My mom gave me a beavertail prickly pear as a housewarming gift when I moved to New Mexico a few years ago. I was pregnant, constantly vomiting and short of breath while taking care of my toddler, so I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for a cactus.
My husband dug a hole and tossed it in the ground, right above the water pipes that had to be replaced before our arrival because of destructive tree roots (I’ve christened the dead cottonwood tree “Norma Jean” so I can sing “Candle in the Wind” to her lingering ghost every time I slam my shovel into an old root).
Two years later, in the middle of a covid lockdown, I decided to turn my desolate front yard into a water-wise oasis. I shoveled, mulched, and planted like a woman possessed by a particularly aggressive tree nymph—probably the spirit of Norma Jean.
The prickly pear was quickly overshadowed by desert plants with green leaves and flowers. You know, things that are actually pretty. The prickly pear meandered, got a little wider, but remained short and squat, a greenish-purple non-color that is a decidedly anti-climactic centerpiece.
And of course, it’s an agent of pain and suffering.
That’s where the real drama begins. Remember how I was pregnant and barfing at the start of all this? Well, it paid off and I got an awesome kid out of it (or out of me, to be precise). I had a kid who loved a flamingo, and the flamingo loved to fly.
Meet Mango, as in fla-mango, which is a concept you could probably package and sell to moms at Target somehow. (We got the name because “flamingo” is quite a mouthful for a toddler. It took me way too long to understand as my frustrated child told me for the umpteenth time that she didn’t want to go shopping for fruit).
Kiddo loves Mango and falls asleep with her at night. I love sleep and easy bedtimes, so you can see how both of us developed bone-deep emotional attachments to the stuffed animal. One fresh, spring morning, Kiddo and her big sister were in the front yard gleefully throwing Mango into the air so she could “fly” when the poor bird crash-landed on the prickly pear.
Imagine it in slow motion: screams, anguish, barefoot kids run full-speed at a cactus, a mother bellows and throws her body between her babies and their flamingo.
I plucked up Mango and held her high above my kids’ reach, unmoved by their demands.
“Yes, yes, Mango will be okay! Let’s go watch TV!”
Reader, Mango was not okay.
The problem wasn’t the inch-long spines, the ones that are sometimes barbed for maximum distress when you pull them out. The cactus is hoping you’ll be tricked and avoid the giant thorns in favor of the apparently smooth and welcoming spaces between them.
You’ll get something so much worse.
The true cactus villains are the itty-bitty glochids, so short and fine that you can only see them when you hold them up to the light at exactly the right angle. It’s not an enemy you can confront and conquer. I’ve had a few run-ins with them, and it took days for me to get the little jerks out of my hand.
No matter how carefully I washed, plucked, tweezed and stripped poor Mango, my child would end up with a face full of unfindable plant-knives the moment she got her hands on her beloved bird. We were going to have unlimited screen time until I ordered a new Mango online.
Frantically searching the internet…do you know how many different flamingos in tutus there are? SO MANY! It’s an entire genre of toys and decor: pink flamingos in pink tutus. How did this happen? I guess it’s not as bad as stuffed “animal” poop emojis, but it still makes me wonder about the future of the human race. Yes, I’m a hypocrite.
About 4 search engine result pages deep, I almost despaired (Help me, Norma Jean!). Then one more click, and I found and bought Mango II, thankful not to end up in a bidding war with another desperate parent where I’d be forced to re-evaluate my fundamental values and beliefs as my finger hovers over the $100 “buy” button for a freaking toy flamingo.
I glared at the prickly pear through the window. It was gonna be history. Done. Flora non grata.
Perhaps it was unfair to project all my mama-bear fury onto this plant, which was only defending itself, after all. But there are so many things I’m powerless to protect my daughters from, and this was a threat I could utterly eradicate with nothing but a shovel and my rage.
It took a few days to dig a decent trench around the cactus and I was nearly ready to go for the taproot in one final, brutal blow, when…it bloomed.
The short, ugly, Mango-murdering cactus produced the most delicate and vibrant flowers I’ve ever seen.
The bees went nuts for them, my daughters oohed and aahed, and my my husband smugly noted that for all my labors, he’d planted the most spectacular thing in our garden. The blossoms were other-worldly in their splendor, like something from a magical, elven forest in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Kiddo clutched (the new) Mango close and looked up at me, “Mama, I think we should keep the prickly pear.”
So the cactus remains. That one week of dazzling brilliance atones for the other 51 weeks of ominous dullness and the tragic demise of Mango. I’m ordering an extra flamingo just in case.