Lilacs Everlasting

In the 1988 movie Rain Man, Tom Cruise’s character learns that his recently deceased wealthy father bequeathed him, in a stingingly worded last will and testament, his prized rosebushes. Not the $3 million inheritance Cruise was hoping for, but rosebushes. And a classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible. Needless to say, Tom Cruise was none too pleased with the arrangement and interpreted the act as a stern father’s final slap in the face from his grave. While he may not be the most subtle actor in the world, it’s amusing to see Cruise exclaim with great frustration, “I got the rose bushes! I definitely got the rose bushes!”. If you’ve seen the movie you know that as the plot line unravels, the family drama and its secrets are revealed which provide answers. The father, of course, had his reasons for doing what he did.

I’m bringing this up because part of me has always related to people who value prized garden plants, who place their worth above money and inanimate possessions. I read a story once about an elderly woman who had moved several times throughout her long life and each time dug up her cherished peony to bring it with her and transplant it at the new home. Peonies, with proper loving care, can live up to 75 years. That’s not a mere “garden plant” anymore, that is a resilient, tried and true friend – as familiar and comforting a friend as many human beings we’ll encounter in life. I totally understand why that woman brought her peony with her. There’s nothing remotely strange or eccentric about it to me at all.

It was still winter when I moved into my house 15 years ago. While my then-husband and I spent the cold weather months buying furniture and installing shelving, I was thinking about the coming spring, and what flowering plants I would put in the only spot on the property that receives full sun: the front right corner of the house. It was a plot of dirt when Jeff and I arrived, but it wouldn’t be for long. Roses were definitely in the running but by the time March arrived, I had decided on lilacs. And I personally picked out the two young lilac bushes at my local garden center. They bloom at the exact same time every spring, as if on a precise calendar encoded in their DNA. That time is now. Here are my beauties yesterday:

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I came home from work the other night, tired, still sore in my left hip from doing a standing pose. The second I opened my car door in the driveway the aroma – that extra potent nighttime wafting of late May blooms – transported me to paradise. After a day of trains and buses and city crowds and drafty studios full of easels and turpenoid containers and charcoal dust, and elbow pokes on the E train and stench-filled corridors of Penn Station, the lilacs delivered me to peace. Before I went inside I strolled over to the lilacs, in the dark with my house keys in my hand, to inhale them at close range. My beauties. My babies for 15 years. At that moment my communion with the lilacs was interrupted by the sound of my neighbor across the street dragging his garbage can to curb. He saw me and waved. The next morning I took a few cuttings for the house.

Jose the landscaper cuts grass and trims bushes for most of us on this block. I happened to be home one day when he and his crew were working precariously close to my lilacs with pruning shears. I bolted out of the house and, in my best broken Spanish, instructed them to not do anything to those bushes. I wasn’t a bitch, I swear! I just made it clear that those bushes are not to be touched. At all. Ever. I am protective of them like a mother toward her children. It’s slightly embarrassing 😉

I probably shouldn’t worry myself about such things, but the thought that someday, maybe decades from now, this house will fall into the hands of strangers who may very well bulldoze this property and dispose of the lilacs makes me sick. Honestly, it throws me into a nervous panic. I may have to draw up a will and bequeath them to a loved one! Or someone who understands, like Amy Lowell. Check out her poem “Lilacs”. New Englanders especially should read it.

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I invite readers to share pics of their prized garden growings, or stories, or memories. Tell me what’s abloom in your garden, or on your fire escape or balcony, or thriving wild where you are.

14 thoughts on “Lilacs Everlasting

  1. Bob says:

    Thanks for posting the pictures Claudia. Ours bloomed and withered while we were gone on a 2 week vacation. Never saw um.

    • artmodel says:

      Bob, that’s a shame! It’s a brief window with lilacs. As quickly as they bloom, they disappear just as quickly. Makes them all the more special in a way.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  2. Dave says:

    Claudia,

    I really enjoyed that post and the photos. I’ll send you a photo of the 15 foot tall lilac tree in our backyard (I can’t figure out how to post a photo in the comments here). Most of our yard has been converted to native prairie, so there will be a lot of beautiful flowers soon, but not quite yet.

    • artmodel says:

      Dave,

      I got the picture. Beautiful! Healthy and flourishing. And like you said there are plenty of more flowers to come.

      Thank you for sharing!

      Claudia

  3. Drawing Aficionado says:

    Hi Claudia,
    In our house we have beautiful lilacs, probably planted in the 50’s. Two kinds: white that are “simple” and pink that are “double”, referring to the fact that at the end of the stem will blossom one or two clusters of flowers. Beautiful at spring… and – icing on the cake – it’s a tree not too much demanding and rather easy to duplicate.
    I do understand when you say that a plant is more than a plant. It’s almost a child. I feel the same. I also do understand your fears about José’s murderous shears or if a real estate developer was to stick his nose in your street.
    Now let’s have a dream and imagine a tale.
    Let’s imagine you decide to duplicate your lilacs (remember I told you before it’s rather easy to do). One more young sprout. Two, three, many. And you persuade your neighbors to plant your young lilacs in their own gardens and to let them grow. A street with hundreds of lilacs.
    You American are very pragmatic people. You name the streets after numbers, such as 3rd avenue or 22nd street. I suppose your street is named that way.
    Imagine in 30 years from now… At that time your street will be named the “Lilacs street” and not anymore after a number. It will be one of the few NYC streets – if not the only one – to be named after a flower.
    And at that time there will be a tradition in NYC at spring. It is that all the lovers will come in your street to declare their undying love to one another under the fragrance of the blossoming lilacs. And José’s child (a grown up person of course) will be so proud to work in the street that he will shout to everyone “Hey look it’s Claudia’s artwork. My father used to know her well!!”
    And there will be rumors, such as
    – “What was she doing?”…
    – And one will say “I have been told she was a life class model”.
    – “A what?” will say another…
    Because in 30 years from now there will be @applications to have a hologram modeling for you in your living room and keeping the same pose for hours without complaining about a hip pain.
    Some will argue that Claudia was a jazz lover, others a vegetarian, or a John Lennon worshiper and even a cat protector!!!!!!!!
    But all will refer to Claudia as the “Lady of the Lilacs”.

    • artmodel says:

      Drawing Aficionado,

      I am in awe of your imagination! What a joyful, inspired tale you have presented here 🙂 You’re right that my street does have a number name! I’m glad to hear you say that lilacs are fairly easy to propagate. I always thought it is tricky to do from cuttings, but I will try! My Mom recently asked for a cutting from my lilacs. She doesn’t live in my neighborhood but perhaps I can convert her street also into “Lilac Place”!

      And poor Jose, by the way. He and his crew got yelled at last year for inadvertently pruning a neighbor’s rose plant without their consent. People go nuts with their prized plants!

      I was touched by the theme of your story – that of leaving legacies and being remembered for who we were and what we accomplished in our lives, whether it be our professional work, our gardening, or the love we spread to others. Yes, even “cat protector”! I love that.

      Thank you so much for these uplifting comments. This was a treat to read. You not only countered my concerns but spun them into a narrative of hope and exultation. Marvelous!

      Claudia

  4. Bill says:

    My wife Rita feels the same way about her lilacs. We’re also fortunate that we have the Arnold Arboretum in Boston — every year they have “Lilac Sunday” — everybody in town shows up to admire and enjoy the fragrance of seemingly every type of lilac in existence. (One of the advantages of being retired is that we can avoid the crowds by creating our own personal “Lilac Monday” event.)
    Someday you will have to check it out!
    http://arboretum.harvard.edu/celebrate-lilac-sunday-on-may-11/

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      You’re going to push me to the point where I’ll need lilac rehab treatment! That lilac event at the Arnold Arborteum looks awesome!! Oh my god, heaven. I’d go bonkers there. And of course I’ll want to attend, because bonkers is ok when you’re in lilac world 🙂

      Thanks Bill!

      Claudia

  5. Jennifer says:

    I had to smile at ‘Drawing Aficionado’s’ post that you should become ‘The Lady of the Lilacs’ – now there’s a lovely thought 🙂 (Not so good about the hologram replacement!!) Ahh, lilacs. I grew up with three lilac trees (including building a tree house in one and falling out of it headfirst onto my neighbour’s rockery – I suppose there is a point to health and safety!) and adored their scent and colour. I was given a white lilac as a gift when I bought my first house, but a run of dry summers killed it off after about 15 years. I don’t have a lilac in my present home, so settle for sniffing the lilacs that overhang the street. Maybe it’s time I got a lilac of my own! (Along with a magnolia tree, which I also covet – we have a flowering cherry tree, so to have a magnolia and a lilac would provide a spread of blossom from early to late spring …) Lilacs are starting to ‘go over’ here, so I’ve enjoyed yours vicariously. Hope other aspects of your life will soon improve.
    Take care
    Jennifer xx

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      I’ve noticed that many people, yourself included, refer to lilac trees. And they’re so beautiful. My lilacs are a shrub variety. They’ve certainly grown much bigger from when I first planted them. But I don’t believe they will ever reach tree size. They’re spreading out more in width direction than height.

      Your magnolia tree must be a delight. They are widespread in the American South. My tree memory from childhood is a giant horse-chestnut in our backyard. That tree is still there at my Mom’s house. It’s huge! Tall, strong, hanging tough for decades and decades.

      Thanks so much for your lovely comments!

      Claudia

  6. Bruce says:

    When we were kids in Pittsburgh, every spring would come in first with an ocean of yellow forsythia, then a huge wall of lilacs beside our house, would engulf our yard with that wonderful scent, and a purple haze. No room now for lilacs, but my Hops vine grows every year and was the starting point for the sculpture I did on our building. I needed a trellis!

    • artmodel says:

      Bruce,

      You may not have room for lilacs but you certainly make good growing use of the space you have! A fine veggie garden in NoHo.
      When I was a little girl I had trouble pronouncing “forsythia”. But I’m pretty sure that’s the plant that made me fall in love with the color yellow.

      Thanks for your comments, and I’ll see you soon friend! Tell Ika I’m ready for her 🙂

      Claudia

  7. Roger says:

    It is now 17 years since I was a short walk away from the lilacs in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I remember intentionally planning naps on a little incline under their canopy when they bloomed. The memory is incredibly sustaining. I now live in the country but some of my favorite moments of savoring nature happened in the city.

    • artmodel says:

      Roger,

      The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is truly beautiful place, and it’s been far too long since I’ve been there. Your memory has reminded me that I must visit soon!

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

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