Looking for Lilacs

What the lilac lacks in longevity
Its beauty makes up with brevity
The fragrance is sweet as heaven
But gone by the month we call seven
The lavender flowers in profusion
Throw my memory into confusion
I recall my grandmother’s vase
Displayed on the table a show case
All purple hues spilling over the edge
The result of trimming the lilac hedge
The delicate flowers fade far too fast
Until they are spent at last
Plucked from the water and tossed
My memory ever fresh is not lost
And with a deep breath I can recall
Each lilac made of flowers so small
My grandmother whistling a bird song
Trying to teach me to whistle along

My father’s mother was a small woman. She loved to whistle. She could imitate birds, tunes from the radio, and even classical compositions. For several summers I would visit for a week or so and she would try to teach me to whistle. She would encourage me as I practiced even though I didn’t make much progress. I still can’t make anything more than a faint, moist, hiss.

She lived in apartments most of her life but I recall a house they rented when I was in second grade. That summer we visited and there were lilacs. Her favorite color was purple and it is no surprise that the lilac was her favorite flower (beating out the violet due to the wonderful scent). When I went into the house there were vases of lilacs everywhere! I went into her bedroom and her curtains and bedspread were decorated in a lilac print.

Many years later, when she had a stroke and was dying in a hospital bed, I sat in the waiting area with one of her old friends. We sat and talked about his garden. He knew about her love of lilacs. He told me that he had intended to bring her some but had forgotten when he got the call that she was in the hospital. He went home and cut an armful of blooms. I took them back to her apartment and put them in a vase on the table. It was his gift to her and without knowing a gift to me.

I’m a practical person and rarely if ever purchase cut flowers. I’d much rather plant something that will bloom. But the memory of those lilacs still haunts me in both a sad and happy way. We planted two lilac bushes in the back yard. They’ve never really grown and I don’t think they have bloomed more than twice in the last 20 years. Maybe this will be the year.

post-script: Sparky mentioned casually that he smelled lilacs and lo and behold there were a couple (somewhat anemic) blooms…

34 thoughts on “Looking for Lilacs

  1. I’m so delighted to read about lilacs so late in the year. Mine have been gone for probably a month by now. I can smell the blooms in both your poem and your photo.
    While I can pinpoint a specific memory, lilacs are definitely one of my favorite scents and flowers.
    I planted one right outside my front door. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that, when in bloom, I can smell lilac every time I go in and out my front door. The curse is that the plant is sheltered by the house and tricked into believing it’s warmer than it is. Freaky spring weather freezes the blooms as often as not. (This year, shockingly, that May snow didn’t hurt.)
    Anyhow. Beautiful poem.

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    1. Thanks Carrie! The cursed walnut trees have stunted the lilacs which are nearly 20 yrs old and look like puny little bushes of only a few sticks. Every year when they survive the winter we are pleased. Sparky had suggested we rip them out this year if they don’t bloom – and BOOM! We have flowers. I’d cut them but I’m afraid the shock would kill the bushes… The bumblebees really like them which makes me glad they aren’t by the back door!

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  2. Lovely poem, Muri. My grandma had lilacs too. There was a big lilac bush right outside the bathroom window, which was almost always open when they were in bloom. Our new house has three mature lilac bushes. We enjoyed their sweet scent for a few weeks in late spring. I also enjoyed your memories of your grandma… whistling is a hard skill to teach, LOL. Maybe those blooms are her sending a little hello from the other side. 🙂

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    1. Lilacs are an old-fashioned kind of plant. When we went to buy them 20 yrs ago we had to look all over for them and finally the little garden shop had a couple… You new house must have been built in the 1920s or so as I think it was de rigueur to plant a lilac hedge! I’m not sure if it is a message from her or just a pleasant reminder of her but either way I’ve been thinking of her.

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      1. Yes, our house was built in 1920. I always think of lilacs and their scent as old lady-ish, and I’m liking them more and more as I age. Maybe in the old days, they were used for privacy, shade, or air freshening properties (hence why it was planted by the bathroom window). My grandma was a quilter, that was her legacy to each of her grandkids, a quilt as a HS graduation gift. 🙂

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        1. I think the idea of the lilacs by the bathroom window is probably a good guess! My great grandmother made a couple quilts – I even have one! Sparky’s grandmother made every grandchild a quilt and he still has his. She used old clothes for the fabric. His contains lots of textured polyesther squares!

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  3. Beautiful. I have very sentimental memories of lilac. We do have a bush in our garden and it has flowered and now finished flowering. I remember vases of lilac too. Lovely post Val.

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    1. Actually he doesn’t have a “good nose” (stay tuned for that post) but he did notice the flowers. He keeps a close eye on them hoping for some sign that they are failing so he can get rid of them… The mock orange is doing much better and is starting to crowd out some of the other plantings. I’m just thrilled they bloomed and are holding their own! I imagine lilacs don’t do well in Florida…

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  4. I also love lilacs which don’t bloom here. There is a shrub in the lilac family I think that will grow in TX. I don’t have it. Now I have to depend on memory for them and peonies.

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    1. Peonies will remind me of my other grandmother – she had them in her front yard and they did smell so good! I hated cutting them because of the black ants that crawled oall over! She’d soak them in a bucket of cold water to get the ants off but every now and again one would drop from a flower and scamper across the table. that would always precipitate slapping and pounding to kill it before it made it to any food!

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  5. Such a beautiful and haunting memory Val! I love the fragrance of lilacs. Saadia has a huge bush in the front near her porch, and when the blooms are on, I can smell the fragrance even before I get out of the car. They are such a welcoming site and fragrance. This year my own lilacs were very few and like you said, anemic.
    Every thing else bloomed like they were going out of style.

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    1. Thanks Zakiah! The flowers this year were a surprise since they rarely bloom. I’d enjoy a big robust lilac covered with the blooms and releasing clouds of heavenly scent. Sadly mine will never get there due to the walnut trees. If I’d known when we bought the house what I know now, it would have been a deal breaker! So far the garden here is doing great, I’m waiting forthe hostas to bloom but will probably have to wait until late July/early August…

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  6. Ah, sweetness! I’m a lilac lover, too. Loving your memories, here.
    I grew up (until 13) on farm/ranch in Nebr. The house had huge lilac shrubs all along north side of the yard, and part of west. I had to grow up and be gone for decades and decades to realize what a heaven my environs were.
    & an ‘interesting’ landlady gifted me with some lilacs a few years ago! Brought them with me to MS. We’ll see how it goes. 😉

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    1. My grandmother (mom’s side) had African Violets and they were always blooming. I did not inherit that “green thumb”. I think I have the touch of death for house plants!

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  7. Our local hills support wild lilacs that bloom profligately any spring that has timely rain. One of our favorite trails has a section that is a veritable lilac tunnel through which we zoom, reveling in the blur of pale lavender in our peripheral vision and breathing in their subtle aroma. The bloom is so ephemeral that it’s easy to miss it entirely.

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    1. I love that you have a lilac tunnel! I think I’d be tempted to stop and relish the sight and smell instead of passing them in a blur!! I wish they lasted longer…

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  8. Random scents can also be ghostly. I have smelled rose, when there is no such flower in the neighbour’s yard. Penny loved roses-and carnations, so I know where the scent is coming from.

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