Christmas cactus preserves memory of a loved one

The long trailing branches of a family heirloom Christmas cactus cascade down nearly five feet, coming close to touching the floor in David and Kathy Brooke’s Natrona Heights home. The plant is covered with stunning red blooms that appear annually for the holiday and sometimes again in the spring.
It belonged to Margaret Presutti Souse, the grandmother of David Brooke, but it’s his wife Kathy who has made sure it’s thrived in their home for nearly two decades.

David and Kathy Brooke have raised a Christmas cactus grown for decades by David's grandmother Margaret Presutti Souse.

David and Kathy Brooke have raised a Christmas cactus grown for decades by David’s grandmother Margaret Presutti Souse. David, Kathy and Amelia Brooke (David’s mother and Margaret’s daughter) stand by the cactus.

 

David and Kathy Brooke have raised a Christmas cactus grown for decades by David's grandmother Margaret Presutti Souse.

David and Kathy Brooke have raised a Christmas cactus grown for decades by David’s grandmother Margaret Presutti Souse.

“We’re not sure when she got it,” David says, “maybe sometime in the 1980s.”
The plant is perched on a china closet, thriving near a north-facing window that provides indirect light.
Souse was 103 when she passed away and a year later, in 2001, the Brookes inherited the plant.
“It does have a special meaning,” Kathy says. It’s been repotted a few times by David and has happily grown through the years with only one close call.
“We came home from vacation and our son had been watering it; it was soaked, sitting in water. We’re lucky we survived that,” she says with a laugh.
Souse lived through three centuries and had a difficult early childhood. She was born in 1896 in Italy and was brought to America at about 6 years old by her mother, who had two more children after coming to the U.S. In 1907, her mother and brother died. Her godparents who lived next door took in the two girls, but her sister then died and her father disappeared.
“She was suddenly alone,” David says sadly.
Souse had more responsibilities, chores and work to do in this new home as she wasn’t one of the birth children. “She was the Cinderella,” Kathy adds.
But Souse, who went to school through sixth grade, overcame her hard childhood, reading school books and became well versed in current events. But it was her disposition that was truly remarkable.

David and Kathy Brooke have raised a Christmas cactus grown for decades by David's grandmother Margaret Presutti Souse.

Margaret Presutti Souse

“She was the warmest, most wonderful grandmother you could ever ask to have, always happy,” David says. “For someone that came from such a difficult childhood, she was just the happiest person you could ever meet.”
Since the Brookes have cared for the plant, it’s grown three feet or more.
“It sort of takes care of itself and keeps growing,” David says.
Kathy adds some fertilizer and takes care of the watering. The plant is never far from her view. “Keeping my eye on it is important,” she says, “making sure it’s looking good and it just does the rest itself.”
Although it’s not the most beautiful plant when the flowers fade.
“It looks like an octopus with 20 tentacles instead of eight,” David says laughing.
Souse’s daughter and David’s mother, Amelia Brooke, who turns 95 soon, is overjoyed the plant has been preserved.
“I don’t know how Kathy did it,” she says with a smile.
Amelia reminisces about her mother’s green thumb.
“My mother loved plants,” she says. “She cultivated them and they grew beautifully. I always enjoyed going to her house and seeing all the plants on her sun porch.”
The plant is a tribute to a much-loved family member who lived through many hardships.
“One things about ancestors that pass away,” David remarks, “it’s all too easy to forget to mention them again. This plant always gives my family a reason to bring up memories of my grandmother. I can hear her voice still when I look at that plant.”

Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@535mediallc.com. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.

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