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Article updated: 2/6/2014 5:41 AM

Rolling Meadows woman to leave greenhouse where joy blossomed

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The wonderful memories that blossomed for three decades in Bill and Penny Bailey's "private paradise" greenhouse are packed into Penny's heart for the solitary move Saturday to her new senior living apartment. But not all the greenhouse's floral residents can make the trip.

Shielded from the arctic cold and whirling snow by nine large windows and a see-through plastic ceiling, 85-year-old Penny gracefully makes the introductions.

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"This," she says, pointing to the 5 feet of lush stems trailing from the nearer of two hanging "burro's tail" plants, "is the baby of that one."

Both plants, native to southern Mexico and Honduras, are just too big for her new place on the 10th floor of The Heritage of Des Plaines. So is the massive "bird of paradise" plant, which clearly is a senior resident of this greenhouse.

"This summer, my husband said, 'It's not going to bloom anymore.' But it did," Penny remembers. Bill, 88, died as summer was ending.

"It was a Sunday, and he was walking across the room. He didn't have a cane or anything. He just sort of sunk to the floor," Penny remembers. Everything happened quickly in the emotional days between the 911 call and the decision to bring in hospice before his death on Aug. 30. She and Bill had talked about moving into a senior living facility when the time came.

"It's time," Penny says. But it isn't easy to leave the greenhouse.

The couple lived in their three-bedroom Rolling Meadows home since they bought it in 1958 for $18,500. They reared son, Tim, and daughters Becky and Pamela in this house. Needing to replace some windows in 1983, "Why don't we have a garden window?" Penny remembers saying. "And one thing led to another."

Granted the first greenhouse permit in Rolling Meadows, the Baileys' 9-foot-by-12-foot addition is home to hundreds of plants and a couple of goldfish in the corner pond. It once boasted a pair of zebra finches and frogs, including two large bullfrogs. The food for bullfrogs must be in motion, so Bill and Penny fed the large amphibians for more than a dozen years with raw hamburger dangling temptingly from the end of a hanger.

No matter the weather, the couple ate breakfast every morning at a table in the 75-degree slice of nature. "Once, I felt something on my foot and there was one of the other frogs with a mouse in his mouth," Penny says.

Everywhere she looks is a memory.

"That plant behind you is a staghorn fern. That's the first plant I bought," Penny says.

"See that ugly thing that has gone all over," she says, pointing out a vine that resembles a garden hose. "That's called a night-blooming cereus."

Volunteers with the progressive United Methodist Church of the Incarnation and several charities, the Baileys would bring guests to the greenhouse at 9 p.m. to catch that night-bloomer's show of more than a dozen beautiful flowers as large as her face, remembers Penny, whose career included management posts with the Camp Fire youth organization and the American Red Cross. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, the amateur horticulturists won many awards ($100 for some plants, ribbons for others) at the Chicago Botanic Plant Garden Contest.

Married for 63 years, the couple met just a month into their freshman year at Illinois Wesleyan University. Penny joined the Kappa Delta sorority, and Bill pledged the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. "They said he had to get a date for a pledge dance," says Penny, whose sorority was willing to help. "Not having anything else to do that night, I went with him, and it took."

An artist, Bill drew her wonderful cards marking every holiday together. That box of cards will make the move to Penny's new digs. Orchids, cactuses and ferns vie for inclusion. Some plants already are loaded onto the two metal shelving units that are going with her.

"My mother (Blanche) gave that to me when she went into a retirement home like me now," Penny says of the vibrant shamrock plant with the pretty white flowers. "I will have to take that with me."

Their heating bill always is higher than the neighbors', and it takes half a day just to water and groom the plants every week, says the grandmother of four and great-grandmother of two. Her plant family has more generations and members than she can count.

"I really enjoy caring for them," Penny says. "It's like children. You can't have a favorite. Every plant has a story."

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