Grandma’s Lilacs




  APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the   dead land, mixing
Memory and desire,   stirring
Dull roots with   spring rain.
Winter kept us warm,   covering
Earth in forgetful   snow, feeding
A little life with dried   tubers.

–T. S. Eliot




I round the corner of my house with the lawn mower this evening and I’m met with an overwhelming sense of my grandmother. Her lilacs are blooming and their scent brings her right to my face. Years ago, she planted the bushes from several slips her mother had given her. She told me the story of the lilac’s trip east. She carried them with their roots wrapped in wet newspaper and as soon as she and Grandpa arrived home, they dug holes and planted the slips in the ground, one at the back corner of the house, one next to the back porch, and one at the pig pen. She planted them in the fall, when they could set their roots and rest over winter. By spring, she said, they were settled and ready to grow. Her lilacs are tall and full now, their roots run deep.

I stop mowing. The soft green leaves of the lilac press into my face; the sweet smell that always reminds me of my grandmother envelops me. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and stand with the lawn mower vibrating in my hands.

I remember her clipping bunches of the blossoms when I was a little girl. She’d set them in a quart mason jar on the kitchen table, filling the house with their perfume. I’d press my face into their lavender blooms then too.

“There’s no better spring fragrance,” she’d said. “When you get old enough to have a house of your own with a yard, I’ll give you a slip from my lilac.”

Sometimes, I helped her weed, prune and tend her perennial and annual beds. I handed her the clippers or trowel. I’d run to fill the watering can with water from the well.  I got my knees and fingernails dirty digging in the warm, rich soil. We knelt, side by side in reverent homage to the gifts of the land.

I wanted a slip from all her flowers. I imagined the yard of my grown self. It looked just like hers, the lilacs in exactly the same spots, the iris in a bed out front, surrounded by river rock, the mock orange at each corner of the property, their sweet fragrance carried to the center of my home by a spring breeze.  On Mother’s Day, I’d take out the hanging baskets from my earth floor basement around back of the house and fill them with potting soil, then add the salmon colored sultana, water their roots, and hang the baskets from eye hooks my grandpa would place around my front porch for me. My imagination did not wander far from the reality I knew as a child at my grandmother’s. My mother and I lived in an apartment with a parking lot instead of grass. We didn’t have flower beds like Grandma.

“I’ll put them on my kitchen table,” I said to her so many years ago. “Just like you.”

She died in September of my twenty-fifth year. Her body was planted in the ground where her roots could rest through the winter.  My husband and I bought her house, the only house I felt attached to growing up. The home and yard of my imagination came to me from my grandmother’s nurturing hands. Her lilacs became mine, her perennial and annual beds, mine to tend. Her legacy lived on through me.

The first spring she was gone, I clipped and carried a bouquet of our lilacs in a mason jar to her grave site. I wanted to bring a piece of home to her and a sense of peace to myself. The two of us visited a long time there in the cemetery.  I gave her the news of her snowball bush, the forsythia and japonica in the front yard and the bridal wreath out back. I told her how the peonies had sent up their shoots between our house and the Thomas’, and I let her know that the frost had not killed the cherry tree blooms. There would be pies cooling on her windowsill come summer.

My garden tools live where hers did. My hanging baskets swing from the eye hooks placed there by my grandfather. The scent of mock orange wafts through the house on a spring breeze the second week of May each year, and the lilacs bloom right on schedule.

Twenty-six years have passed since Grandma died, and on this Easter weekend, her spirit rises in me. I cut off the lawnmower and go to the basement in search of my clippers. I cut the blooms from her lilacs, fill a mason jar with cold water from her well, and place her gift to me on our kitchen table.

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18 Responses to “Grandma’s Lilacs”

  1. societyred Says:

    Enjoy the beautiful smells and memories and thank you for sharing. Beautiful! Our lilacs won’t bloom until mothers day and when they do I will think of you and your grandmother. John

  2. Southern Sea Muse Says:

    Simply wonderful! This post gave me a flashback that the sense of my grandmother was suddenly upon and with me at one point during Good Friday service – in the midst of the priest dropping his iPhone, I had forgotten all about that cherished moment. Thank you!

  3. stephanie Says:

    I love it! My lilac finally bloomed the other day for the first time….I love it!

  4. allthingsboys Says:

    Your Grandmother somehow knows, I’m certain. Such a moving tribute. Wonderful story! Thank you for sharing!

    • train-whistle Says:

      Yes indeed, I’m sure she knows and visits me often. She’s probably appalled at the disorganization in her attic though, but that’s another story! Thanks for coming by to read.

  5. Doris Says:

    Every time I think I’ve read one of your best, you make a liar out of me! Properly evokes the Easter sense of spiritual (memory) resurrection! Beautifully done Margaret, beautifully done!

  6. OldMack Says:

    This is superlative prose and story telling, Margaret-Dawn. This tale brought to mind my former home in Monmouth, Oregon, which I bought from two retiring teachers; they’d spent thirty years planting and nurturing their flowers, shrubs and fruit trees. When they signed the contract, they asked my permission to visit their plants “now and then.” Of course I granted them that and looked forward to their semi-annual visits. The two women passed away, one right after the other, within months after I sold the place to a sociology professor at the college across the street (WOU).

    • train-whistle Says:

      Thanks Mack. Grandma always brought out the best in me. I come from a family of green thumbs, Bruce too. His thumb grows vegetables though. He leaves the flowers to me. “If you can’t eat it, it’s not worth growing,” according to him. (thanks for the story of the sisters too by the way. I love your stories…even the short ones.)

  7. Jim Cantwell Says:

    Train, my mother loved lilacs and had a couple planted in the yard.
    The fragrance is so incredibly awesome now as an adult I know why she loved them so much.
    I was more than happy to find out that i had 14 Lilacs in my backyard, I didnt know until the year after I bought my house when they bloomed in spring, they are all growing in one area of my yard and where neglected and over grown by other plants, I have since cleared the other plants and now the Lilac’s stand proud at about 9 feet its like a lilac jungle in that one corner and every spring the smell brings me back to being a kid a cutting the blooms with my mom. as always Great post I really enjoy stopping by here 🙂

  8. Untitled | AllThingsBoys Blog Says:

    […] had a blog not too long ago about her grandmother’s lilacs.  After reading her beautiful post, I found myself wondering if my lilacs were blooming, so I went […]

  9. Nikki Says:

    I really enjoyed reading about you and your grandmother, lovely memories. I can almost smell the lilac, my fav, it heralds the spring is here!

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