When the lilac bushes in our yard begin their lavender blush, the not-yet-opened stalks remind me of a teenage boy’s first mustache, thin and full of promise. Each year, my husband and I debate about when the lilacs will fully bloom. He insists on Mother’s Day. I say Memorial Day.
I am guided by the fickleness of childhood memory, when the lilacs bloomed in our yard around Memorial Day. I think spring arrived later when I was a child.
On Memorial Day, we also began to plant my mother’s huge garden. It was foolhardy to put anything in the ground too early on the frozen prairie of Cottonwood County, Minn. But on Memorial Day, my mother taught me to stick two fingers into the earth, as deep as they would go, plant a few seeds and cover them over.
Carrots, radishes, sweet peas, green beans, lettuce, watermelon and sweet corn would grace our table in the months that followed. Except for the vegetables I harvested and ate on the walk back to the kitchen, still warm and sweet from the summer sun.
My favorite memory of Memorial Day was visiting the cabin of our family friends on Fish Lake. After we tired of roaring around the lake following our friend’s inaugural motorboat launch, my sisters and I went for a hike in the woods with his daughter. We were looking for violets. The fragile purple flowers bloomed in the shadiest part of the grove behind their cabin. She told us they were little fairies, resting from their magical labors. She advised us not to pick them, because they would not survive.
But I always picked one when she wasn’t looking and tucked it in my jacket to take home. In my pocket, the violet became a crumbled memory of the deep green of the woods and its mysterious inhabitants.
I think my husband is right about when the lilacs start blooming. His childhood memory is of gathering lilacs to share with his mother on his walk home from school in Des Moines in early May. The two-week difference in growing seasons seems to match up with Mother’s Day in Minneapolis.
This spring, the lilacs, the crabapples, the hawthorns, the redbuds and the winter-hearty magnolias are all doing their part — essential workers warding off despair during these strange and uneasy times. Life and its routines are as fragile as a violet in a wooded glade.
Impermanence is in the air, like the petals fluttering off the crabapple, strewing the sidewalk with blossoms fit for a bride. This spring, the spring of 2020, I inhale the perfume of our lilacs. I try to plant my feet firmly in gratitude for this season of promise, the scent of lilacs almost obscuring the lingering threat of disease that surrounds us all.
Heidi Schneider, of Golden Valley, is a teacher.