Inexhaustibly Optimistic

I smell it before I see it.  The scent lures me along the downtown street, like a predator to a hidden watering hole.  Reaching the corner, I locate my quarry: a Japanese lilac down the side street, perfuming the entire area.  It is a tree—not the roof-high bushes I knew in childhood—but a lilac nonetheless.

I make no effort at stealth: my prey is indifferent.  I make no effort at concealment: passers-by are oblivious.  Pulling a branch towards me, I bury my face in white florets and close my eyes.  My blood pressure drops 20 points as I inhale deeply, letting the lilac in this concrete planter take me back 50 years to the lilacs in my grandmother’s yard.    

As tall as the garage and stretching halfway across the lot, my grandmother’s lilacs blocked the view of driveway and back alley, a landscaping rationale lost on a child.  The deep purple flowers every spring seemed reason enough for these otherwise nondescript bushes.  The old-fashioned kind, their suckers popped up everywhere, inexhaustibly optimistic, only to be run over by the gas mower or rooted out of flowerbeds by muttering gardeners.

We had our own lilacs, planted by my mother in each successive yard.  Nothing like my grandmother’s hedge, they still made their own magic.  Bundles of twigs barely supporting a few leaves somehow became chest-high bushes extravagantly boasting masses of purple flowers.  Not the child to dream of my wedding day, I was still downcast to learn that my flower of choice wasn’t available for bridal bouquets.

Through 20 years of marriage and umpteen yards, I, too, planted lilacs.  Needing to choose frugally, I bought small and waited hopefully for the arrival of large.  But just as new and improved varieties had eliminated both the suckering problem and the vigorous habits of growth and flowering that had accompanied it, so had new modes of work created broader opportunities at the cost of a more mobile lifestyle.  Before the lilacs could match my memories, we always moved on—to new jobs and to new plantings.

I never questioned my persistence.  What else did one do with a new yard but plant lilacs?  Taking me as I found me, I never considered the origins of my compulsion.  Wasn’t my love of lilacs part of my individuality?  All that changed a few years ago with a late spring visit to my grandmother’s first Canadian home, east of town.

My grandparents homesteaded 100 years ago.  The house they built still sits solidly on a small rise, flanked by straggly windbreaks.  Trees have always grown poorly there, struggling with not-quite-adequate rainfall and often losing.  Yet at one corner of that house a lilac persists, nurtured by my grandmother through the unpredictable but inevitable dry spells.

My individual appreciation of lilacs suddenly looked suspiciously like a family trait: the lilacs in my grandmother’s city yard not simple landscaping expediency, my mother’s consistent choice of flowering shrub not accidental.  Did this chain—grandmother, mother, daughter—extend even further?  Did the love-affair-cum-obsession start with my grandmother, or with hers?  Was even my taste in flowers bequeathed to me by people I had never known?

Striving to be my own person, for years I had sought to differentiate myself from my family, to find and express my unique qualities.  As a teenager I knew that I had inherited some family characteristics—an eye for detail, a poor singing voice—and tried to counterbalance this through intentional choice: studying guitar rather than piano; breaking with the family pattern by working before attending university.

As a young adult, I grudgingly accepted my obvious physical resemblance to my father’s family, but still held fast to the notion that, inside at least, I was my own person.  Time, however, loosened my hold in various ways.  Unplanned glimpses of myself in mirrors showed me my mother’s stance; unthinking moments of animation caught me using her gestures.  And throughout my extended family, I saw my ‘own’ characteristics—those I had carefully cultivated, like a love of reading, and those I had struggled unsuccessfully to uproot, like a tendency to interrupt.

Then my mother took up genealogy in her retirement and found biologists and writers all through our family tree.  As a part-time writer with books of natural science essays beside my bed, I was unsettled.  Much more than familial resemblance in appearance, mannerisms, and behaviours, this evidence of cross-generational patterns in my own deep-rooted interests and skills threatened my hard-hung-onto sense of uniqueness.

And now it was lilacs administering the coup de grâce.  That persistent lilac on the old homestead is an undeniable trace of my grandmother in the present; the enduring love of lilacs that is in me, another such trace.  Both may well be traces of previous generations.  What, then, of my individuality?

What, indeed?  In late mid-life, able and inclined to look both fore and aft, I no longer have as much energy for this question as I once did.  The dividing line between me and my family is not as clear as I once thought, nor as wide as I once wanted.  I am now content to know myself to be unique, but not without precedent.

My love of lilacs is not a threat to who I am, it is a gift: a reminder of every childhood home, an ever-green connection to the grandmother I knew and loved, something permanent in a transient world.  Because of the lilacs, I have come to terms with all these family characteristics and their expression in me.

How many generations in my family have planted lilacs?  How many will continue to plant them?  I cannot know.  I do know that when next I plant a lilac—an old, familiar task—I will be doing something for the first time.  I will be planting for family who have gone before—celebrating the parts of them that are in me, and for family yet to come—celebrating the parts of me that will be in them.

Even as I survey the next generation—my grandmother’s great-grandchildren, now grown to adulthood in their turn—I do not know which parts will persist.  Will it be traits I still think of as distinctively mine—a taste for Spanish, a flair for decorating with penguins—or characteristics that I now see as part of my family story, like the lilacs?  I hope it will be both—things I have planted and carefully nurtured, and things that have continued to pop up throughout my family: vigorous shoots that have outlasted the individual gardeners, like the inexhaustibly optimistic lilacs in my grandmother’s yard.

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12 Comments

  1. Marion

    “… unique, but not without precedent.” I like that very much.
    It’s interesting how little we think of continuity when we’re young, but it has occurred to me of late, too. I love trees. I don’t know much about them, but I love to look at them. Walking in the woods is more than a hike to me; it does something to me. Something organic in me feels connected when I do. And I remember that my mother used to say that her mother “loved trees” – no more than that, just “loved trees”. I am said to resemble her and I wish I knew her, but she died when I was an infant. I’ve always felt that I missed knowing a kindred spirit.
    Thanks again for a thought-provoking and good-feeling post.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Marion – In Bishopville SC, we ended up (thanks to GPS) in a hole-in-the-wall seafood place where we might have been the only white customers. Ever. Best shrimp, scallops, and savoury fritters. Ever. The owner was a retired Navy guy in his 40s. At one point, an old Caddie drove up and an even older guy got out. This was Mr. Ben – age 96 – and the town historian. The owner said, He can tell me about the characteristics I share with my great-grandfather. For those of us who live without roots or continuity in just one place, it’s hard to imagine such a thing – but delightful to try to! And just think how your grandmother would have felt, knowing that her love of trees was bequeathed to you.

  2. Ahhh. Sorry about that…..we have only had two doorways which accommodated plantings (the condo board being more narrow minded) but both had lilacs. There was nothing closer to heaven on earth than stepping out my front door in Belgravia and inhaling the perfume of lilacs. But, if it is any comfort, I’m not that fond of penguins.

  3. Ralph Gibson

    An interesting, emotive, well-written, and thought-provoking essay. How like your mother……

    I think it is interesting that the ancient sense of olfaction is unique among our senses in that it bypasses a sensory “filter” in the brain and has direct contact with higher brain centers. Olfaction has a powerful ability to form the sort of associations you describe.

    Once again, well done. Once again, thanks.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Ralph – You see, now, I did not know that about the sense of smell. But I have heard it said that the smell of chocolate is as satisfying as the eating of it – which leads me to wonder about the higher brain centers of *some* researchers….

  4. Alison Uhrbach

    I look forward to Sunday mornings to see what you have to say! The most beautiful lilacs I’ve ever seen were at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton ON – rows upon rows of different kinds down the side of a hill. I grew up with only the tall suckering varieties – so this was quite a revelation to me! By the way, it’s too soon yet in my part of Alberta for lilacs to be blooming.. but soon?? we hope so!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Yes, it’s been a revelation to me how much more abundant southern Ontario is than Alberta – at any latitude! Spring blooms earlier here; autumn warms us later. Maybe that would be a good trip itinerary – following spring…

  5. Just yesterday on a walk did John and I clamber up a steepish hill to bury our faces in lilac blossoms. We smelled another group of them later on the walk (through the Aviation Parkway near Montfort) but could not find the source, the wind carrying their scent in some irregular pattern through the trees.

    Lovely post. We forget how certain scents can time-travel us to our younger selves and give us so much uncomplicated pleasure and remembrances. We have a new azalea bush on our balcony that was in late bud when planted and flowered the next — like it was waiting for us to be there to appreciate its effort. An old smell, said John, breathing deeply, and I could see him disappear into his mother’s garden; 60 years dropped in a flash.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – It’s enough to make me think we should identify these triggers and consciously seek them out. Easy to recognize the things that agitate us – how much better to know (& indulge in) the things that put us at rest.

  6. Jim taylor

    I love the stuff about lilacs, but increasing age has largely robbed me of the sense of smell. I can barely smell lilacs any more, and we have several large and luxuriant bushes in our yard.
    What caught me, like Marion, was your line ““… unique, but not without precedent.” It’s a wonderful summation of that oxymoronic reality that we are individuals, _and_ we are members of a larger group.

    JIm T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – How sad to lose smell! At least the lilac rewards sight as well. Our Korean lilac – grown as a “standard” (aka tree with a skinny trunk and topknot) – is just now coming into full bloom in our front yard – and at every overpass along the highway, the old-fashioned lilacs, growing (apparently) wild, are at their peak. A marvelous time of year. As for the self/community thing – yes, it was an odd realization that what made me, me, was both a pretty standard set of characteristics as well as their one-time-only expression in this package.

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