Living

A good-luck plant marks the years of a career, from hard work to well-deserved rest

Two leaves of undetermined kind sat on my kitchen table, lonely in a large, otherwise empty basket, clothed in some long-weathered Spanish moss.

“What’s this?” I asked my husband when he came home that day.

“It’s what’s left of the plant y’all gave me when I opened the business,” he said.

That was almost 20 years ago. He’d kept it alive, somehow, all that time.

Back in 2000, our kids were in high school — the oldest headed for college in two years — and so we did what most couples facing high-priced tuition bills: We lost our minds. My husband left the company where he had been working for more than 10 years and hung up his own public relations shingle. He had a couple of clients but no other prospects.

And I was, after 20 years working for myself, still a fledgling freelance writer with very little income. So I started writing a book, forking out savings for research trips and other sundry things, without any hope I’d ever find a publisher.

My husband set up shop in a small rented space with a leaking roof, had a logo made, business cards. And the kids and I wondered how to mark the milestone.

Every office needs a plant, we thought, so we would send one on that first day, our way of showing him that we believed in him and were hopeful for growth.

At the time, we lived a comfortable life, no longer needing to count so many pennies. (In the early years of our marriage, I logged every dime spent on food, clothing, kids and church in a ledger. I keep it as a reminder of how far we’ve come.)

Hope did turn into growth. Those few clients recommended him to others. He took on interns, training a long series of college students in the fine art of “reputation management.” A former newspaper man, he coached executives on how to meet the media fairly and truthfully.

Two years later I did find a publisher and the book made a modest profit. My husband added an associate and more clients. But after our daughter and son both chose a private college, he turned to me and said the dreaded words: You need to find a job. With benefits. And I did.

For the past 12 years or so, I’ve gone into the office most days, as has he. I remember calling him from work the first week I’d worked away from home in 20 years, asking him how in the world I could consider a day accomplished.

“Not every day is going to feel productive,” he told me. “But you’ll get there.”

I did. And he did, too, building a company that supports our family in, as my father was fond of saying, “the manner to which we are accustomed.”

We have been so blessed by that. We are getting older, so in the past couple of years, we’ve begun to ask: What’s next?

So, back to the plant.

“Can you repot it?” he asked?

Why bother, I wondered, but instead said: Sure.

I’m no gardener. My peonies thrive on neglect, and though I plant tomatoes each spring, I rarely have more than a basket full. But I found a smaller pot, lifting those two leaves out from the tired soil, finding them attached to a mighty root at the base. Even in the smaller space, those leaves needed a little company, so I took a small fern from a discarded orchid and put the two together, packing them in with new soil, clothing them with new Spanish moss.

My husband took the pot to work — this time at home.

He now is officially “semi-retired,” taking a few of his most cherished clients with him as he makes this new way for himself.

In the days before he closed his old office, I was free with advice about working from home. Get up every day and dress as if he was going to the office. (Which he was.) There would be isolation, distraction, days when he would sit in front of a blank screen and not know what to do. I told him how much I needed a bit of space when I came home, to start dinner, to unwind after my own work day.

He listened, and on the the third day of his new life, he escaped to his boat.

After the first week, we met our son for dinner.

“How’s work going, Dad?” he asked. “I love it!” his father said.

And I’ve found myself loving it a bit, too. And that surprises me. I come home from work and find sheets folded on the kitchen table — even fitted sheets — the dishwasher empty, the kitchen floor swept clean. The other day, I coached him over the phone how to make barbecue pork in the slow cooker (my husband has not cooked in our entire married life) and I came home to a simmering meal.

Over the weekend when he was out, I ventured up into his office, looking around at all he’d done to make our third floor space his own.

The plant sits right by his computer, and there are four leaves now. Four.

Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “Nags Headers” and “In Mother Words.” She lives in Raleigh and can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com.
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