Relics

A lot of people in my department have things that once belonged to Charlie.

A while back, part of my group moved to offices on a different floor of our building. I was acquainted with the woman who was going to move into my old office, so I asked her if I could leave some of my plants on her windowsill until my move was complete. I wanted to move them myself, rather than have the movers do it, because the plants are fragile. I promised I’d come and fetch them first thing the next day.

The next morning, I saw another pot on the windowsill next to my pots in my old office. In a four-ounce pot were four small groups of four leaves, each leaf no more than five inches long. They looked like amaryllis leaves, but were very small — I thought they might, perhaps, be paper-whites. The new occupant of my office noticed my curiosity.

“I got those from Charlie,” she said. “I don’t think they’re doing very well. I always forget to water them.”

“What are they?”

She mentioned that they were the same kind of plant that another one of our co-workers had in his office, but she didn’t know the details.

“Your plants seem pretty happy,” she continued. “Maybe you’d like to take care of my plant? I’m probably just going to kill it.”

I took the plant, promising to try to care for it, and promising to return it later. I had room on my new windowsill.

Plant possession is often a transient thing in my office. When people change offices, their new office might not have enough light for their plants, or too much direct sun, and therefore sometimes plants stay with offices rather than move with their offices. I’d left a trail of plants behind as I moved offices — some cacti that only flourished on the southern side of the building, a jade plant that liked facing west, a few flowers that seemed to require a particular kind of blind to climb — and I’d picked up plants from other people whose new offices weren’t compatible with them. It wasn’t the first time I’d taken in a coworkers plant.

Now that I think about it, there’s not a single plant in my office that I actually bought. My plants are all refugees from other offices, and the plants I bought are all elsewhere, decorating other windowsills.

Later that day, I talked to the co-worker who allegedly had the same plant. He told me that it was indeed an amaryllis. This was useful information, because now I knew how to find advice for how to take care of the plants.

He also told me that he’d also gotten his from Charlie.

The office move continued over the next day; as offices were vacated, other people were moved into them, and as their offices were vacated, people were moved into them, and so on. As people packed their offices, items that hadn’t seen daylight for years came to the surface. One woman found a pile of puzzles tucked away on a shelf; she thought my children might enjoy them.

It turns out that she had gotten the puzzles from Charlie.

Later that day, I went up to my old office, curiosity piqued, and asked its new occupant who Charlie was.

Charlie had worked in the group before I joined. He had some unusual habits; you might describe him as eccentric, but in a positive way. His office had been filled with plants, toys, games, and puzzles, in addition to the usual collection of high-tech equipment. He was remembered very fondly.

One of Charlie’s eccentricities was that nobody seemed to know where he lived, and there was some speculation that he didn’t have a home phone. In any case, nobody knew how to reach him. What I was told is that one day he went to the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well; they ran some tests, and he went home to rest. When the results of the test came back, it turned out to be something very serious. The hospital tried to reach Charlie immediately, but Charlie was dead before the hospital could find anyone who knew how to contact him.

After his death, I imagine people in the department visiting his office and taking a small keepsake. Or perhaps they simply kept whatever plant or puzzle or book Charlie had already loaned them. By all accounts, he was generous, and liked sharing his toys. In any case, it seems like all the old-timers in the department have something that belonged to Charlie — something that they keep; something that never gets thrown away during the office moves, but something that they’re willing to share with someone else. Charlie’s mementoes are passed along, but never abandoned.

If you’re reading this, you’re using part of Charlie’s legacy. In a very real sense, he was one of the people who shaped what the Internet is. We’ll be using technologies he worked on for decades to come — but outside the network research community, it seems that few people knew of his work, or remember his name today, and when they do remember him, they don’t remember him primarily as an engineer. They remember him as a friend.

After a few weeks of sun and regular watering, the amaryllis started to grow new leaves. I repotted it, and let it grow. After several months, I repotted it again. The four bulbs, which had been the size of marbles when I repotted them the first time, were now the size of billiard balls. They were gnarled together and I didn’t try to separate them, but instead left them together. Last autumn, I repotted the bulbs a final time. (under normal circumstances, amaryllis like to be root-bound, and their bulbs reach a certain size and stop growing — so it seems likely that the bulbs won’t ever need to be repotted again, except perhaps for aesthetic reasons because their current pot is a bit ugly)

In the autumn, when the sunlight started to diminish and the air grew colder and drier, all the leaves began to wither. This is a normal part of the lifecycle of an amaryllis; they need to have a dormant period before each growing season. I tried to encourage the dormant resting period (a hardcore amaryllis grower will actually keep the bulbs in a refrigerator for a month or two), but in a few weeks, new leaves began to appear and I reluctantly returned the pot to my windowsill. I didn’t think that the bulbs could possibly be ready for another season already, but the leaves grew wildly, reaching almost a yard in length.

My (limited) experience with amaryllis is that they bloom immediately when they come out of their dormant period, and these plants were showing no signs of blooms. There were no stems at all.

Their owner had told me that Charlie grew these plants from seed. I knew that this was possible, but few people did this; from what I’d read, ordinarily they are propogated by bulbils. I’d heard that amaryllis seeds often do not produce flowers, so I was disappointed, but not surprised, to not see stems.

A few weeks ago, as I was tending to them, I noticed new stems growing up from two of the bulbs, joined a week later by a third. They have been growing ever since, and the stems are more than two feet long. Yesterday the buds began to open, and tomorrow, with any luck, I’ll finally find out what what color they’ll be.

I think people in my department will be delighted to see them.

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