Harry and Linda Weber stand in their Loveland basement, gazing down at several dozen reluctant houseplants.
"If they don't start blooming more," she says, "they won't make it."
"No, they won't."
Harry, a buzz-cut Vietnam vet, doesn't look like someone who would fret over a crop of dainty flowers. Linda, a former nurse, doesn't seem the type to be squeamish about hacking off a few droopy blossoms. Yet here they are, frowning and sighing.
"That one almost looks ready, don't you think?"
"I'm not sure. We'll have to see."
Harry is president of the Rocky Mountain African Violet Council. This weekend, the group will hold its 38th annual flower exhibition and sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens, titled "2001: A Violet Odyssey -- the Journey From Africa to the United States." Hundreds of horticultural hobbyists -- a genteel but feverish subculture that thrives in basements across Colorado -- will come up from underground to display African violets, buy African violets, judge African violets. Harry and Linda hope to make a respectable showing. But first they must convince their plants to cooperate.
"We're the new kids on the block," Harry says. "The dark horses."
The couple began their own odyssey five years ago, when Linda stopped by a Kmart and returned home with three plants. Today they have hundreds of plants that they water, fertilize, rotate, repot, prune, preen, spray, debud, groom. An hour here, an hour there, month after month. They fitted their basement with a ceiling fan. They installed fluorescent lights. They rigged up an automatic watering system. And yet they still won't know what they have until the night before the show.
"You're supposed to have fifteen or twenty fresh blossoms on each plant, depending on the size," Linda says. "I don't see that many right now."
"You can only do so much," Harry says. "You have to rely on them to do what they're supposed to do at the time you want them to do it. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. In the end, it's up to nature."
"It's an addiction."
"You start off with two. Then two turns to twenty. Then twenty turns into fifty. Pretty soon you have 500."
"They multiply like little rabbits."
"They get under your skin."
"It's the colors. Drop-dead gorgeous."
"They're really easy to grow. You put them on the kitchen windowsill and they bloom for you all year long."
"My daughter says, 'Mom, when are you going to cut down?' But I have so many favorites. I love them all. I wouldn't know where to start."
"If someone said I had to give them up, I'd just be heartbroken."
"I'd have more in my house, but my cat eats the blossoms."
"Some of us idiots just keep going and going and getting more new ones each year. And there are always more new ones each year."
"There's been so much hybridizing, it's hard to come up with distinct, individual plants."
"Darwin would lose control."
"It's like hillbillies. You do it for too long, and eventually you end up with a bunch of idiot cousins."
"It's like Pez dispensers."
"Or Beanie Babies."
"Once you get started, you have to have them all."
In 1892, Oliver Hardy was born. Walt Whitman died. The first basketball game was played in Springfield, Massachusetts. Almalthea, the moon of Jupiter, was discovered. The matchbook was patented. Lizzie Borden was arrested. Macadamia nuts were planted in Hawaii. Ellis Island became an immigrant reception center. Grover Cleveland was elected president. And in the Usambara Mountains of East Africa, an obscure colonial official named Baron Walter von St. Paul looked down at a tiny purple flower and said, "Hmmm."
St. Paul, stiff, bearded and German, was governor of what is now Tanzania. He was also an amateur botanist. When he noticed the clump of low, hairy, thick-leafed plants with intense blue flowers during a tour of his territory, he harvested live samples, collected seeds and shipped them home. His father, also an amateur botanist, passed them along to Herman Wendland, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, who proclaimed them a new species: Saintpaulia (after the Baron's family) and ionantha (violet-like flower).
From the beginning, the African violet -- as Saintpaulia ionantha quickly became known, even though it is not related to the true violet -- was a hit. It shared the stage with the orchid at the International Horticulture show in London. It showed up in European greenhouses, seed houses and horticultural magazines. By the early 1900s, it had taken root in the United States. But few growers here or abroad knew what the weather was like in Tanzania, so the flowers struggled along and got a reputation for being sickly and temperamental.
Then in 1926, the Los Angeles greenhouses of Armacost and Royston cross-pollinated ten new and hearty varieties, including the landmark Blue Boy, which later spawned hybrids with double blossoms, single pink blossoms and white-colored "girl" leaves. In 1946, the first African violet show was held in Atlanta: Two hundred plants were exhibited, 10,000 people attended, and the African Violet Society of America was formed. A year later, African Violet magazine hit the stands, instantly becoming the growers' bible.
During the Atomic Age and on into the Space Age, genetic engineering was the rage. Elderly women in white gloves and cat glasses brought African violet seeds to their dentists to have them irradiated. Horticulturists used chemicals such as colchicine to double the number of chromosomes. Growers dabbled with insecticides such as diaxinon, which was "only slightly higher on the scale of toxicity than DDT," said one writer in African Violet. One guy even invented a 115-volt "plant propagating machine" with a conveyer belt, sprockets, chains and alarm clocks that could water and light his plants continuously.
From the 29 species, the mutations -- both natural and man-made -- multiplied. White violets. Maroon violets. Green violets. Red violets. Fuchsia violets. Violets with two-toned blossoms. Violets with multicolored blossoms. Violets with pinwheel blossoms. Violets with speckled blossoms. Violets edged in white. Violets edged in purple. Violets edged in pink. Violets with variegated leaves. Mosaic leaves. Ruffled leaves. Violets that were miniature hybrids. Semi-miniature hybrids. Trailing hybrids.
African violet clubs sprang up in practically every major city. Violets appeared for sale in supermarkets. Violets became a fixture on kitchen windowsills. In 1981, membership in the African Violet Society had hit 30,000. In 1984, NASA sent violet seeds into space. In 1993, a pink violet appeared on a U.S. stamp. By the time the African violet celebrated its hundredth birthday, it was the most popular blooming houseplant in the world.
A leaf, a root...
A bud, a bloom...
A stem that gently drew...
A flow of beauty...
From the soil...
And then a violet grew...
I dare not feel...
I will not say...
It was my love and care...
For this I know...
And rightly so...
The hand of God was there...
-- Josephine Jenke of Denver, African Violet, 1976.
Fifty years ago, Ella Kiesling's husband returned from a business trip to Missouri with a box filled with four plants and 22 leaf cuttings.
"How pretty," she said. "What are they?"
Ella had grown up on a farm in Elbert County. She'd learned the intricacies of lily growing from her grandmother and had later cultivated her own pedestrian-stopping rose and iris gardens. But these dainty little blossoms left her mystified.
"I didn't know a thing about them," she recalls. "I probably over-watered them. I might not have given them enough sun. I didn't know what to do. I put down 22 leaves, and they all died. Every single one."
Which only made Ella more determined to grow them. She bought more plants and joined Denver's first African Violet club, new in 1952. She had "violet fever," and she had it bad.
"Once we got started, we just really went to town," Ella says. "Whatever plant we didn't have, we exchanged with the other members. At one time, I had seven 48-inch fluorescent tubes going. I had so many plants, I advertised in the paper and sold them from my house. I think many times my husband wished he'd never gotten me into it. I couldn't keep away."
At one club meeting, a woman asked for some advice: Her husband had been trying to hybridize the elusive yellow violet but couldn't figure out how to do it. African violets possess both sets of sexual organs, which makes cross-pollinating a do-it-yourself process, but the yellow flower was (and still is) out of reach.
Ella hurried to her basement anyway. Using her fingernail, she cut open the pollen sack from one plant, spread the pollen on the anther of another and waited. She didn't create a yellow violet, but over time she created practically everything else.
"Oh, we had a glorious time," she says. "It was just fascinating. Getting some seed, watching seedlings grow, deciding which ones you could keep and which ones you couldn't. We had violets growing everywhere. Hybridizing was the fun part. It was easy. The hard thing was coming up with names."
She used her own: Ella's Apple Blossom, Ella's Endless Love, Ella's Grand Slam, Ella's Orchid, Ella's Peach Blossom, Ella's Pink Pillow and Ella's Velvet Rose. She used the weather: Thundercloud, Winter Skies, Storm Warning, New Fallen Snow. She used the names of friends: Tanya Aline, Betty Van, Rhonda Binner, Gretchen Clayton, Catherine Berwick, Kitty Fisher, Sue Tyson, Roger, Paul William. She used inspiration from her home state: Colorado Beauty, Colorado Carnation, Colorado Centennial, Colorado Rosebud, Mile High, Molly Brown. She used whatever popped into her head: Wide Awake, Almost Midnight, Blackout, Sixty Minutes, Sugar and Cream.
"We'd get books with thousands of names and go through them and say, 'I don't want that one. No. Not that one, neither,'" she recalls. "We just looked and looked and kept on looking."
Ella created 95 varieties in all, including 37 that she registered with the African Violet Society of America. At age ninety, she's a master grower, a lifetime judge, a Colorado legend who gave up hybridizing long ago.
"I had to," she says. "I ran out of names."
Stan Stancliff was a dog man.
He loved his dachshunds. He trained them, groomed them, showed them. But in 1987, he hung up his leash. The judging was erratic, he said. Too underhanded. Too "dog-eat-dog."
So he bought an African violet.
Although Stan particularly enjoyed hybridizing, he never developed a blossom he really liked. Morning after morning, he toiled away.
Stan died two years ago. His wife, who was ill, asked his friends to collect his flowers. Most of the plants were in bad shape, but club members salvaged what they could.
Nelly Levine adopted Stan's hybrid seedlings. She had no idea what they were -- his records were lost after his heart attack -- but she grew them anyway. Most were ordinary, one didn't even bloom, but among the lumps of coal was a diamond: a pearly white blossom with a pale-blue edge and a pale-blue eye.
"Spectacular," Nelly recalls. "As soon as it bloomed, I knew."
She entered the violet in the annual Botanic Gardens contest, where it placed second-best of show. She shared leaf cuttings with club members, who couldn't get enough. She submitted slides to African Violet, which featured the flower in a magazine showcase. She fielded requests from growers nationwide.
When the time came to name the mysterious flower, Nelly's choice was obvious: Stan's Legacy.
In the strip-mall purgatory of South Broadway stands the Violet Showcase -- the only shop in the country specializing in African violets.
"We're the only ones crazy enough to do it," says Barbara Crispin.
"It's the fertilizer fumes," says Doug Crispin. "After a while, it gets to you."
The sidewalk in front of the Violet Showcase is sprinkled with dirt. The neon sign is cracked and the window shades drawn. But inside, the shelves explode with violets of every color, shape and size. Canaries twitter in the background. Classical music blares from an unseen stereo. The air is muggy and faintly medicinal.
"It's an odd little business," Doug says. "We're basically a plant farm, a roadside stand, a mail-order company and a retail shop all rolled into one."
The Crispins' violet odyssey began 29 years ago in the fishing village of Savoonga in northwest Alaska, where Doug and Barbara taught Eskimo schoolchildren for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They loved the kids and they loved the culture, but their hearts began to harden each fall when "the ice arrived in gigantic sheets."
Doug grew up in Massachusetts. Barbara grew up in New York, Utah and Virginia. They simply were not prepared for a climate with only two seasons: mud and snow. They had spent the previous two years in the Philippines, where they'd met and married, so warming up to an island forty miles from Siberia, with "no trees, no roads, no cars, no theaters, no shopping centers, no restaurants, no phones and no TV, but lots of Eskimos," took more than a little nose-rubbing.
"We needed to see something that was alive," says Doug. "We'd look out our window and see nothing but this low, rolling, barren terrain. Then we'd see this dump of a village that made you glad when it would snow. Sometimes the sun would shine only for an hour a day. It was bleak."
While Barbara reached for her embroidery needles, Doug turned to a hobby that his mother and aunt had pursued to the point of compulsion.
"Violets," he says. "They had them everywhere. They'd go out every weekend to see what new ones had arrived. They'd get to the nurseries before the doors were unlocked and say, 'Oh, I don't have this one,' and 'Oooh. That one has interesting leaves.' To me, violets were a little piece of home."
He fitted his bookshelves with Gro-Lux lights. He made fancy little terrariums. He planted leaf cuttings that he'd picked up in Oregon during summer break. He misted them four times daily to up the humidity. He mail-ordered plastic watering trays. He subscribed to flower magazines. He joined round-robin letter-writing clubs. Before he knew it, he had a hundred tropical flowers abloom in the Arctic. He even wrote an article about it for Gesneriad and Saintpaulia News titled "Gesneriads on the Tundra."
"We did not have Eskimos coming over and saying, 'May I see your violets?'" Doug recalls. "We didn't speak Eskimo and they didn't speak English. They were too busy trying to survive. Hunting and gathering -- although there was nothing to gather. Anyway, that first year, we hardly got to see the violets ourselves. We started in August, and they didn't bloom until the spring, right before we were ready to leave for the summer. But eventually, it got to be pretty. Especially Christmas."
After four years in Alaska, the couple was ready to hit the road. A friend had just died in an airplane crash on the island, and Barbara was pregnant with their first daughter. So they pawned the violets off on their acquaintances and retreated to a place that reminded them of the mountains where they'd lived in the Philippines: Colorado.
"When we arrived, it was like, 'This is the sunshine capitol of the world,'" Barbara says.
They also got lost. While trying to return the moving truck, Doug and Barbara made a wrong turn in Englewood and wound up outside the Violet Showcase.
"We have to come back and check this out," Doug said.
After he landed a job as a teacher and Barbara had the baby, he did. And once again, violets sprang from the bookshelves in their apartment.
"I married into it," Barbara says. "It was really his hobby. But since he had a job and I didn't, it became my hobby."
When money was tight, Doug decided to thin out his collection. He sold violets to neighborhood nurseries and the Violet Showcase. One day, the store's owner pulled him aside.
"I thought, 'Oh, God. The plants have bugs,'" he recalls.
Instead, the owner had a proposition. Doug had done so well growing his own violets that she was offering to sell him the entire shop.
"At the time, we thought it was a good idea," Barbara says. "Now we don't allow each other anywhere near sharp objects -- or dull ones, for that matter. But back then, we wanted to work together."
That was 23 years ago. Their two daughters grew up in the shop.
"They'd pluck flowers from different plants, then arrange them on other ones," Doug says. "Customers would say, 'Oooh! Can I get a starter for that multicolored one?' Then we'd have to tell them, 'No, that was the kids.'"
Other customers were just as clueless. They'd buy plants, then lock them in the car while they did their grocery shopping. Hours later, they'd return to the car and wonder why the plants were dead.
"Some of them should seek therapy," says Barbara.
Still, the Violet Showcase survives, weathering competition from leaf-swapping club members, from supermarkets, from the Internet.
Their customers are loyal, and sometimes as unexpected as a mutant bloom. One fellow came in a while back wearing a leather jacket and chrome chains. He stocked up on potting soil, fertilizer, the latest hybrids. Then he tucked his purchases into his saddlebags, climbed onto his Harley-Davidson and rumbled away.
"Another woman came into the store and said, 'What happened to that nice young couple who used to work here?'" Doug recalls. "All we could do was laugh."
"There are still high points," Barbara adds. "Whenever someone comes in and says, 'Look at all your nice plants,' I consider that a high point."
Barbara and Doug no longer grow violets for pleasure -- "Are you kidding?" -- and some days it's all Doug can do to haul another 200 gallons of fertilizer up the stairs. But at least he's not fighting sheets of ice in September.
"Most people would have given up long ago," Doug says. "But the truth is, I'm not sure what else to do."
Beth Dunder phoned Martha Olander with a dispatch from her basement battlefield: Mealy bugs had invaded. They had burrowed in the soil. Burrowed in the roots. Burrowed in the stalks. Leaves were drooping. Blossoms were withering. Plants were dying.
Beth launched a counterattack, using cotton swabs dipped in alcohol, pesticides, more cotton swabs dipped in alcohol, more pesticides. Slowly the bugs retreated.
Beth phoned Martha again with her final report. The war was over: She'd surrendered. Beth had taken her prize-winning violets and pitched them into the garbage. A dozen one day, a dozen the next day, until they were all gone. Four hundred casualties.
"I can't do it anymore," she said. "I can't start over and watch this happen again."
Beth later moved to Wyoming. She never planted another African violet.
Something is growing in Trudy Brekel's basement.
She has no idea what it is.
It sprouted in a Dixie cup a few years ago, one of twelve babies from a standard, medium-blue leaf cutting. When the babies matured and blossomed, they bloomed exactly like the mother.
Except for one.
"And it did this," Trudy says, holding the anomaly to the fluorescent light. "It's got blue and white. It almost looks like stripes. I was just so excited when that happened. And I don't know even know what happened. It's a mutant."
Trudy likes mutants. Especially a mutant called a "chimera," essentially two plants in one, with two sets of genetic material -- which results in distinctive two-toned blossoms and multi-colored pinwheel stripes. Chimeras evolved accidentally decades ago; unlike other violets, they usually cannot be reproduced from a leaf cutting. They must have the tiny crowns cut from their stalks and planted separately.
"They're just more interesting to me," Trudy shrugs. "It's a more of a challenge to have to cut their heads off and hope that you don't kill them."
So far, she's done just the opposite: Trudy has more chimera varieties than anyone else in Colorado. She grows standard and miniature violets, too, and has a bulletin board covered with ribbons, including one for best mutant, or "sport" violet. But in her fifteen years growing African violets, Trudy has never seen a mutation quite like this. If it's what she thinks it is, she will have produced a rarity: a chimera from a leaf cutting.
"That's what I'm hoping," she says.
But Trudy won't know if she's succeeded until the leaf cuttings from the mutant begin to bloom. And that could take six months.
"If the babies bloom back to the color of the original mother, then it's a chimera," she explains. "But if they don't, it's just another interesting plant."
And that would be fine with her.
"The more interesting, the better," she says. "Maybe it will be one of those plants from that movie Little Shop of Horrors. Yeah. A flesh-eating African violet. Maybe it will even eat spiders. I've got a bunch down here."
After one show, Martha Olander was standing in her basement with a young couple, admiring a violet with shiny green leaves and a double pink blossom.
"What's its name?" the man asked.
"My Darling," Martha replied.
He picked up the flower, handed it to his girlfriend and said, "Well, my darling, will you marry me?"
Growing African violets competitively leaves little room for error. To grab the gold -- actually, a gold-and-purple rosette -- contestants strive for a perfect score of 100. Symmetry of leaves, 25 points. Health of plant, 25 points. Number of blossoms, 25 points. Size and type of the blossom, fifteen points. Color of blossom, ten points.
Judges roam the floor with scorecards and narrowed eyes, probing for weaknesses, deducting points as they find them.
Maybe next time.
The exit is on your left.
Betty Margetts has seen it happen. A grandmother of six, she's sitting at her kitchen table wearing a blue turtleneck decorated with a bright-red robin. She began gardening early on, inspired by a childhood spent on the plains of Wyoming, where "the only flowers I got to see were on little old cactuses."
She got her first African violet in 1960, when she intercepted a neighbor headed to the trash with an orphan flower. Betty rescued it, potted it in a fistful of backyard dirt, placed it on a windowsill and spent the next eleven years "just trying to keep it alive." In 1971, she and her husband moved to Longmont, where she joined a violet club.
Then the real work began.
To achieve ultra-violet excellence, competitive growers have their own techniques, formulas and rituals, Betty says -- but everyone follows certain basics. Most favor artificial light over natural light, usually some combination of cool and warm fluorescent bulbs. Most use self-watering wick systems in which nylon cords or yarn are threaded through pots and then dipped into trays or reservoirs. Most use fertilizers containing various levels of phosphorus. Most use a soil mix of peat-moss perlite and vermiculite. And most are constantly tinkering and retinkering with their recipes.
"Oh, we're always sharing information," Betty says. "That's how you learn and improve."
Once leaf cuttings turn into baby violets, prospective show plants must be rotated every week so that they develop symmetrical leaves. They must be cleaned of dead or dried leaves. They must be free of "suckers" sprouting from the stems. They must be free of mealy bugs. And they must be as carefully manicured as a mob boss's fingernails.
To push their buds to the next level, some growers use bloom-boosting fertilizers. Others plant according to moon cycles. Some concentrate on offshoots of flowers that have won blue ribbons for other hobbyists. And many rely on a process called disbudding, which prevents plants from blossoming until weeks before the show.
But the real trick is timing it so that plants boast their peak blossom on the day of the show. And that, Betty says, is tougher than winning in Las Vegas.
"Everything we do is a gamble," she explains. "You can do all you can for a plant, and it still might not be enough. Sometimes the weather will affect the growth. Sometimes it's bugs. Sometimes it's things you haven't even thought of yet. You can't just pick one plant early on and say, 'This one will be the best of show.' It doesn't work that way. If it's a good overall grower and it blooms at the right time, sometimes that's the one you enter. Half of the time, it comes down to luck."
And Betty is lucky.
Over the past forty years, she has won so many ribbons that she now recycles them. She is currently the keeper of a silver platter trophy that bears her engraved name -- five times. Recently she has been edged out in contests only by perennial powerhouse Nelly Levine and up-and-comer Trudy Brekel. Betty's secret weapon: Precious Pink, a semi-miniature so vibrant, so impeccable, it almost looks plastic.
"That's what we all strive for," she grins. "The perfect plant."
When violet people discuss Colorado's reigning champ, Nelly Levine, they shake their heads in admiration. "Oh, that Nelly," they mutter. "She grows the most wonderful plants. We're all trying to figure out how she does it."
It could be her soil mixture, some magical mix of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. Or maybe it's the cow poop.
Although Nelly openly shares her techniques with anyone who asks, no one has yet duplicated her plants' luster and symmetry. Still, when Nelly recently experimented with hydrated cow manure, her rivals scrambled to the horticultural supply shop like hungry mealy bugs.
"No," the champ says, rolling her eyes. "It's not the hydrated cow manure."
Nelly always had a few African violets on her windowsill, but she didn't get serious about the plants until 1984, when a friend introduced her to the Violet Showcase. She began with one little plant stand, then moved onto another, then another, then some folding tables, then her son's drafting table, then the spare bedroom, and then the entire south end of her basement.
"It keeps expanding," she says.
In 1985, after joining a violet club, she won her first contest. She hadn't planned to enter, but a friend took one look at her violets, hauled them to the Botanic Gardens and returned with "a bunch of ribbons." Now she has several boxes of awards, including a "best novice" honor.
"Yes," she groans. "I was a novice at one time."
Nelly insists there's no real secret to her success. She pasteurizes her soil (baking it in her oven at 180 degrees for thirty minutes). She uses bloom booster (but not too much). She disbuds. But mostly, she grooms.
"I just have an idea of what they're supposed to look like, and I try to make them look that way," she says.
Everything she knows, she adds, she learned from her mentor, Ella Kiesling, and other club members. Without them, she wouldn't know a stigma from a peduncle. They taught her how to prune. They taught her how to cross-pollinate. They taught her how to grow plants like her trademark Edelweiss, a double white with dark-green leaves that regularly earns top honors.
But even Nelly isn't perfect. She can't grow certain plants, like her rival's prizewinning Precious Pink. And this year, after she and her husband installed a new furnace, the temperature in her basement fluctuated. "For a while, new stalks would come out and keel over with mildew," she admits. "I had to spray every day."
If she has one piece of advice, it's this: "Look at the whole plant, and not just the blossom. And don't get carried away. Be careful what you select. Once you get a lot of violets, it's hard to get rid of them."
Which is why she plans to unload as many flowers as possible at this weekend's show -- prize-winners included.
"For me, the fun is in the growing," she says. "I like to try new ones and see what comes out."
And if one of those new ones should win a ribbon? "Oh, I love competition," Nelly says. "It's fun to have 'best plant.' It's a matter of bragging rights."
Although Nelly would never brag.
"I really don't know if I consider myself to be that good," she says. "I go into every show thinking someone else's plants are better than mine. If anything, I'm happily surprised."
The violet people are coming.
Hundreds of them.
Right now they're bundling flowers in bags of newspaper strips and cardboard boxes. They're baking casseroles and bundt cakes. On Friday, they'll be at the Botanic Gardens to set up their tables, register their plants, prepare the exhibits and reunite with old friends. On Saturday, the judges will judge, award ribbons, announce the best of show. And then the sale will begin, continuing through Sunday.
Harry and Linda Weber can't wait.
Two weeks after that first gloomy prognosis, their violets perked up. Blossoms grew fat. Leaves became symmetrical. Colors shone bright. If all goes as planned -- they don't want to jinx things -- they will exhibit 25 flowers in nine different classes. And if Mother Nature smiles upon them -- they don't want to jinx things -- they might unload a few plants at the sale and come home with a blue ribbon or two.
"We're optimistic," Harry says.
With good reason: This year, he used cow poop.
Three generations of flower growers are gathered at an African violet exhibition. A granddaughter turns to her grandmother. "How old is that one violet?"
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The old woman thinks for a moment. She counts birthdays, marriages, holidays, tallies the years on her fingers.
"Yes," the grandmother says. "It's part of our family."