opt for an extravagantly soft red and white crocheted throw that my mom probably got from a school fundraiser targeted to boosters whose bums needed warming on those cold metal bleachers at the football stadium just a block from the house.
It’s that house where we now live. Where they now live. Where Gaga, in my mind, has always lived.
My grandmother has stories from the other houses she lived in Southwest Missouri, but since the mid 1950s, she’s been raising children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren in this square two-story home with a small porch out front and a basement that no longer floods.
The house is already bursting with memories, and we’re hell bent on squeezing in more.
My sister and her family, my sons and I descended on that little house on Pleasant Street for Christmas this year. Ten of us total, including kids ages 7, 4, 3 and 7 months. The temperature only rose above freezing the first day we were there, which meant all of us spent most of our time running around each other in the house and scheming adventures to get different groups of people out at various times.
With all that activity and stimulation, we all collapsed in exhaustion just about every night to recharge our batteries for the next day.
Like always, I slept on the couch under the fern, but this time, I had a new source of warmth: my great-great-grandmother Lena’s postage stamp quilt.
Lena and her husband, Gustaf, have given my family more than they ever could have imagined. Maybe they knew the roots they were planting when they left Sweden’s Gotland island, 10 years apart, in the late 1800s, but I doubt she could have guessed that her granddaughter would still be making pies with her rolling pin, much less than her granddaughter’s granddaughter would Instagram it.
She could have never guessed that that quilt she made when she got to Springfield (at least we think), would still be in such good condition that the newest member of the family, 7-month-old Nash, would chew on its corners.
Lena passed down a love of cooking and her Scandinavian looks to each of the generation of women that followed her in America, but the quilting gene recessed for more than 100 years.
I knew that her rolling pin and bread knife were still in my grandmother’s kitchen, but for some reason, I didn’t remember this quilt. Maybe it had been stashed in a closet or chest — they still have the storage trunk that the Anders family filled with treasures when they crossed the Atlantic in 1892, the year Ellis Island opened.
They arrived in New York on June 9 that year, arriving on a ship called the New York. Three of them — 36-year-old Lena, 12-year-old son Fred and 10-year-old daughter Anna, who had never met her father — were among the 450,000 immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during its first year of operation.
They made their way to Missouri, where Gustaf had found work at a wagon wheel company that allowed him to pay for their voyage.
We think that Lena made this quilt once she got to Springfield, where she and Gustaf had four more children, including my grandmother’s mother.
My grandmother has done such a remarkable job of keeping track of both the family relics and stories, it has been a great honor for me to help connect the dots using the digital tools available to us and share the results with whomever in the family will listen.
But offline and in my own time, when I’m far from that fern and that quilt and my grandmother’s soft hands and wealth of knowledge, it has been a transformative experience in the past year to make things with my hands that will hopefully last even half as long.
Lord knows I probably couldn’t keep a fern alive that long.