Some things are seasonal. When they come around they tend to trigger memory of a familiar place or emotion. Lilacs fit into this category. For Utahns they often bring back memories of grandma's house.
Often there are two lilac bushes in such a memory, one on either side of the sidewalk between the street and the house, or there might be just one, snuggled up against a living room or bedroom window. In late spring they begin to explode, their fragrance flavoring small corners of our days without our even thinking much about it.On Memorial Day lilacs show up in violet-colored clusters juxtaposed against granite headstones, their beauty held together by foil-wrapped coffee cans. In short, most of us have a personal image of lilacs, those flowers that grow large enough to fill the role of trees.
But people who grew up somewhere else will remind you that lilacs are not an exclusively Utah experience. They may bring with them warm memories of another grandma's house in Sheboygan, Wis., or even - dread the thought! - one somewhere in New Jersey, where sea breezes may actually invigorate the lilac's hard stocks. Whitman's beautiful and sad elegy to Abraham Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" reminds us that the historical roots of the lilac run deep.
They run wide as well. I remember being in Paris in 1964, on my way home to Utah after being away for 2 1/2 years. From a street vendor, I bought a little flask of lilac-scented perfume to give to my girl, later my wife, whom I had not seen and sorely missed all that time. A small gift perhaps for such an important reunion, but one that has heirloom possibilities, and as I say, 8,000 miles from grandma's house on a busy intersection in Paris.
So where do we chase the lilac for its roots? Well beyond Paris. The lilac was brought to the West from southeastern Europe in the 15th or 16th century. Where it was before that I haven't found out yet, but I am curious.
Imagine traders trudging through Turkey or Yugoslavia, stopping at small streams to re-moisten the wrapped roots of lilac starts, probably the very same ritual my Great-grandma Kristina used when she acquired a sprout or two from a friend in town and crossed the creek on the way back home to plant them on either side of the door of her little two-room log cabin.
And where are the roots to your lilac bushes?