David and I have been starting new geraniums. They will give us some cheerful flowers for the winter, and some large plants to put outside next spring. At least that is what I thought we were doing. Turns out that I was starting new geraniums, and he was saving refugees. I have been clipping off healthy new growth and rooting it in the shady soil behind the lilies. He has been sticking long, woody broken stems into the ground instead of throwing them out. They have rooted too.
My cuttings are short and leafy, trim and neat. His are long and gangly. We do not want those ugly things in the kitchen all winter, I cry. They have only a few leaves, and they require huge pots to hold those long crooked stems. Get rid of them.
He wants to pot them anyway. This is not our first encounter with the problem of saving refugees. Many years ago we boarded a summer exchange visitor from Ethiopia. When the date of her expected departure came and went without any indication of heading for the airport, it dawned on us that we, and the exchange program that brought her to Canada, had been deceived. Having promised to stay for only a few weeks, She had likely never intended to go back.
Now things became difficult. We said she had to go. Instead of leaving, she came to us with a proposal. She would work for us in return for food and shelter while her legal situation was addressed.
No, we said. You were not honest with us. We would be breaking the law, keeping you illegally.
For a while we saw our decision as the right one. We knew little about the world at that time, how impoverished Ethiopians were, how tortured, how trapped, how desperate. She, knowing all of this, did not go home. She sought out other options. She disappeared into a local Ethiopian community of which we had previously been completely unaware.
Though we received a lot of support for our firm position, we were ultimately sorry for what we did. That regret came later, when she had won the right to stay here, when she made a special trip to our house to thank us for the help we had given her.
I will take one of your refugee geraniums, I say to David, and put it in a large pot even though it has only three infinitesimal leaves. I will keep it out of the bright light until it gets established. I will give it the same loving attention given to my neater, trimmer cuttings in their small efficient containers. But only one. The rest have to go.
I feel guilty about the ones that have to go. But I am more generous than I used to be.