The lilacs are in bloom, all one-hundred-or-so feet of them—two hedges on either side of the barn. It’s raining, so I can’t park my chair beneath them, as I’ve been doing for days, basking in their fragrance as I read or write or stare out across the yard. Every spring I try to soak in the lilacs as much as possible before their inevitable browning and fading. When we visited the Farmette in 2002, searching for houses, the hedges were in bloom, and I thought of how rich I’d be to pick as many lilacs as I could want. The lilacs may be why we bought the place. The hedge is old, perhaps about as old as our 109-year-old house, and holds many varieties—blue, pink, lavender, white, deep purple, singles and doubles. Their branches twist and crack, sinewy, resisting straight lines. Young lilacs sprout up from the ground beneath them or appear in other parts of the yard. I snip them by the armfuls, pounding the base of their woody stems to make them last longer in my vases; cut lilacs tend to wilt after a day or so, and I replenish the spent bouquets. The house is spicy with lilac.
When I was a girl, my Grandma Quade gave me a copy of a book she’d had for quite a while—tattered antique cover held together with tape—titled The Lilac Lady. Sitting under the lilacs, I try to remember what the book was about, but can only conjure up a story of friendship between a little girl and a mysterious woman next door, who has lost the use of her legs and spends her time resting by her lilacs. I’m not sure what happened to that copy of the book, but the text is still out in the world, easy to find. The author is a woman named Ruth Alberta Brown, and I can discover virtually nothing about her, except the titles of her books, which all seem to be for young girls. The Lilac Lady was published in 1914.
In the novel, a young girl named Peace goes to stay with a friendly couple, Elizabeth and her minister husband John, for spring break, but then must remain for weeks, because her sisters back home get scarlet fever and are quarantined. The beginning of the book is background—six orphans, including Peace, adopted by a kindly and very wealthy “grandfather,” and some religious stuff about charity—but the story really begins when Peace wanders over to visit her friends’ neighbor’s lilacs.
“Peace paused at Elizabeth's side in the open doorway to drink in the rich fragrance of the lilacs, whose purple plumes nodded so temptingly from the hedge across the way. For days it had been part of her morning program to rush out of doors as soon as she was dressed to sniff hungrily at the lilac-laden air, but never before had they smelled so sweet nor looked so beautiful and feathery as they did this morning, for now they had reached the height of their perfection. Tomorrow some of their beauty would be gone; they would be growing old.
‘Oh, Elspeth, ain't they lovely?’ she sighed. "Don't they make you feel like heaven? Wouldn't you like a great, big bunch of them under your nose always? I wonder why the folks who live there don't give them away. I should if they b'longed to me. Think how many people would be glad to get them. May I go over in the field to play? I won't break one of Saint John's plants or touch a single lilac, truly, if I can just play where I can smell their smell as it comes fresh from the bush. We only get the wee, ragged edges of it over here.’”
Inspired by the lilacs, she sings a little tune: “‘Oh, you pretty lilacs, growing by the wall! How I'd like to have you for my very own. I would pick your blossoms, lavender and white, and give them all to sick folks, shut in from the light.—Why, that rhymed all of its own self!"
She paused abruptly beside the lilac bushes, her arms still uplifted and fingers outstretched as if beckoning to the plumy sprays above her Head. "Isn't it queer how such things will happen when if I'd been trying to make poetry in my dairy I couldn't have thought of those words for an hour? I guess it was the lilacs that did it. Oh, you are so beautiful! You'd make anything rhyme, wouldn't you? What is it that gives you your sweetness? I wish you could tell me the secret. Oh, you lovely lilacs, growing up so high; swinging in the sunshine—’”
I like Brown’s prose, her description of the flowers, the voice of Peace, who can wonderfully characterize the faint scent of lilacs as “wee, ragged edges” and then, in her previously-an-orphan way, mix up words like diary and dairy.
Behind the hedge, Peace finds a twenty-four-year-old recluse, confined to a chair, whom she calls the Lilac Lady; the novel refers to her as “the lame girl.” There’s a fountain, a stone mansion, a horse accident that has broken the dreams of the young woman, a gardener who brings Peace a mound of lilac blossoms—all stuff for a young reader to inhale, heady with romance. They become friends. Peace draws the Lilac Lady out of her shell. It turns out the Lilac Lady and Peace’s friend Elizabeth were college “chums” who lost touch. The Lilac Lady decides to turn her mansion into a home for orphans. The novel ends with Peace going to visit the Lilac Lady at her mansion-turned-orphan-home and finding her asleep, which is to say, dead, though Peace doesn’t realize it. It’s a bit creepy, with the adults of the story smiling over at Peace and the dead lame girl, who has been artfully arranged for such a reunion.
“The door of the invalid's chamber stood open, and beside the window, shaded by the great oak, still hung with autumn colors, lay the beloved form of the Lilac Lady among her silken cushions. She was clad in simple white, with the heavy bronze braids trailing across her shoulders, and the waxen fingers twined in a familiar pose upon her breast. A soft smile wreathed the colorless lips, but the beautiful blue eyes were closed in slumber, and she looked as if she were resting after a hard-fought battle. So lovely a picture did she present that Peace paused on the threshold, and the gay words of greeting bubbling up to her lips died away in a deep breath of awe.”
When Peace exclaims, “She got tired of watching and fell asleep waiting for me!” no one really corrects her impression, except to suggest that God has indeed put her to sleep.
There are lessons to be learned, of course, in the story of Peace and the Lilac Lady—about giving, about being oneself, about embracing beauty. But the wee, ragged edge I’d remembered is maybe what is more important—the image of the lilac hedge, the girl entranced by their fragrance, and the mysterious woman in the chair beneath the blooms.