Stealing Lilacs

Yep. It’s come to this. I’m stealing lilacs from the parking lot of a Subway sandwich shop. This was after I nearly caused a multiple car pile-up just off Interstate 55 because I was looking for places to pull over and “borrow” blooming purple lilacs from the roadside bushes.  How did it come to this?

I have Richard to blame – or thank.

Richard is a long-time resident in the Humbolt Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. He’s lived there long enough to be able to report on the trees that he’s loved and lost on his street. Richard lives on a double lot. One part of his property is a home and the other is an enchanted oasis of greenery, sculpture, and precious odds-n-ends.

We might have missed it, but as I was walking with photographer, Robert Pitts (more of his work to be featured on this site soon). Richard called, “Who has the best lawn on Kedzie Avenue?”

Our answer was, of course, “You do!” With that, we were treated to stories about a rapidly changing neighborhood, the loss of his dog, altercations with neighbors, and his enthusiasm for his backyard oasis.

And, most of all, there were the lilacs. The gift of lilacs. Without a pause in his story about giving lilacs to his public school teachers as a kid, he cut fresh lilacs from his enchanted garden and handed them through the fence. I didn’t ask for them. They were completely unexpected and freely given. A lilac-grace.

It might have been his story about bringing lilacs to school that drew up my own childhood memories, but it was really their smell. It was my own “Proustian” tea-cake moment.

As philosopher Alain de Botton describes, the most famous cookie in Western literature is the one Marcel Proust describes. It gets dipped in tea and his whole childhood comes flooding back. It’s a strange, but familiar phenomenon. We can’t remember what we had for lunch, but a small thing can bring back the details of the past with uncanny clarity.

This was the gift of Richard’s lilac-grace. It brought me back to schoolrooms, church sanctuaries, and cemeteries of my childhood. It drew to mind my dear mother-in-law who also loves them. It reminded me of the fragrant peonies that grew in our yard, which were transplanted there from my grandmother’s garden.

It was such an unexpected delight. I have been trying to share it with others. One small obstacle.

Unlike Richard, we don’t have lilacs growing in our own enchanted garden. Thankfully, Chicago’s roadsides have plenty of little free gardens from which to “borrow” some.

Every time I’ve arrived with lilacs, at least one person takes a deep breath and smiles a remembering smile. Before the blooms fade this spring, my son will bring a small bouquet for his teacher so someday lilacs will bring a remembering smile to his heart, too.

Isn’t this grace in full bloom, connecting times and people and coming from unexpected places?

Last week, it was lilac-grace from roadside ditches and the backyard of a neighbor. What will it be today?


photo credit: Robert Pitts 





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