This month, I want to share a sweet story. Many of you who are of a certain age remember the TV show “Happy Days” and the character of Arthur Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz” or “Fonzie” character played by Henry Winkler. What I didn’t realize until I spotted a recent article in the Washington Post, was that there is a fascinating story that connects him with the plant world.
Henry Winkler’s family immigrated from Germany during World War II. In fact, most of his extended family died, but his parents barely managed to escape in 1939. It was a close enough call that his uncle, who decided to wait a day for his suit jacket to come back from the dry cleaners, didn’t make it out. They settled in New York, amongst a community of German exiles that included a woman named Tanta Erma. Erma had been smuggled out of Germany in a coffin and in that coffin, she had at her feet her valuable possession- a spider plant.
Many stories have been told over the years of how people survived those terrible years and how they escaped Nazi Europe. For instance, Winkler’s father, Harry, melted chocolate over the family’s jewels in order to get them out. When they got to the border and were asked if they had any valuables, he replied “No” and then left with the box of chocolates safely under his arm.
For Tanta Erma, the way out was by pretending to be dead, lying in a coffin, with the spider plant at her feet. Imagine the miles that stood between her home in Germany and her new home in New York and that this plant traveled! Though Erma wasn’t a blood relative, she became part of Winkler’s extended family in his New York neighborhood of German immigrants as often happens when people move from place to place.
Erma gave pups from her spider plant to members of her extended family to root and grow and Winkler tells the story of how the plant has gone with him through his life, no matter where he’s lived. Starting in his childhood home on West 78th Street in New York, to his present home in Hollywood, the spider plant has always been there. Today it’s in a hanging basket outside of his kitchen door.
Winkler had a difficult childhood and he struggled terribly with dyslexia. The only problem was that no one knew what that was back then, and he spent every summer in summer school trying to pass his classes. The problem followed him into the entertainment world as he struggled with reading scripts. He was finally diagnosed in the 70’s. Once fame hit for him, he returned to New York to pack his few treasures, but took the time to take a cutting from the spider plant. He claims that he did it on instinct, not for any particular reason. Having heard the stories from childhood, he thought it was his responsibility to make sure it survived. For him today, the plant lives on as a symbol of perseverance, grit, and determination. It links him to his past and now he’s passed pieces of it on to his family to continue the plant’s legacy.
Like many things, plants connect us in unexpected ways. Why not start the same kind of tradition in your family this year? A few generations from now, they’ll be glad you did! As the Fonz would say, “Aaaayyy… it’s cool!”