THURSDAY: The Lilac Bush

BY IAN STOUT

Copyright is held by the author.

WHEN BILL AND MARY were courting, (do they still use that word?) they drove everywhere. Bill was a 21-year-old car salesman using a company-owned demonstrator, and she a clerk in a drug store, so money was tight and taking a drive in the country was their least expensive activity during this courting.

They covered the back roads of southern Ontario, visiting Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake before it was jammed with tourists, and wandering around the Shand Dam near Fergus. They stopped only at spots with no admission fees, like the Elora Gorge, wandered through antique stores and flea markets, and on a few rare occasions, made a small purchase. They got to know and like each other and when they married, their honeymoon was a drive to Acapulco, Mexico in a new Studebaker Lark. It seemed the natural thing to do.

Over the years their funds never rose much above the “barely able to manage level,” but somehow they did manage, and occasionally, enjoyed the luxury of a driving holiday with their children. They did Florida a couple of times, visited the east coast, and often drove throughout Ontario, including a rain soaked camping trip around Lake Nipissing through North Bay and Sudbury that included forgotten dead fish stashed in the trunk of the car, but that’s another story.

One of the places they tried to visit every year was on the old Sydemham Road above Dundas where, on an abandoned farm, a stand of Lilac trees burst into bloom every spring. There was a huge clump of white lilacs surrounded by several shades of purple and on a Sunday afternoon Bill might be found clambering through the wild array of unattended bushes, snipping great armfuls of blooms. He’d stuff the trunk and back seat and the car would smell like a perfume factory all the way home.

There was another stand of Lilacs in King’s Forest Park near Albion Falls where Bill, wearing dark clothes, would collect huge bundles of flowers late at night, never quite sure whether he could get arrested for sneaking them home to fill the house with their fragrance.

At their last home, Bill and Mary planted a small French Lilac near their back fence. Over the years they watched the tiny bush slowly grow into a mature wonder that each spring rewarded them with a deep purple show they could see from their kitchen table. It was a very special Lilac bush.

As they laughed and entertained through their 50th anniversary and then their 55th, the Lilac grew to almost 20 feet tall and spread over half their back fence. Each spring Bill would lug his small aluminum step ladder from the cluttered garage, climb to the top, and while teetering in the breeze, clip a bundle of sweet smelling blooms for his lady. He never knew, or perhaps he did and never let on, that she was upstairs at their bedroom window, holding her breath, as she watched through the louvered blind her old fool of a husband appearing engaged in some form of attempted suicide.

Mary became more forgetful as the years passed and her health slowly slid downhill. Bill had to learn new skills, like cooking, which he never had to do in the past, but he managed and made sure few knew of the subtle role change in their household.

Finally, in the spring, Mary slipped away during breakfast, while sitting at the kitchen table. Her last words were “how lovely the Lilacs are this year.”

The funeral was like all funerals. There was much sadness and not enough joy about a life well lived. Through it all Bill accepted condolences, parried offers of help, and ignored those who suggested it was time for him to move out of the big house and find a nice retirement home. When his children said they were coming home with him to keep him company he drew the line. Bill quietly took his son to one side and politely said if he and his wife did come home with him, he would cut him out of his will and leave his estate to a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Bill went home alone.

The day after the funeral Bill sat at the kitchen table and stared at the Lilac bush now in full splendor at their back fence. He regretted not cutting any for Mary this year although he knew she had seen it that last day of her life. He got up, shuffled out to the garage and found his ladder. Getting it back to the bush was difficult but he managed and over the next half hour he cut a large bunch of perfect flowers. Once they were in a vase in the dining room, he looked out at the ladder still standing by the tree and decided to cut some more. They would be for Mary.

Bill drove to the cemetery, filled a white plastic pail with water, and spent 20 minutes hauling it from the tap to the grave, all the while muttering rude things under his breath about the positioning of water taps in grave yards. When done, he stood back and smiled; Mary had her Lilacs and they looked great.

Over the next few weeks he decided to plant a Lilac bush at Mary’s resting place and rather than buy one, he decided to start a new bush from the one in the yard. He spent many long hours on his old computer searching Google for the best way to propagate Lilacs and decided the route to go was by air-layering. If he did it that way, he would have a healthy baby bush with lots of roots that he could nurture for a whole year before replanting at the grave.

To ensure there could be no failure, Bill set up four air-layering sites on the bush, then cut out four suckers and repotted them in containers and finally, collected seeds from the flower heads when they finished blooming. As a last measure he took several cuttings, put hormone mixture on their cuts and stuck them into sand in pots. It wasn’t long before the kitchen looked like the inside of a garden center and he had difficulty finding a place to sit and eat his raisin bran cereal each morning.

Bill’s efforts were spectacularly successful. He had strong healthy French Lilac bushes all over the house in various stages of development. The tiny shoots from seeds in egg cartons numbered close to a hundred. Half the cutting had taken root and the suckers looked as healthy as their parents. The air-layered efforts were the best though. These great plants had leaves and buds almost shouting “look at me” as Bill watered them from the small can Mary had bought for him years before. He had already picked out the bush for his wife’s grave but hadn’t considered what he would do with the rest. Oh well, he thought, refilling his watering can at the sink, one step at a time.

Permission was required by the cemetery for any plantings of a permanent nature and when Bill told them he wanted to plant a Lilac bush, they said no. They claimed Lilac roots were intrusive and once he stopped caring for it, how would it be trimmed and kept from taking over not only his and his wife’s grave, but all those in the immediate vicinity. So there was no chance he could plant a French Lilac tree at his wife’s grave.

Bill went home heart broken and sat for long hours thinking about it. He had spent over a year growing all the plants surrounding him in his kitchen and he couldn’t just throw them away. They were like family.

Using Google Earth he studied the cemetery layout and found some areas where a Lilac bush might fit in, so the next day he called the Board office and had his name put on the agenda for their next meeting. When asked the reason for his appearance, he evasively said “horticultural considerations.”

Bill won the day. He had found a section of the grounds near the entrance unsuitable for graves. The photos he passed around showed how attractive Lilacs can be when not in bloom and how spectacular they were when in full colour. He sold the board on the idea as an addition to their landscaping efforts, but the cost was the clincher, nothing. He left the meeting happy in the thought that a great clump of Lilac bushes, French, possibly other colours, would be within sight of their plot. He was happy.

For the next several years Bill planted Lilac bushes at the cemetery. The word got out that some old coot was giving away Lilac bushes and even planting them and he started getting calls from other cemeteries, local parks boards, the school board, and then private citizens. He gave trays of tiny Lilac plants grown from seed to the local hospital to sell with their spring flower sale fundraising event. His home was a plant nursery, a Lilac plant nursery, and he knew more about Lilacs than he ever thought possible. A friend jokingly called him Billy Lilac-seed.

Like everything, there comes an end, and with Bill it came in the spring of his 94th year. He died in his sleep, free of sickness but weary of body. His funeral was small because he had outlived most everyone he had known and few stood at his gravesite while he was laid to rest beside his beloved Mary. When it was over and they left, driving out through the cemetery gates, few noticed the bushes bordering the entranceway.

And they were all in full spectacular bloom.

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