The lilacs do it every time.
They pop into bloom right around Mother’s Day each year, painting the landscape in shades of purple that even Sherwin Williams can’t imagine, and filling the air with that delicate fragrance that perfume makers have been trying forever to replicate.
Those lilacs remind me of my mother, and how much she loved those craggy old lilac trees in the backyard, and how she would cut fresh bouquets every day, always wanting to bring the outdoors inside.
Her children had their First Communion pictures taken under the boughs of those lilac trees, and they climbed them until the kids got too big, or the trees got too small. The lilac blossoms each May were all the signal mom needed that the seasons had changed.
Another harsh Ohio winter was behind us, and it was time to open the windows and breathe the fresh air.
Although she never handled a fishing rod or shouldered a 20-gauge shotgun, mom was an outdoors person to the core. We had more al fresco meals than any Irish family in America because mom loved to be outside.
She much preferred a picnic to a meal at a restaurant, but the setting often did not involve a park, a pavilion, or even a picnic table.
While traveling, we had many a lunch served on a blanket spread out along the edge of a creek.
A couple of her picnics became the heart of family lore, such as the times there were snow flurries during the meal but she never considered retreating, and the time we had spaghetti while sitting in the grass alongside a friend’s quarry, because it was “just too nice out” to be eating inside.
When I smell those lilacs, I’m reminded of how much mom loved to garden and grow things. She had an active compost pile to supplement her efforts, long before such activity was en vogue.
By the time she was done carving up a large city lot with rock gardens, and water gardens, and massive flower beds, and stone paths, and driftwood gardens, and arbors, and trellises, and brick walkways, and climbing plants, and fern gardens, it was probably time to sell the lawnmower because there wasn’t much grass left.
Her landscaping style could best be described as a sort of programmed chaos, because she liked the exotic and the wild plants mixed in with the tulips and the violets and the lilies of the valley.
Those gardens were so all-encompassing by the time her grandchildren came along. They affectionately referred to anything behind the house as “grandma’s jungle.”
That’s where they always wanted to play.
Mom was a great camper. She grew up on family camping trips in the mountains of her native West Virginia, and then certainly honed her camp organizational skills with a stint as an officer in the Army serving overseas during World War II.
When we camped as a family, mom made sure things had just enough structure to maintain some semblance of order, but we also had the freedom to explore and discover and just be kids.
While my dad was often preoccupied with the trout in a nearby stream, mom did just about everything else around camp.
When I see those lilacs, it helps me recall that my mother was also the most subtle and discreet giver I ever met.
She sent boxes of medicines to hospitals run by the Sisters of Notre Dame in the Philippines, shipped books and medical supplies to missionaries in Jordan, mailed warm coats, blankets, school supplies, and fishing tackle to the St. Labre Indian School in Montana, and sent packages of medical equipment and maternity clothes to a clinic in Selma, Ala.
My mom taught all 14 of her children the importance of direct charity, and that just stuffing a couple of dollars in a jar by a cash register was no reason to feel like you had done your part.
She arranged delivery of donated furniture to families in need, she fixed food for people that were hungry, and she regularly loaded her station wagon with good clothing and toys and took those things to area migrant camps.
Today, her kids continue that practice.
It also was not unusual for my mom to attend the funeral Mass for someone she did not know, and explain simply that “someone has to be there to pray for that soul.”
Those lilacs remind me that mom maintained her love of the outdoors until her late eighties, when Alzheimer’s crept in and stole her wit. Then it was her speech and eventually her ability to recognize her own family was taken.
But it never claimed that sweet, compassionate smile, or how great she looked in any shade of her favorite color — purple.
My mom is at rest now, and her remains occupy a place of honor at Arlington National Cemetery with so many others.
Hopefully, the sun is shining brightly there on this Mothers’ Day, and the birds are singing.
And if my elder sister who lives nearby is on top of things, a fresh bouquet of those beloved lilacs are next to mom’s headstone.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.