by Joanna Campbell Slan
“I’d love to have a cactus for a Christmas tree. Not a real one. I saw a statue of one in an art gallery, but it was crazy expensive. Even so…” and Chelsea sighed. Chelsea is my daughter-in-law-to-be. I once overheard her telling a friend that I was “the Queen of Crafts.” If she wanted a cactus, by golly, her wish was my command. After all, what use is it to be Queen if you can’t make magic happen?”
“What would this cactus look like?” I needed more information, because cacti come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. “One of those that are U-shaped. Like you find in the desert.” Chelsea paused and thought a bit. “And that particular shade of green, you know?”
My turn to search my imagination. “With arms like barrels?”
“Yeah,” her voice grew soft. “I thought maybe I could make one out of tights. I could stuff the legs for the shape. But I don’t know how I’d get them to stand up after that. I’d have to find the right color, too. I’m not sure that would work. Still…wouldn’t that look cool? I mean, living here in Las Vegas, it sounds just right, doesn’t it?”
And that, my friends, is how I came to build a suguaro cactus in my living room.
Making the cactus took forever. An entire year to be precise. I don’t drink colas, and liter bottles were the perfect shape, so I needed to beg them from friends. I cut a few of the plastic bottles down to size. Sticking the nozzle end inside the bodies gave me a pleasing shape, but it needed a liberal amount of duct tape to secure the pieces to each other. Where there were unwanted dimples, I crunched up aluminum foil and taped it over the valleys. To get the distinctive ridges, I used plastic rope that I found washed up on the beach and hot-glued it to the barrels. Next would come the papier mâché. My sister, the art teacher, suggested that I add liquid starch to the flour and water mixture. This would discourage bugs and add strength. Three grocery stores later, I concluded that nobody stocks liquid starch anymore. Finally, I found a lone bottle on a back shelf in a hardware store. Next came the application of a multitude of layers of newspaper and this homemade glue with laundry starch. This was messy in the extreme, as the liquid glue dripped all over, but the shape was beginning to look correct.
Because Chelsea was in Las Vegas and I was in Florida, we agreed she should visit Home Depot to find the perfect color of green. Two sample jars arrived in the mail. But I couldn’t start the painting right away because “Houston, we have a problem”: the cactus refused to dry. It spend days in a semi-moist state while the humidity outside encouraged it to stay damp. Finally, I spent long evenings blasting it with my hair dryer, a process I rarely employ on my own hair, but hey. This was a PROJECT, and I was determined.
An entire year had passed. Just when I thought I was done – and the cactus was ready in time for Christmas #2 -- I realized the entire structure listed to one side. My husband David stared at it. “Congratulations. You’ve succeeded in building an overweight version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa…in green.” After growling a lot, I “re-potted” the cactus in an aqua plastic planter.
Next, I found a big packing box in our garage, and proceeded to prep the cactus for mailing. But the box wasn’t quite tall enough. To make it fit, I flattened the flaps that should have folded shut, and taped them up over the tippy-top of the arms. With the top down on my old convertible, my husband and I drove the gift to UPS. “Two hundred and forty dollars and sixty-three cents,” said the solemn-faced man behind the register.
“Oh.” Tears prickled in my eyes. “What if you send it the slowest way? Even if it doesn’t make it in time for Christmas?”
“That’s the price I quoted you.” He shook his head at me sadly. “If this was just six inches shorter, the amount would go down a lot. I mean, a lot.”
David elbowed me. “How about if you just send her a picture and write, ‘Thinking of you’?” I burst into hysterical tears and threw my arms around the brown box. “Noooo! I’ve worked for a year on this and I told Chelsea she would have it!”
“Honey, she’ll understand,” David said as he tried to move me out of the line. Curious onlookers watched me with concerned expressions on their faces. But I hugged my package tight. I couldn’t let go of my dream of earning that title, Queen of Crafts. Not so fast. Not so easily. Just then, a miracle happened. The flaps that I’d folded over the top of the cactus gave way under my weight. Despite the many layers of packing tape, they crumpled. The strong papier mâché structure remained rigid, but the packaging was now, magically, shorter.
“Could you measure it again?” I asked the UPS clerk as I stepped away from the parcel. And guess what? It now fit into a much, much cheaper category of parcels! And so, Chelsea got her cactus Christmas tree.
Stay tuned and I’ll post a photo of it!