Of Life and Lilacs

Seeds, weeds, pruning, harvest—the Lord taught with agricultural illustrations. And He still uses gardening to drive lessons home.

After the funeral, we stayed in Providence an extra week to pack up Mom’s house, hire a realtor, and say goodbye in a thousand little ways. For me, that included one last stab at relocating her lilac to Georgia.

The tree—more of a thicket, really—was as tall as her house and already something of a saga. It was the progeny of a bush in my once nearby yard: Mom wasn’t happy we were moving her grandkids a whole half-hour away, but gladly received my peace offering of a few cuttings.

She took the shoots to the backyard, poked holes in the matted grass, and pushed them into the ground. That was it—but in short order, they were flourishing. And for two glorious weeks each May thereafter, they dripped with purple blossoms and dreamy perfume. Mine, on the other hand, promptly shriveled in the clay soil of the suburbs. And so began Mom’s 20-year hobby of rooting lilacs for Sandra.

I never did get one to grow in that yard. Mom, however, was undeterred—even eight years later when my husband’s work relocated us to Atlanta. Every time she visited, her suitcase contained a long, skinny package of cuttings. She had devised a good system, with wet paper towels hydrating roots and the whole collection wrapped in several plastic bags secured with twisties.

I tried—I really did—to get them to take. I planted in front of the house, in back, on both sides; I experimented with top of the hill, foot of the hill, midway; sunny and half-shade; where the sprinklers overwater and where they barely hit.

No go.

Finally, a friend offered help: In just three growing seasons, this “garden whisperer” somehow coaxed a cutting to blossom and produce a “volunteer,” as she called it, for me to plant. The sapling didn’t exactly thrive at my home, but at least it stayed alive for a couple of years. And when I checked on it the next March, I was startled to find…

Nothing. No leaves. No stem. No plant. The neighborhood gardener had mistaken my prized sprig for a weed and pulled it.

And just one spring after that, there I was in Providence, considering how to optimize my last chance with Mom’s lilac. I foraged through the backyard thicket for the most promising cuttings and flew home with a long, familiar-looking package in my suitcase.

The bereaved are not always logical: I wanted this “Mom connection” so badly that I viewed failure as losing even more of her—or somehow letting her down.

As eager as I was before, my efforts now had a desperation to them. The bereaved are not always logical: I wanted this “Mom connection” so badly that I viewed failure as losing even more of her—or somehow letting her down. But alas, intention and desire are no guarantee of a green thumb. In rapid succession, five were gone.  

The last cutting kept my hopes up by lingering till the end of July, when despite abundant care, it dropped one leaf. And another…

In early August, as we were heading out for vacation, I noticed the last leaf had fallen. I couldn’t deal with throwing the stalk away quite yet; whether it was denial or a last-ditch effort, I’m not sure, but I cut the stem short, watered the soil, and covered the pot with Saran before leaving the house.

Upon my return, I went to face my disappointment-in-a-pot, the tangible symbol of my greater loss. Condensation had formed beads of water on the plastic wrap, so I lifted a corner to look at the remains, and saw . . . a burst of new growth shooting out from the stem!

There was something thrilling—holy, even—about the rebirth I’d just witnessed, almost a visible reassurance with regard to my loved one, the unseen realm, and my many questions about both. I felt victorious, encouraged. And then came the doubt (or was it reality?) How many times did you plant lilacs and fail? New shoots are fragile—this one will never survive the next few weeks, let alone the winter.

For several months, I kept the tender shoot on the porch and under Saran, as it obviously preferred a terrarium climate. Then, when winter arrived, I brought it indoors for protection. But what about rooting hormone? Plant food? Soil prep? I finally realized I had zero idea what the little plant actually needed. So I made my first-ever phone call to the radio gardening show and was properly chastised. “Lilacs aren’t house plants,” the host said. “Without cold weather, they’ll never bloom. Put it outside right now.”

I complied, choosing a sunny spot to the right of the front steps. But suspicious of chipmunks (and gardeners), I sank the entire pot into the ground and covered it in a tent of black netting. Figuring the radio expert didn’t realize how fragile-looking it was, I ignored his advice about cold weather. Whenever frost was expected, I would drape a Mylar emergency room blanket over the tent. Those occasional nights when I forgot to check the forecast, our ceiling projection clock alerted me to falling temperatures. More than once, I climbed out of bed after midnight and threw on a winter coat to go tuck in my lilac.

It was almost a visible reassurance with regard to my loved one, the unseen realm, and my many questions about both.

The tiny green cluster somehow survived both the short Georgia winter and my over-attentiveness; then in February, the miraculous happened: It started growing taller and leafier. After one more call to (and chastisement from) the radio gardener, I transplanted the lilac and promised never again to shelter it from the harsh weather it needed. 

Mom’s plant has outgrown its net tent, and though the nearly bare 16-inch stalk doesn’t look like much, it represents quite the investment of energy and emotion. We’re not “out of the woods” yet, but I have hope.

Meanwhile, a little addendum to the story has actually become its main point. One day last spring I came home to find my husband rather disheveled and assumed he’d encountered a stubborn project in his wood shop. But then why the boyish proud-of-himself smile?

He dramatically swung open the front door and pointed to the left of the front steps. The man who hates heat and garden work even more than I do had gone to a pricey landscaping shop for an education and a trunkful of supplies. Then he hacked an obstinate root out of the ground and filled the hole with new soil and a mature, healthy Southern-variety lilac bush. I was speechless.

Just two weeks later, his plant positively exploded into blossom. And I had done nothing. As I stood marveling at the sight, a diary of sorts replayed in my head. I couldn’t help laughing at the inordinate effort, all those well-intentioned but baseless, even superstitious steps I took to “make” the lilac grow. I realized I was gazing at one of God’s metaphors: Like His grace, this breathtaking love gift was mine to enjoy without lifting a finger. All I needed to do was agree to be blessed by it.

Make most of time with your loved ones. Read “Seven Ways to Honor An Elderly Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields.

Related Topics:  Spiritual Life

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