May 16, 2007

Under the lilacs

In a blog post the other day, Bright Star said that the reason she loves flowers so much is that she grew up in a desert. I am the opposite: the flowers I love are ones I've lived with my whole life. They are woven into childhood memories.

Lilacs

One of my earliest memories is playing with my brother and our trucks in the sandy bank on the side of the house, shaded by the thick green leaves of lilac bushes. Every May, the bushes would fill with flowers, a lush profusion of purple and green, and the heavy scent would surround us as we pushed yellow metal trucks though the dirt roads we'd dug.

When I was school-age, my mother would cut some lilacs for me to bring to my teacher. She'd fill my arms with flowers, then wrap the stems with wet toweling and tin foil, a big clump that I would carry proudly onto the school bus. Of course, I was too shy to ever talk to my teacher, even the Dancing Nun in second grade whom I absolutely adored. When I came into the classroom, I would go up to the teacher's desk, feeling thankful for the background noise of slamming desktops and chattering kids, and silently hand her the flowers. Then I'd retreat to my desk and pretend to be busy getting out my books, while I secretly watched from behind the slanted wooden desk top as she made a fuss over the bouquet and put it in a vase.

When I was older, I can remember my mother sending me out to gather lilacs. Often it would be raining, a light misty rain. You can't wait for good weather to gather lilacs; the blossoms open in a day, and one good rain storm will scatter the petals to the ground. I'd take the scissors she handed me, but I never really needed them. I'd just reach up and pull down tall branches, snap off twigs that held purple blossoms, and then let the branch spring back into place, showering me with rainwater and lilac scent. I'd dump the whole pile onto the kitchen table, scattering purple petals everywhere, and we'd end up filling several vases and jugs.

I planted lilac bushes in the first house my husband and I bought, and at the second house, which is where I live now. Lilacs were blooming the night that I was in labor with Boy in Black, my spring baby. I can remember walking through the dark neighborhood, my husband at my side, our two-year-old daughter clinging to me, me stopping to breathe through intense contractions. With each deep breath, I pulled in the purple scent, and I wondered whether that smell would forever mark the baby who was about to slide into the world.

Lilac flowers last only for a week or so each year, but the bushes are loyal. You can depend on them. Years after a house has been abandoned, the porch caved in, the windows busted by vandals, and the lawn grown into a field, bushes of lilacs will continue to bloom. More than just bloom. They will continue to grow and flourish, sending out new shoots, getting taller every year. The house will collapse under heavy snow, the wood will rot away, and yet still the bushes will burst into purple every May, as if hanging onto hope that someone will return.

28 comments:

Nadine said...

I was just talking with some of the ladies at work this morning how I want to run out and buy a lilac bush to plant at my new house. I love them, especially the purple ones like in this photo.

Rana said...

Oh, lilacs. They were the flowers at one of our friends' wedding, and it was wonderful.

Just yesterday I read a wonderful poem in Orion about lilacs; I particularly love these last four lines:

and when there’s thunder
at the door,

they enter
without knocking.

post-doc said...

Lovely post and beautiful picture. Lilacs are my very favorite flowers - there was a bush that grew over my childhood sandbox in my grandparents' backyard. And I just planted my first bush in front of my first home - a cutting taken from Mom's plant that was grown from a sprout from Grandma's. I struggle to believe I'll ever enjoy a fragrance or flower more than the lilac.

Amy Palko said...

What a lovely post, Joe. Thank you! My earliest memory also includes flowers, but they were snowdrops. I knocked over a small vase of them, spilling the water over the top of the chest of drawers I was using to escape my cot. These early impressions of flowers really stay with you, don't they? I just love snowdrops, and fortunately my campus fills up with them come Feb/Mar.

liz said...

Wow, that's gorgeous.

BrightStar said...

I remember you have posted before about your love for lilacs. I also enjoy my cacti from my childhood for nostalic reasons. They're not as dependably beautiful as the lilacs, though. I love your photograph of them.

Storm at sea said...

There was a lilac bush in our yard when I was growing up, and the flowers I carried in my wedding were lilacs. I'm hoping that when I move back to the Midwest this summer, I'll be able to find a place to live that has lilacs growing out front.

Sue said...

Great picture! Our lilacs won't be out for weeks, but I always look forward to them.

east village idiot said...

I love this post. I forgot how I used to mark the turning point of spring by the blossoming of lilacs. It's been a long time since nature helped me mark the time. You're lucky.

landismom said...

When I lived in San Francisco, I always loved the smell of jasmine in the spring, but it was never really spring, because there were no lilacs there. I'm happy to be back on the east coast, where the spring smells like it should.

liane said...

what a beautiful photo and reflection on your memories of lilacs. I've been trying to get a good photo of lilacs all week, but they aren't coming out well, so I appreciate yours all the more!

They are my favorite flowers, possibly because as you beautifully point out, the time to enjoy them is so brief!

Songbird said...

I'm waiting for the full fragrance to hit. Soon.
(And I love your Alcott allusion.)

Jane Dark said...

Oh, I'm jealous! I have a lilac tree outside my apartment, and it bloomed and wilted in the space of a week where I had a horrible cold and couldn't appreciate it as fully as I would've liked to.

Goshdarn global warming, messing with the seasons.

MonkeyPants said...

Lilacs smell different in the rain, I think.

Beautiful photo.

BeachMama said...

Beautiful colours in the photo. Lilacs are one of my faves, they bring me back to my childhood. But, truly peonies are my favorites, the scent and the way they open and blossom just make me smile.

Mona Buonanotte said...

The smell of lilacs gives me goosebumps and stops me dead in my tracks. Childhood memories...yes, the rain, like you, and the heady sweetness that fills your nose and seeps into your hair and skin....

I planted a lilac bush last year in our side yard, and while it's still too young and small to bloom, just the idea that someday it will makes me supremely happy.

Silver Creek Mom said...

I love lilacs too. I have them planted all around my house and LIKEyou have found memeories of them. Ours were so big that we played HOUSE inbetweent he trunks. AND they are still booming till this day. I have taken many shoots and planted them all over here. SO NICE. Mine haven't bloomed yet but soon. And they seem to have many blooms this year.

Rev Dr Mom said...

I love lilacs, too.

Aliki2006 said...

Lilacs are by far my favorite flower--I love the photo!

Yankee T said...

Lovely photo and wonderful memories. Lilacs remind me of my mother who was born in May and who loved them, so I love this post even more. Thanks for making me stop to think about her.

DaniGirl said...

That photo is so evocative, I found myself breathing deeply as if I could will the scent through my monitor!

Lilacs hold a special place in my heart. They remind me of my mom, and remind her of her father. We're blessed with two large, mature bushes on our property, and I've been waiting for them to be just right before I steal out and plunder them to fill the house with blooms. Tonight may just be the night!

OneTiredEma said...

We had wonderful lilac bushes at one of my childhood homes.

But my most special memory of them is associated with the ones at the NY Botanical Gardens--on the first Sunday in May in 1999, my (now) husband and I sat on a rock in the midst of their blooms and decided it would be a good idea to get married.

jo(e) said...

I loved hearing everyone else's lilac memories. They are my favourite flowers.

Songbird: I wondered if anyone would get the Alcott reference. I am not sure that anyone younger than us read those books.

Rana: Thanks for the link to the poem.

Anonymous said...

This was such a beautiful post. Like you, I most love those flowers that are embedded in my memory. Old-fashioned flowers that my Grandma Riley grew in her garden: peonies (my favorite), hollyhocks, touch-me-nots, lilacs, dahlias (a luscious treat), flowering quince, and many, many others. Thanks for bringing back these wonderful, wonderful memories. Kathy in Ky

Bitty said...

Lilacs were a big part of my childhood, too, and this post nudged me to do some research. I've always believed that lilacs don't grow here where I live in north Florida because I NEVER SEE (OR SMELL) ANY, so the closest I've been able to get to them is a lilac Yankee Candle, but a few weeks ago on Gardening by the Yard, Paul James was saying that there's a lilac for most hardiness zones. So I went to Home Depot's Garden Club site, where I learned that there are THIRTY FIVE varieties that will grown in my zone.

So why doesn't anyone plant them????

I will need to do something about that. Thanks so much.

cloudscome said...

Mmmm yes, lilacs!

What Now? said...

I'm joining with Songbird to applaud the Alcott reference. This wasn't one of my favorite books, although there are certain scenes from the book that stay with me 25 years after having last read the novel.

jo(e) said...

What now?:

I think Eight Cousins was my favourite of the Louisa May Alcott books.