Stealing Lilacs by Alice N. Persons
A guaranteed miracle,
it happens for two weeks each May,
this bounty of riches
where McMansion, trailer,
the humblest driveway
burst with color—pale lavender,
purple, darker plum—
and glorious scent.
This morning a battered station wagon
drew up on my street
and a very fat woman got out
and starting tearing branches
from my neighbor’s tall old lilac—
grabbing, snapping stems, heaving
armloads of purple sprays
into her beater.
A tangle of kids’ arms and legs
writhed in the car.
I almost opened the screen door
to say something,
but couldn’t begrudge her theft,
or the impulse
to steal such beauty.
Just this once,
there is enough for everyone.
I do feel guilty when I steal lilacs every year. There is something violent about jumping out of my car, sneaking over to a big bush, then quickly tearing off branches, their woody stems turned into sharp daggers. I recently read that when you prune a lilac bush, the plant sends out a flurry of beautiful heart-shaped leaves to mend the wound, and it can take five years before a blossom appears there again. I look for big bushes–small trees really–and do my thievery in different spots of the tree, so it doesn’t grow lopsided. Such an old-fashioned flower–you hardly ever see them in new subdivisions. They easily can live past 100 years old, and I used to hunt for them on old country roads, where the homestead was abandoned long ago, with the big lilac bush left alone to the winds. But, I felt like a graverobber, so I’ve kept to back alleys when no one was looking. I got lucky this year. There’s a ramshackle property next to the road down to our house which has been vacant for over a year–I guess a niece in Minnesota inherited it and is supposed to pay a visit this summer. There are abandoned trucks, a boat, a snowplow, and the split-rail fence around the orchard fell down this winter. I try to ignore it, I guess, but when I drove home from the grocery the other day, I spotted a tall, lusciously full lilac bush, right next to one of the outbuildings. I stopped and grabbed an armload for the living room–just like the greedy woman in the battered station wagon.
“Lilacs are May in essence,” writes Jean Hersey. Coming in my birthday month, they’ve always been my favorite flower. Every year, I tell somebody about the time when I was 13 years old, moving schools in the middle of eighth grade, so utterly miserable and lonely. To avoid the cafeteria, I would run the mile home at lunchtime to be with my Mom, who fixed my favorite foods. That year, on my birthday, she made me her tall angel food and ice cream cake, decorated with lavender lilac blossoms of whipped cream. And, then, there was May 18, 2001, the year Fletcher, my first grandchild was born. I stayed in Colorado for a couple of weeks for his birth, helping Joy out by day, and then driving the 30 minutes over to my sister’s house to sleep at night, then back again the next morning. I would pull off the road for lilacs, keeping a sprig in my car for the journey. In my sweet memory of rocking him in the blue wicker chair, filtered sunlight coming in through the lace curtains, there were always lilac blossoms in a jar on the table.
Fletcher graduated from high school last week-end and we had a grand celebration in Billings with friends and the Colorado families. The lilacs were bursting in alleys and at the corners of homes, in their old historic downtown neighborhood. I thought of the little blue nursery back in Colorado, and how he always slept on his back with hands behind his head. Where did all this time go and how did it happen so fast? Is it any wonder we tear up when the band begins to play “Pomp and Circumstance”, and we know how much older we became, as a tiny baby blossomed into such a fine young man.
In one more day, it will be June. It’s felt like summer since we arrived home. The geraniums are in their pots and the window boxes have been planted. A water-skier in a wet suit hollered out there the other day, and a lithe young girl floated along standing on her paddle board, while I read my book by the water last evening. There may be one more bunch of lilacs I can pilfer from the neighbors, but this spring season is coming to a close. There is another summer coming our way, just around the bend. ‘A guaranteed miracle’!
“A faint smell of lilac filled the air. There was always lilac in this part of town. Where there were grandmothers, there was always lilac.” — Laura Miller