At 218 Furnace St. (where my family lived from 78-83), next to the outhouse/storage shed (that is a WHOLE different story for another day), someone had built a small raised garden. By small I mean a two-foot-wide swath of ground trapped in a knee-high brick wall. The builder picked an awkward, perennially shaded spot for a garden.
My mom planted mint. It grew in abundance. The only other thing I ever remember ‘growing’ there was a sizeable toad.
Except for the lilac tree. I say tree because someone had pruned the bush so that it had just one trunk. The tree spent summer, fall, winter ignored and unspectacular. Unspectacular except for one week in the spring when the blossoms would erupt with color and perfume. The buzzing of bees whirled around that tree all day. More than the colorful blooms, I loved the smell of lilac. I still do. I could smell that tree in our bedroom at night. Like so many springtime buds, the lilac exploded with a flourish, only to quickly recede to irrelevance.
The lilac by our front door has blossomed white. The enormous cluster up Hill Road sprouts a brilliant pale purple. I’ve stood before this mountain of lilac drinking in the smell, thinking I am eight years old again. Having grown up next to train tracks and traffic and downwind from the Emmaus Foundry, I appreciate the innocent smell of nature. Lilac in the spring. Honeysuckle around the 4th of July. Even the rotting leaves of November carry a peaceful purity.
Walt Whitman wrote ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ as an elegy to Abraham Lincoln. Whitman and the Northern states deeply mourned the death of Lincoln. The Civil War ended just five days prior to Lincoln’s death. Rather than celebrate the end of hostilities and begin the work of rebuilding the shattered country, the country stopped. Everything. Whitman’s elegy expressed his own personal grief and that of everyone who had hope once the war had ended.
While the beginning of the poem is more familiar, the ending says more:
Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
Whitman sets the lilac, the calling bird, and ‘the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night’ (how great is that line?) as an eternal remembrance of who and what had been lost.
With the lilacs blooming now, I wonder how we will remember June of 2020. We have lost so many and so much since March. We have lost the innocence and opportunity. It is important that we acknowledge who and what we have lost. It is important to set a reminder—not of perpetual mourning, but of perpetual hope.
The lilac will bloom and raise the world with its fragrance. The solitary thrush will sing again. Great stars will rise and fall again. That’s the beauty of Whitman’s work. Each lament promises life. Let our laments, let our frustrations, let our mourning, likewise, promise life.
I love you.
I need you.
I hope for you.
Please be safe.