Lilac Memories

May 2, 2013

Memory triggers include anything from childhood toys,  favorite tunes, or scents that punch the start button on videos of our past that cycle over and over in our heads.  Each spring when lilacs bloom, I get a full two weeks of scented prompts that start those mind movies rolling. 

Lilacs figure into my earliest recollections.  I haven’t checked with my mother, but I suspect their scent wafted into my very first home to imprint on my infant brain.  Every time I smell those lavender blooms, I think of sunshine and gentle breezes combined with motherly and grandmotherly love.

For some weird reason, I also think of freshly laundered whites hanging on a clothesline inundated with this favorite fragrance.  Grandma’s gone now so I can’t ask her, but I wonder if she didn’t have a lilac border near her clothesline.

Interestingly, I never think of lilacs in relationship to new houses.  I always associate them with older homes sporting shaded porches. When I moved to Southern California at age nine, lilacs became a memory of spring rather than an expectation.

Despite the delicate appearance of their blossoms, these hardy plants bloom best after an extended cold spell.  To give you an idea of how well these shrubs handle adversity, New Hampshire  chose the lilac  to represent the resilient nature of its citizens.  When we relocated to a tropical climate where citrus and avocado trees grew in backyards, my family and I sacrificed regular contact with this favorite,  fragrant, and  hardy plant.

Absence made my heart grow fonder.  One year my mother visited Kansas in April and returned with a spray  of purple  and green that triggered a deluge of early memories.  I so longed to open a window to smell that sweet scent wafting on a breeze or stand under the clothes line pinning heavy, wet laundry in a straight row while blooming pastel clusters assaulted my olfactory sense.  Instead, I sniffed her bedraggled bouquet setting on the kitchen counter every time I walked past.  I know she saw me in the kitchen way more than usual until those pale flowers picked from Grandma’s ancient hedge turned brown and were tossed in the trash.

Obviously, I’m not the only lilac  lover in America.  Drive through any older neighborhood or down country lanes past rural properties to see lilac borders that make privacy fences unnecessary.  Despite the fact that these flower only two or three weeks each spring, the dense, green shrubbery provides seclusion and shade all year round. 

Easy to grow, they can last hundreds of years.  According to one website, someone planted the oldest living lilacs in America at the Governor Wentworth estate in Portsmouth, NH, circa 1750. To build on this history, note that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington recorded growing lilacs in their gardens.

When that scent of spring tickles the nose, it not only jogs the memory, it tells a story about America and the sturdy folks who settled it. Plant your own lilac hedge to reminisce and to connect future generations to your own family’s chapter in the continuing tale of America.