The Ficus That Crossed an Ocean

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In 1987 my grandmother, Sima, left her home in Bucharest, Romania, to move in with me, my sister and my parents in northern New Jersey. The move was a leap of many kinds of faith. After 40 years in the same apartment, she closed her door and crossed an ocean. She was 78, spoke no English and had no friends here. In Romania’s capital she walked almost daily to the grocer, or the theater or a friend’s place. When she stayed home she watched life on the streets below from her window.

Suburbia, on the other hand, was empty. Not one person on the streets, she said with sustained surprise year after year.

She came with few belongings: a small suitcase, a long coat, and in the inside pocket of that coat, a small branch sprouting a single leaf. She had clipped it from the ficus plant my father grew up with in the same apartment she left behind. It was a two-room apartment on Calea Victoriei. One room doubled as a kitchen and bedroom. A small wooden table stood at the foot of the bed in front of a window facing an air shaft.

On my visits as a child I knelt on a chair by that window and rubbed bread between my palms to make crumbs for the pigeons that gathered on the sill. A silver meat grinder clung to the end of the table with a clamp. A stove sat next to the table. The only sink was in the bathroom; cheesecloths hung from the faucet dripping curdled milk.

The second room was a living room in later years but, back in the ficus’s early life, it was my father’s sparsely furnished bedroom: a table where he did his homework, an armoire, the sofa that doubled as his bed, and the ficus at the foot of the sofa by the window facing the street. In my father’s telling, on his way home from fourth grade one day, after a lesson about plant propagation, he saw a ficus in the lobby of a building. With the lesson fresh on his mind, he broke off a twig, took it home, and put it in a glass of water.

My grandmother gave us updates about its well-being. Something is bothering it, it’s losing leaves. Or it’s going through a growth spurt. It was always feekoosul (the ficus, in Romanian) or the feekoos in my parents’ Romanian-tinted English. For a long time I thought ficus was a Romanian word and I had no idea how to refer to it in English. Now I have an abundance of words for the plant I have: ficus elastica, rubber fig, Indian rubber bush.

How did my grandmother get the ficus through customs? She’d jumped tougher hurdles than that. She carried an infant through a war that started months after she gave birth. She negotiated with border guards. She breast-fed as bombs fell from the sky.

After the war, Communism swallowed the country whole and in the 1960s its last dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, came to power. He ruled moderately at first, and then brutally through the 1980s. Conversations were whispered in corners, away from tapped phones; friends and neighbors were forced to turn on one another; food shortages left everyone hungry.

My grandmother came to New Jersey two years before the revolution that toppled the tyrant. She wrapped the ficus branch in a damp cloth and hid it in her black coat. She wore only black. When I suggested maroon she laughed: “At my age?” She settled into my room. I was 17 and would be leaving for college in a year anyway, so I took the guest room. On the day she arrived she filled a glass with water and plunked the branch inside, just as my father had done more than half a century earlier. “If the ficus takes root here then I’ll take root too,” she said.

At first we argued. She wanted to take care of us; we didn’t want to be taken care of. She insisted on shoveling the snow off the front steps of my parents’ house and we couldn’t seem to stop her. There were generational struggles too. I wanted to go out with my friends; she wanted me home with family because along with a black coat and a ficus she brought with her a different world.

In time we stopped telling her to rest. She gardened and shoveled and cooked. She chatted with our neighbors from Croatia: “hi” and “bye” and “robota,” the one word they both understood: in Slavic languages, the word for work.

Soon she was wearing maroon and taking English classes. She never skipped an assignment. Robota. She worked. The homework got harder with time and with her growing vocabulary. Write about your family. Or write about your weekend. And once, write what you think happiness is. My grandmother’s answer: Happiness is when your life on the outside matches your life on the inside. Still the best definition I’ve ever heard.

My grandmother took root. And then she grew.

After five years in New Jersey, at the age of 83, she became a United States citizen. She studied the 100 civics questions nervously for months, knowing she would be asked 10 of them but not knowing which ones. She had to answer six correctly to pass, which she did.

A few years later, with my father’s help, she applied for Section 8 housing so she could live independently.

She continued taking classes at the local senior community center, which she playfully called “kindergarten.” She read the newspaper every day for as long as she could and when her sight declined, an aide read to her. She watched concerts on PBS, baked beautiful strudels, gossiped about her neighbors, and was interested in every aspect of our lives and life in general. One month after her 100th birthday, she died in her sleep. She had been living on her own for 12 years.

When I moved to Massachusetts in my mid-20s, my father broke off a small branch of the ficus, as he had done when he was 8 years old, and gave it to me to plant in my new home.

Many years later, shortly after my grandmother passed, I moved to New York with my own branch, clipped from the plant that had hit the ceiling of my Cambridge apartment. I put it in a water-filled cup in the cup holder of my Toyota hoping it would withstand four hours in transit. A friend told me it wouldn’t survive.

“Ficuses don’t like change,” he said.

But this wasn’t any ficus. The roots from which it sprung clung to postwar soil. The trunk that birthed it guarded whispers in dark corners. Its leaves sank in the dirty Balkan air, and rose again and rooted and continued to root and rise, this great grand-plant of my grandmother’s ocean-crossing ficus.