My Century Plant has passed years quietly in the gravel bed of my garden, no longer in the midst of the brilliantly-colored flowers I no longer have enough water to raise. Then, suddenly, about a month ago, it up shot a short, stout, purple-tinged shaft from the middle of its cluster. The shaft continued to grow rapidly and is now about twelve feet tall, thick and imperturbable and absolutely straight. At its top, small clusters are beginning to form which will soon open into small, drab flowers. And then, in a month or so, the shaft will begin to wither, sinking down at last onto the gravel, and the plant itself will crumple up and die.
I’m not sure Sido, the mother of my much-admired writer, Colette, had a Century Plant in her beloved garden in the south of France, but she did have something that bloomed once and then died. Colette writes of the elderly Sido that “with the sudden flicker of ‘wild gaiety'” in her all-seeing grey eyes, “an urge to escape from everyone and everything”—an urge her daughter understood, and shared. And yet, when Colette, now a successful writer, invited her mother to visit her in Paris, Sido replied that she wanted to stay in her garden to see her Century Plant bloom, an event she did not expect to live to see again.
I find in this the wisdom of old age: to stay and savor, rather than leaving to experience more. Yet as Colette writes in all her novels, the desire to roam is deeply rooted and is not diminished by experience or age.
Fortunately, I am here to see my Century Plant bloom in the next week or so, and to see the proud stalk slowly wither and fall to the ground. It will be my task to cut if off finally and throw it in the compost bin and then to watch the mother plant die. The cycle is always alarming and also reassuring—the push to grow tall and then the inevitable decline.