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On Losing Family, and Finding a New Home at Post

By Maxime Devillaz

Math professor Sheldon Rothman looked around at the fundraiser plant sale at Parkway Elementary School in Plainview, N.Y. It was Valentine’s Day 1993, and Rothman told himself he had to buy a gift for his then 2-year-old daughter.

Photo by Maxime Devillaz
Photo by Maxime Devillaz

“And so I did, for 50 cents,” he said, describing a tiny cactus plant not reaching over an inch at the time. Over the past 22 years the cactus— “He” as his daughter, Alyssa, named it—grew taller and became more than just a dining room decoration. He was part of the Rothman household. But, in “He’s” teenage years complications started to arise.

“He” was growing uncontrollably; Rothman mentioned that he had to keep replanting the cactus “until ‘He’ began ruining my floor.” No windows in the house were tall enough for it to get sufficient sunlight, and so during summer time “He” was placed outside.

For some, that solution worked better. “My mom wasn’t thrilled with how ‘He’ looked in the living room,” Alyssa Rothman said, remembering the one time her mother decided to leave the cactus out as the colder fall breeze approached. “I kept asking her to please bring the cactus inside because I was worried about him not being able to survive the winter,” she added.

The request was granted; Rothman said this type of cactus isn’t to be left outside when the temperature falls below 50 degrees.

But, transporting a now 9-feet tall, hedgehog-like plant was easier said than done. “You know what this weighs? Like 200 plus [lbs]. And if you touch him…” Rothman left the rest to imagination. “I couldn’t even get him out the door anymore. So we wrapped him and wheeled him outside,” he said.

The family realized the house could no longer accommodate the plant, so Rothman declared the cactus a donation. Having worked in the mathematics department since 1979, Rothman pulled some strings, and found the perfect climate at the university greenhouse.

The greenhouse is used to run botany experiments as part of the Biology department, Rothman said. The greenhouse caretaker, Biology professor Kent Hatch, gladly accepted the donation, although transporting the cactus still required some innovation.

With some strong hands—among those a pair from the 210 lbs baseball team player, Dillon Burke—, a borrowed backboard, some plastic wrap, duct tape, and a hand truck, the 10-mile route from the Rothman’s in Plainview to the greenhouse at Post became successful a couple of months ago. “We wrapped him like a mummy, and lifted him into the car like a patient,” Rothman said. “[Kent Hatch], and my wife Kathleen, actually helped me to wheel the cactus from my car to the greenhouse,” Rothman said, “and then to help set it up inside.”

Once planted, however, the cactus no longer required much work. “Basically, well, he’s a cactus, give him a little water now and then, not too much, and he’s fine,” Rothman said.

He admits it has been a learning process since the very beginning. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “Apparently he’s a euphorbia cactus, but there are different varieties of it. I don’t know what we can do when it grows too tall.”

Photo by Sheldon Rothman
Photo by Sheldon Rothman

Yet, there seems to be a deeper sentimental importance to the vegetation other than just stunning those who come to visit.

“You know the kids don’t live at home now,” Rothman said. “My daughter graduated three years ago, still in school but doesn’t live home; my son is a senior in college but lives in Florida. It’s a memory; it has special value in a sense… this connection to my daughter.”

The plant might be gone, but the family has not fully let go of “He.” Rothman visited a plant place and was told how to cut off a piece, to replant an offshoot called “Baby Cactus,” a 4-month-old measuring about 16-inches, which he keeps at home.

“You see these arms sticking out here?” Rothman said, pointing at the 9-feet tall creation in the humid greenhouse. “Well, the new guy has got some bulges right on the sides. It seems to be getting its very first arm now.”

Nostalgic, Rothman admits the cactus has become like a person, and now the new kid needs nursing. “In 22 years, I’ll be kind of old,” he said. “But maybe my daughter will take him for a while and see hers going.”

To Alyssa Rothman, that plan already seems to be in the works, “Someday I want to bring baby cactus to visit cactus in the greenhouse.”

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