Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fragance of Memory

Memory triggers include anything from seeing childhood toys, hearing remembered tunes, or smelling scents that punch start buttons on mental videos of our past that loop repeatedly.  Each spring when lilacs bloom, I get two weeks of scent prompts that start those mind movies rolling. 

Lilacs figure into my earliest memories.  I haven’t checked with my mother, but I am an April baby, and I suspect lilac fragrances wafted into my first home to imprint on my infant brain.  Every time I smell lilacs, I think of sunshine and gentle breezes mixed with motherly and grandmotherly love.  For some reason, I also think of freshly laundered whites hanging on the clothesline surrounded by sweet scented lilac blossoms.  Grandma’s gone so I can’t ask her, but I wonder if she didn’t have a lilac border near her clothesline.

When we moved to Southern California, I was nine. Lilacs became a memory of springtime rather than an expectation.  Despite the delicate appearance of lilac blooms, these plants bloom best after an extended cold spell so they aren’t SoCal friendly.  To give you an idea of how well these plants handle adversity, New Hampshire selected lilacs as its state flower to represent its citizens’ resiliency.  By moving to a gentler climate where citrus, avocado, and palm trees grow in backyards, my family sacrificed the joy of old-fashioned lilacs.

As one might expect, absence made my heart grow fonder.   Imagine my thrill the year my mother visited Kansas in April to return with a lilac bouquet.  I longed to open a window to smell that sweet scent or stand at the clothesline, pinning heavy, wet laundry in a straight row while blooming lilacs assaulted my olfactory sense.  Instead, I sniffed those bedraggled blooms every time I walked past them.  I suspect my mom saw me in the kitchen more than usual until those pale purple blooms picked from Grandma’s lilac border turned brown .

I am not the only lilac lover in America.  Drive through any older neighborhood or down country lanes past old farmsteads to see towering lilac hedges that make privacy fences unnecessary.  Despite the fact that these plants bloom only two or three weeks each spring, the dense, green shrubbery offers occupants plenty of shady seclusion. 

Easy to grow, lilac hedges can last hundreds of years.  According to, someone, circa 1750, planted possibly the oldest living lilacs in America at the Governor Wentworth estate in Portsmouth, NH. To build on this history, note that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wrote about growing lilacs in their gardens.

When this unique spring fragrance tickles noses, it not only jogs personal memories, it also tells a story about America and hardy folks who brought their lilacs wherever they settled.  Ask a neighbor with a lilac hedge to share lilac suckers so you, too, can make memories and continue this American story in your own yard.

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