My favorite flower? Lilacs. Definitely lilacs. Partly because of that overwhelming fragrance but mostly because that special perfume and the delicate poetry of lilac blossoms always carry me back in time to a particular summer when life was absolutely perfect.
The recollection always comes as a jolt. The air suddenly fills with the smell of lilacs, and my memory is flooded with the colors of that short but special season.
Everybody’s got one of those times tucked away in the recesses of their mind, I think—maybe a special summer or fall, or perhaps a particular school year, sometime when life was so beautiful you wanted to live forever. For me it was the summer of 1941. I was six years old.
To set the stage, the country was not yet embroiled in the global war looming on the horizon, the Great Depression was over, and our nation was happily getting back to work. No one had much money, of course, but there was work. Prosperity was clearly in the offing, and, where we lived in northern Wisconsin, we had just come out of a particularly severe winter.
We had moved into the brick farmhouse in the fall, and, before we could even unpack or explore our new surroundings, the snow came. It buried the house, the yard, and the long, sweeping driveway that connected to the county road at the bottom of the hill. Then it got cold, and the wind blew the snow into huge drifts. For three days we huddled by the stove as the blizzard raged.
On the second day our landlord arrived on a sleigh pulled by a team of giant draft horses. He brought firewood, and his wife had sent a box of food. That night Mom rummaged through our unpacked boxes and found her copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poems and read “Snowbound” aloud while the drifts accumulated outside.
For the rest of the winter the temperature seldom rose above zero, and Dad struggled every morning to start the car, a cranky Hudson Terraplane. He drained the radiator at night and brought the battery into the house, where it could keep warm. Each morning he filled the radiator with hot water and reconnected the battery. Sometimes the car started; other times it didn’t.
Often spring’s arrival is hidden beneath the lingering remnants of winter. But in 1941 in northern Wisconsin, we went to bed one night and it was still winter. When we awoke the next morning, it was spring. The sun shone, the temperature rose into the fifties, the snow was melting, and a couple of robins began building a nest in the maple tree outside the kitchen window—all in the space of a single day. I remember Mom opening the doors and windows so fresh air could fill the house. After breakfast Mom and Dad walked through the melting snow to lay out the gardens. Vegetables would go here, and in the middle of the yard, a flower garden.
By April the gardens were in and the landlord walked behind his team and plowed the field at the side of the house. I remember standing at the edge of the field watching as this gentle man coaxed those giant horses back and forth across the field. That was the first time I ever smelled freshly plowed soil, rich and pungent. I remember asking the farmer what made it smell like that.
“Last summer,” he said with a wink. “It’s been sleeping here all winter, and now we’re waking it up.” I believed him. I still think it is true.
Later that month a huge lilac bush between the yard and the plowed field burst into bloom. For the next two weeks the house was filled with the pungency and pastels of spring. About the same time, my dad climbed the tree in the backyard and tied a heavy rope to an upper limb. To the bottom he attached a truck tire, and I had my first swing, one that allowed me to fly, to arch outward toward the sun, so high I could almost touch the clouds.
When I tired of swinging, I would follow my dog around the property, inspecting each tiny recess, poking into corners of the barn and probing the hedgerow along the driveway. Sometimes the dog would scare up a family of field mice and go nuts trying to catch them. Sometimes she did, but mostly they got away.
Once I found a tow chain that our landlord had lost. When it was returned, he picked me up and set me atop one of his magnificent horses and walked me around the yard.
“That tow chain would have cost a lot to replace,” he said. “At a nickel a ride, I guess you can ride around on Hennie here all summer long, for free.” And I did, clear into fall when the threshing crew showed up for the harvest.
The land in that special part of Wisconsin was perfect for growing things back then. Our vegetable garden thrived in abundance, and I discovered that not everything in God’s bounty was necessarily edible. Rutabaga, for example, was never intended for human consumption. Mom’s flower garden, on the other hand, was so elegant that people used to drive out to our farmhouse on Sundays to see it. Mom always gave them a bouquet to take home.
There were still a few hoboes on the road in those days, and when they came by the house, Mom always fixed them a sandwich. Sometimes they volunteered to chop some firewood in return before ambling back down the driveway, never to be seen again.
As quickly as the summer came, it vanished, turning cold with the rains of fall. I had turned brown during the summer, and Mom said I looked like an Indian as I started school.
Later, the landlord returned with his plow to turn the earth again before winter. He announced that he was going to plow closer to the house this year so he could plant another couple acres.
“We’re gonna be at war,” he mused. “Country’s gonna need more food.” To feed the world, he plowed down the lilac bush. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and then we moved away, and the war started.
Many years later I returned to that part of Wisconsin and visited the farmhouse. It looked much the way I remembered it. The tree in the backyard was gone, but there was still a field next to the house. Right at the edge of the field was a lilac bush.