Family heirloom blooms with Christmas memories

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Just before his wedding in 1914, Ernest Rubright received a gift from his mother, Sarah -- a small cutting of her beloved Christmas cactus.

Mr. Rubright, who was starting his life as a blacksmith in Murrysville, potted up the plant in a globe from a kerosene lantern, then moved it to a large metal pot when it got bigger. Little would he know that the plant would not only survive but thrive first in the care of his daughter, Ruth Gebrosky, and later with his grandson, Rich Gebrosky.

The plant has bloomed countless times and has grown into a huge weeping bush, with thick tree-like stems cascading over the side of the metal pot.

Rich Gebrosky has pleasant childhood memories of the plant he now cares for.

"When it bloomed it was always a sign of the holidays. It was always a nice feeling to see those pinkish red blooms. I would always count them to see how many there were."

It was covered in blooms every winter in the basement. When the weather warmed up, his grandfather "would take it out under a big linden tree near the springhouse where it was nice and shady and cool," Mr. Gebrosky said.

His mother gave the plant to him when she moved into a retirement home.

"Nobody really talked much about it until four or five years ago. I knew it was old, I just really wondered how old so I talked to my mom. Now that I know the story, I look at it as a family heirloom."

Mr. Gebrosky fertilizes it lightly and keeps it watered. The plant blooms reliably these days in a bright window at the Gebrosky home, which is on part of the 80-acre family farm only a quarter mile from the original farm house.

Mr. Gebrosky's wife, Nancy, a self-described neatnik, wasn't excited at first to find the huge plant in their home.

"I saw that pot and that plant, and I said you've got to be kidding me," she said laughing.

But she has since taken over much of its care. "I warmed up the first time it bloomed. I knew it was important," she said.

Mr. Gebrosky often takes cuttings from his family heirloom to guarantee the variety survives.

The 56-year-old teacher at North Allegheny feels a great responsibility and a certain pressure to care for something so fragile. "I'm always been afraid I'd be the one that killed it."

Years before it came to live with him, the heat went out at his mother's house. He saved the Christmas cactus from sure death. Some of the plant had died back, but since has recovered nicely.

Today, the plant isn't far from his 85-year-old mother's thoughts. "Almost every time I visit her she asks how the cactus is doing. So I know it's important to her."

His 21-year-old son Alex thinks someday he'll be charged with the care of the plant.

When asked by his father if he wanted a cutting or the mother plant, the young man paused and said "I'll take the big one," which brought smiles from his parents.

This year at the annual summer family reunion, Mr. Gebrosky wants to see who else from the family might have received a cutting over the years. His grandfather was one of 18 children so there might be more clones of the plant out there.

He's also going to offer up cuttings to any family members who want to continue its legacy.

"When I look at it, I think about all the things it would have experienced. It could write down the whole family history," he said.

Doug Oster can be reached at or 724-772-9177.


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