Lilacs

A few years after I moved to Colorado, my mother told me my grandmother had started forgetting things, repeating herself, and one day, she nearly backed her car into someone because she forgot to look behind her. So, Ma moved to Colorado to live with my mom.

I had questions: How will all this work? What in the hell will Ma—my feisty, independent grandmother who never liked to be told what to do, let alone have people do things for her—do here with no house of her own, no yard, nothing truly of her own to “piddle around with,” as she always did? And then, my thoughts selfishly turned to knowing I wouldn’t have everything I had grown up loving, the literal home I went back to every time I visited Maryland.

My grandmother’s house was the place of so many markers of my youth. It was the first place I ran away to—from a block away, with only rags in my suitcase—when my mother made me mad; the first time I tried to sneak a cigarette, when Ma of course caught me. It held all of the memories of the one place I’ve considered my childhood home as long as I’ve been alive.

***

My grandmother’s house was not fancy like the houses my parents bought as we frequently moved. Instead of lacquered cabinets and shiny sinks, Ma had antiquated, useful cabinets from which the dark brown, false-grain facing had begun to peel off long ago. Her kitchen table set had ugly brown, orange, and yellow flower-patterned backs and burnt orange seats that my sweaty legs stuck to in the summer.

I loved her old washing machine with its double-roller wringer, and the hypnotic effect of watching her put clothes through the rollers to rinse them in her cast-iron sink. Sometimes, she let me help, but always cautioned, “Don’t you git your fingers too close to them wringers, they’ll git you.” I listened, and never did my fingers get “git.”

Sometimes, if something had been stained badly, she would use a real, old-fashioned washboard, the kind you can only find now in the back hills of Tennessee (where she’s from), on Antiques Road Show (which she loved to watch), or at a Bluegrass festival (where they probably use a more updated version than hers). I would set my chin on top of the worn edge of the washtub and listen to her soft, melodious humming while her fingers, gnarled from arthritis after years of sewing, worked stain after stain out of clothes.

The washtub held less appeal, though, whenever Ma would tell me it was time to get cleaned up. I was a busy kid, a tomboy, and I was forever getting dirty in her yard. When it was time to come back in from outside, Ma would holler out the door for me to “come in and git youself cleaned up,” and I knew I was in trouble. “Cleaning up” for Ma was not just a simple encounter with a wet washcloth, but an extended hair-washing event over the cast-iron tub during which Ma loosed every speck of dirt from my hair. I still don’t think I can get my hair that clean.

The small bedroom I frequently called my own was no bigger than some modern closets. There was space enough for a bed, the clothes hanging from a pole to one side of my twin bed, and no more, which made the smell of Ma’s mothballs inescapable. Before she put a bed in that room for me, it was her sewing room. Beneath the pole holding my clothes, Ma had her old Singer sewing machine. She still kept it inside a Singer standing sewing machine table, complete with a pedal to operate it. One of my favorite sounds growing up was the steady ch-ch-ch-ch-ch…ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of her steady running of the machine.

The best part about Ma’s house was the yard; it went on forever. Every day it didn’t rain or snow, Ma would walk around her yard with her wobbly, slow saunter that made her seem lackadaisical—something she never actually was. Among so many other trees—including the dogwood my mom and dad dug up and stole from someone before I was born—right outside her door, she had her lilac bush. This is why I love lilacs: their delicate blossoms and heady scent of them. Year after year, after her lilac bloomed, I watched Ma cut the branches back, and I hated it each time. I didn’t understand then what she kept trying to tell me: cutting it back was the only way to make sure it will grow. If you let lilacs get too overgrown, they won’t look as good, won’t have as many blooms, will slowly outgrow and eventually destroy themselves.

***

For all the time I spent with Ma, I never really talked to her much after I moved to Colorado, and I don’t exactly know how or why it ended up that way. Maybe because I always felt a little awkward talking to her. I just didn’t know what to say to her, what to ask her, how to fill the long pauses, how to just tell her, “You are my childhood; you are my heart’s home, my only real home.” But every spring, I knew I could ask her how her lilac was, and she would tell me it was good, and blooming, and she had just put some on the kitchen table. I could always and can always still see that lilac bush, the jar of lilacs on her table, in my mind.

Part of my hesitation to call her could’ve been that she was never very emotionally demonstrative, a trait of hers I’ve inherited. She didn’t say “I love you” often, even though it was a family thing to say it every time someone was leaving, even just to go to the store around the corner. Ma said “I love you” in so many other ways, though: every time she made me any meal, every washing of my hair, every bus stop pickup, every time she put my clothes through her washing machine.

As the day she flew to Colorado neared, all I could think of was Ma’s house, and how she loved her independence and being able to take care of her yard. I had a feeling she’d go crazy in Colorado with so few trees, if any, to prune, so little grass to mow, and of course no lilacs of her own.

My mother flew back to help Ma pack. She carefully packed up my grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine in a carry-on bag and carried it onto the plane; the stand, however, wouldn’t fit, and so it stayed. Ma’s favorite knife for cutting fruit made it out here, as did her clock, her cornbread skillet, and her family pictures. Ma left her house, her lilacs, her life behind.

In the spring, not too long after she got here, I drove her around for some errands, because getting a new driver’s license in Colorado intimidated her. She needed a haircut, wanted to buy some fabric to make herself a new cooking apron and to pick up a few things at the grocery store. On the way to her haircut, I saw lilac bushes blooming along the side of the road. I pointed them out to my grandmother, “Look, Ma, lilacs, and they’re blooming, too.” Ma turned her head to look, wrinkled her nose up under her old bug-eyed sunglasses, said, “Yeah, I believe they is, ain’t they?”

Ma hummed as we made our way home from errands, and we again passed the blooming lilacs. I pulled over. Ma abruptly stopped humming. I eyed the small hill where the lilac bushes bloomed, and Ma, knowing exactly what I was doing, said, “Ahh my, you gonna git youself in trouble, ain’t you?” I smiled at her, said, “Nope.”

I ran from the car, quick as I could—because she might have been right—snapped off several lilac blooms, and ran back to the car. I handed the delicate, fragrant blossoms to my grandmother. “There you go, Ma, lilacs.”

As we pulled away from the side of the road, I looked over at my grandmother and saw her small smile, her nose buried in the blooms

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