Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Smell of Lilacs

I arrived home from work last Friday, eager to see the nice new landscaping for which my condo association had collected all those exorbitant special assessments. And it didn’t disappoint. Rusted-out iron fence gone, new sod, freshly planted flowering shrubs, trees trimmed back. Everything looked great. I walked up my front steps, put my key into the lock, and burst into tears.

Now, I guess you couldn’t be blamed for chalking it up to one of those hormonal things. Maybe that was part of it. But mostly, it was the smell…

…of lilac bushes. New ones, on either side of my front door.

Lilacs were, hands down, my mother’s favorite flower. My grandmother’s, too. For as long as I can remember, there was a big lilac bush monopolizing our front patio, the product of one of my mom’s few successful forays into the world of horticulture. (I’m reminded – as I’m sure my mom would be -- of the famous Dorothy Parker adage “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” That phrase was pretty much the sum total of our collective knowledge on the subject, because in that one respect, I'm a chip off the old block.)

Just about everything my mom planted quickly died. Her tomatoes shriveled on the vine, her peonies laid their rosy heads in the grass and gave up the ghost, her lilies held their own funeral. Her attempts to maintain an herb garden were a running joke. About the only vegetation that seemed to thrive, ironically, was poison ivy. Our house would have made a great “before” picture for Better Homes and Gardens.

But that lilac bush was truly a triumph. Even my father’s occasional clumsy slips with the lawn mower couldn’t vanquish it –- it bloomed faithfully every year with zero effort on my mom’s part, making it the ideal plant. Its scent would get stronger and its branches fuller and purpler until one day my mom would gleefully venture out with a basket and a pair of shears and cut herself some nice big bouquets that perfumed the entire house for at least a week. I think this made her as happy as it was possible for her to be; she felt genteel out there cutting her own flowers, Jane Austen-style. Those lilacs were evidence that despite what she evidently saw as her miserable fucked-up life, she had created one thing that was really beautiful.

A couple of decades sped quickly by; my mom fought cancer and lost. Her beloved lilac bush survived her, but somehow it seemed to sense that its biggest fan was gone forever – it hung on but was never quite the same. My dad sold the house and moved across town, and the new owners decided to demolish it to make room for one of those huge ubiquitous “McMansions” springing up all over suburbia. A corner lot that had once comfortably accommodated a smallish ranch house with a horseshoe pit, badminton court, sandbox, picnic table and numerous fruit trees would now only have room for this aluminum-sided behemoth with its golf weathervane and lawn jockey, laughably out of place alongside the flat cookie-cutter stucco houses populating the rest of the block.

A few days after our old house was razed, my dad and I bravely drove over to take a look. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to see your childhood reduced to a surprisingly small trench in the ground, surrounded by nothing but piles of dirt. Not a trace of our lives there remained -- no grass, no trees with our initials carved into them, no handprints in the cracked sidewalk leading up from the driveway, not even the cracked sidewalk! And no lilac bush. It had, finally, taken a big yellow bulldozer to put an end to its hardy existence. As I stood with my father contemplating that dusty vacant lot, I was thinking that in many ways I mourned its loss most of all.

We heard a happy shout and swung around to see Hank and Marian, our former next-door neighbors (and my parents’ weekly bridge partners) ambling toward us. Marian had been a beautician who worked out of her kitchen – when I was a child, my mom used to funnel her seven bucks every few months to give me (bad) pixie haircuts. Hank was a retired cop who was missing a finger – he always claimed, thrillingly, that he lost it in an armed robbery at a liquor store; my dad privately slipped it to us that an accident with a circular saw was the real culprit.

After we exchanged pleasantries, shared a few pithy comments about the stark change in the landscape and joked about the monstrosity to come, Marian made a touching confession:

“I hope you don’t mind, hon,” she said, giving my shoulder a friendly squeeze, “but the night before your house was knocked down, Hank and I came over for a last lil’ look-see, and we ended up digging up your mom’s lilac bush.”

I was speechless for a second. Swallowing hard, I croaked, “You did?”

“Yeh, well…it was just gonna get plowed under anyways, and I figured your mom wouldn’t mind. So we—“

“Where is it now? I asked.

“Over there,” Marian replied, pointing. We walked a few yards toward their house, and sure enough, there it was next to their back fence, its purple blooms nodding at me in the breeze. I wanted to throw my arms around it.

“You don’t want it, do ya, hon?” she asked, concerned. “’Cause if ya do, I can stick it in a pot or something and ya can plant it somewheres else.”

“No,” I assured her. “It’ll be much better off with you. Knowing me,” I told her with a shaky laugh, “I’d probably kill it.”

Marian let out her unique gravelly three-packs-a-day chuckle. “Hey, if your mom couldn’t kill it, NOBODY could.”

Good point. Still, it looked content where it was, so I left it. I hope it got lots of sun and Marian enjoyed it as much as my mom had.

My dad and Hank and Marian are all gone now – I like to picture them, and my mom, as they were back in the 1960s – playing bridge on Hank and Marian’s screened-in porch on a hot summer evening, knocking back Miller High Lifes and happily chain-smoking their Parliaments.

And me? I have a lilac bush next to my front door again. I think my mom would have loved that.


Corabeth said...

I think those are your Mom's new lilac bushes. A little smell to make you smile, a little shake in the breeze when you're about to make a bad decision and a little reminder every spring that she's still there for you.

Anonymous said...

Aw Pink, you made me cry. What a great memory for you. I'm sure your mom loves that you now have new lilac bushes to remind you of her. What a sweet story.


Deb said...

I really enjoyed your blog. My lilacs didn't bloom this spring. I don't know why, maybe a late frost got them. I really miss the annual sight and fragrance of them, and my ritual of bringing snipped bouquets inside so the entire house smells like them. It doesn't seem like spring without them, so it's nice to know that they really are blooming somewhere and giving others pleasure and sweet memories. Thanks for sharing your story.

gaymarie said...

Aww Pink, that just touched kleenex is full. What a lovely story. I've always wanted a lilac bush because of the lovely way it smells. I just might do that. Thank you....

Anonymous said...

What a great story. My mom, too, had a lilac bush in the front yard that was the joy of my childhood. It's long gone, but she continues her gardening success. There are still blueberries in the back yard along with rhubarb and a large fountain that draws birds from all around. Thanks for the memories

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Pink, for writing a touching reminder of how much I have to appreciate. Yet another wonderful tribute to your Mom, even if she wasn't the world's best gardener. But she cultivated one helluva daughter!