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.