Every May, I’m delighted by the return of blooming lilacs, one of my favorite flowers. Since I was a child, this flower has tugged at my heart.
I first learned about lilacs while walking home from elementary school, where there was a lilac bush next to the sidewalk near one house on my route. I remember picking a few branches of flowers from it and a woman coming out of the house asking me what I was doing. Hanging my head, I told her I was picking flowers for my Mom for Mother’s Day. I honestly hadn’t considered that I was stealing. I just knew I loved the lilacs’ lavender color and heavenly scent. I could only imagine my mother’s delight at receiving them as a Mother’s Day gift.
To my relief, the woman wasn’t angry. Instead, she said, “Just a minute,” and disappeared. I was sure my goose was cooked. But she came back out with some scissors and, to my surprise, helped me by cutting the lilac stems and making a lovely bouquet. I apologized for trying to take them and thanked her for allowing me to have some. After that, I knew never again to pull such a stunt. When I got home, I presented the bouquet to Mom, who immediately asked where I’d gotten the flowers. I told her a lady let me have them, and her suspicious stare tainted the special moment I had hoped for. A lesson hard learned.
My other childhood recollection of lilacs is associated with my Grandma and Grandpa Johnson’s house. There used to be a lilac bush outside my grandfather’s bedroom, located between the house and the neighbor’s fence. I remember that we had gone to see my grandparents for a Sunday dinner, and afterward, my brothers and I went out to play. I don’t know if we were playing hide and seek or not, but I remember finding the lilac bush outside grandpa’s bedroom to be the perfect place to hide. The bush branches formed a perfect arch-shaped canopy, and I could crawl beneath them and hide, smelling the fragrant scent of lilacs. The lilac cave became a favorite hiding place on several visits. But, my Mom eventually panicked at not being able to see where her children were disappearing and told us not to crawl under the bushes anymore.
Last month I read a sweet children’s book about a girl that was upset with her family and wanted to run away. So she marched out of the house and headed straight for a lilac bush and hid beneath it. She decided it was a perfect hiding place and would live there, so set to work building herself a little shelter. After a while, she missed her family and forgave them for upsetting her, inviting them to come live with her in her magical space. Reading this story felt as though someone had observed my childhood and written about it.
I often wanted to have my very own space to go as a kid. I think my Dad recognized this need in all three of his kids.
Within five years of each other’s ages, three children sometimes made for lots of chaos and squabbles about sharing, tattling, and general competition for attention. Dad would bring home big appliance boxes for us to play in several times. The best were refrigerator boxes – 3 of them – one for myself and each of my brothers. I remember cutting windows into them and decorating the outsides with our crayons.
We set them up on the patio and made a little neighborhood with each box as “our house.” I loved that I had my own space, all dark and quiet and smooth, and I didn’t have to let anyone else in it if I didn’t want to. So I would lay in it and try to imagine it as my home and what it would be like to sleep in it all night.
The need for children to have their own private space is important. Perhaps in these early years, they imagine their futures and life on their own. Hence parents who recognize this make tree houses, playhouses, pillow forts, and pup tents available.
For the four years that I babysat my granddaughter Jaycie, we built many “forts.” Every cushion from the couch, assorted pillows, blankets, and dining room chairs was used. She would delightedly crawl inside and easily spend 2 to 3 hours playing, reading, napping, and sometimes even eating lunch in the blanket fort. Being an indulgent grandmother, I, of course, complied.
I am no longer that child that hid beneath the lilacs, but I do still need to escape frequently to a hiding place. Even though I have a whole house to dwell in, I tend to retreat to the basement, where I have a room all to myself that I use as a studio. I can get lost in the paints and pens, papers and clay, and reacquainted with my inner 4-year-old self. I like the child in me and enjoy playing with her. Sometimes she even has moments of clarity while she doodles and creates, solving the problems of her day and eventually emerging from the basement a little more centered and happy. This month’s Recommended Read is, Under the Lilacs by E. B. Goodale, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2020.