Lilacs and Spirea

I’m pretty sure I gasped. Maybe I only think I did, embellishing the memory, but a sight that unexpected can make you gasp, and I’m pretty sure I did.

We almost didn’t stop by the farm that afternoon. I was tired. Early that morning, we’d driven to Cincinnati where I’d given a lecture. We needed to get home to Lexington for an evening obligation. But my family’s vacant home-place is halfway between those two cities, and only a few miles off the Interstate. Ernie and I agreed we needed to check on it after a winter of neglect.

I’m hesitant to admit this, given that the four generations of my family who preceded me spent every season of their lives there. But it depresses me to go to the farm in the wintertime, and I avoid it. The land that sustained us sleeps naked in winter, every ugly flaw exposed, every tractor gash in the mud, every crumbling fence. The old house is cold.

But this was spring, not winter. I needed to check on things, I reminded myself, as we pulled into the driveway in front of the house.

That’s when I gasped. The farmhouse could have danced in a Disney fairy tale or been sculpted in fondant and served as a wedding cake. The old lilac and spirea bushes, covered in lavender and ivory lace flowers, had reached the second floor windowsill of my girlhood bedroom. They jostled with each other down the sides and across the back of the white, clapboard house, veiling it in a million tiny blossoms. Only the black roof peaked out over the flowers.

The sight of the blooming house had silenced us. Now I said, “I’m glad we decided to stop.” What inadequate words.

“Yes,” Ernie said. Then, “I’d forgotten how pretty lilacs smell.”

Yes, I nodded. Maybe like the first new day on earth, I thought.

Mother planted these shrubs, tiny switches Aunt Bessie gave her, around 1952, several years after the big house burned. Uninsured, my family hastily re-built a smaller home on the site. Faded black-and- white photographs document Mother’s stories of the discouragement she felt in those first years after the fire. The unpainted concrete block foundation rises from the ground six feet or more where the site slopes downhill, and in the rear it’s exposed a full story high. There’s no grass. Big rocks dislodged by the jackleg builder’s bulldozer rest where he’d shoved them in a hurry to be done.

I would have whined (or run off to an easier life which I did). But Mother kept at the job, slow and steady, determined to turn ours into a beautiful place; my father and grandfather helped when they could. A lifetime later, crippled by arthritis in her spine, Mother would speculate that it was the making of the yard that put her on the path to her wheelchair. She lugged the heavy rocks away. She nurtured the grass. And Aunt Bessie gave her plant starts.

I don’t know how one gives a spirea or lilac start to someone. I remember Friendship Bread that made the rounds when I was a young wife. Its ancient yeast starter had been passed from friend to friend, one fermented pinch at a time, leavening friendship and expanding waistlines through generations. My batch, however, flipped over in the backseat of my station wagon on the way home. I never got all of that historical dough washed out of the car’s carpet.

Aunt Bessie, though, knew how to start and keep plants alive. The yard that surrounded her pretty, brick house was a botanical laboratory. Everywhere there was a blooming this or that, a mammoth fern, a towering decorative grass, an exotic bulb, a prickly succulent. Her out-of control shrubbery created dim caves beneath their branches for sleeping cats and children playing hide-and-seek. Weeping willow trees fit for Tarzan to swing from screened the road.

I always thought Aunt Bessie’s exuberant garden, though disorganized, deserved to be preserved like those on great estates. It hasn’t been. The last time I passed, the lawn was empty of all but some half-dead grass, and her house had the shabby look of rental property.

I don’t remember a young Aunt Bessie, though she never seemed old to me. She always wore circles of rouge on her cheeks, and her hair fluffed around her face in waves. As a teenager, she’d left the farm for the city’s shops and streetcars. I never heard anyone mention what job she held. Perhaps she only lived with city relatives like poor, young women do in Jane Austin novels. But for the rest of her life, she loved Cincinnati.

Marriage to my grandfather’s youngest brother, Murf Hudson, carried her back to the country. I wonder now if her passion for growing flowers and exotic plants was her way of coping with her exile from the city because I don’t recall her using her green thumb to grow vegetables. Those were left to Uncle Murf. Or maybe her yard was a boastful way of saying to the world, “I’ve been somewhere.” Why ever, it pleases me that her spirea and lilac bushes are still blooming on my farm, if not her lawn.

A quick search turned up a glass jelly jar left behind in the old kitchen. With my make-do vase, I plunged into the caves under the shrubbery to pick a bouquet like I did when I was a kid. The flowering spirea branches, prickly despite their delicate bridal veil illusion, scratched my arms. The lavender lilacs were as soft as silk against my nose.

“I’m glad we decided to stop,” Ernie said as we left.

“Yes,” I said, “me too.” I held my jelly jar of flowers steady between my knees all the way back to our house in Lexington.

Copyright © March 2016 Georgia Green Stamper