Grandma’s Lilacs

 

I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD

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 grandma’s. My mother and I lived in an apartment with a parking lot instead of grass. We didn’t have flower beds like Grandma’s.

“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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