It seems appropriate this week to quote my favorite lines from Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The 151st anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln, about whom the poet wrote this elegy, has just passed; and spring is preparing to roll out the lilacs used as a symbol in the poem.
I love that flowers embellish each season in turn. Peonies usher in the summer months later filled with vibrant splashes of impatiens and marigolds as well as roses in every shade. Mums and asters coordinate more muted tones with the gold-and-amber show of trees celebrating autumn in our yards and woods. And winter always reminds me of my mother’s Christmas cactus, the one with a mind of its own when it came to seasonal blooming.
Just when our memories of warm, wafting breezes seem to have completely faded, spring appears – quietly but boldly. The early season sends forth the unlikeliest of harbingers: tiny crocuses and delicate daffodils often bloom into a cover of snowflakes. Emboldened, tulips in clear and vivid colors emerge almost riotously from every nook and cranny. Spring beauties carpet great expanses of lawn and pasture, punctuating their daintiness with sweet Williams and gentle violets. It is only when the lilacs bloom, however, that I trust May has actually arrived.
“In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green…”
Our lilacs on River Road grew at the end of the sidewalk, across from the rambler roses and right next to our swishy Oriental grass. The couple of tall bushes next to a smaller one provided play space for an entire summer. Taking them for granted in my childish way, I simply accepted that the “heart-shaped leaves” would precede the lavender flowers and their “rich green” would remain long after the sweet-smelling blooms had disappeared.
“With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love…”
We had lilacs on Ford Road, too; but in the few months I lived there before leaving for college, my attachment was one of appreciation rather than tradition.
And then it was spring at Otterbein. Spring on a college campus surrounds and envelops with an atmosphere defying description: the beauty of nature, young love, a spirit of academia, the impending summer all mingle in a magical, breathless kind of way.
As a freshman, I lived in a dormitory situated on the edge of campus. We had to trek to the Campus Center for meals, a walk of ten minutes – on a good day and if we went the “back way.”
That spring I often took the “back way” because I had discovered a huge bank of lilac bushes lining the narrowish alley. I would stroll slowly past the “pointed blossoms rising delicate,” some in hues of violet and purple and others in white. But it was “the perfume strong” that halted my steps: in that first year of brand-new adulthood the scent of those lilacs released the nostalgia tucked away in my heart.
“…and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green…”
A duplex, an apartment, and two houses later, I finally owned a lilac bush of my own, perfectly situated at the corner of the garage. Many an early morning sprint to the car seemed less hectic as my senses drank in all my lilacs had to offer.
Imagine, then, the May evening I came home to the absence of my precious flowers. An overzealous neighbor with hedge clippers had remedied their intrusion over our shared property line. I mourned the loss for several seasons until their regrowth once again supported “delicate-color’d blossoms” nestled among the “heart-shaped leaves of rich green.”
“A sprig with its flower I break.”
Fortunately, a small flowering magnolia tree graces my current front yard; and out back an ornamental pear tree, having survived the hurricane winds several years ago, celebrates each growing season with spring blossoms, summer foliage, and scarlet leaves that are the last to turn and drop.
Alas, I no longer own a lilac bush. Oh, I enjoy spring with all its trappings and trimmings; but lilac-less as I am, I check the calendar a few extra times to confirm the presence of May.
My father was a man of nature and natural things. His step never darkened a florist shop, and yet he brought my mother beauteous bouquets: a handful of violets, a couple of roses in a jelly jar, an armload of lilacs he himself could never smell after a boyhood bout with scarlet fever.
More than once, I also became the recipient of his floral gifts. Probably once in some blathering conversation with my parents I had lamented my lack of lilacs. Whatever the circumstance, whenever “the perfume strong” filled my house, I was certain of two things on those special May evenings: there would be on my desk a vase, of the mayonnaise or Mason type, filled with lilacs – and my father had brought them.
So in honor of a lilac-filled May, I will allow the words of Whitman himself to continue his respect for a fallen leader and to describe my lifelong bond with these beloved blossoms:
“Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.