Lilac Time


A few days ago I gave a reading and talk about my recent book Miranda’s Owl at Hospice Nanaimo. I’d had a few other book readings and the discussions had gone well but this one was different, as the audience was made up primarily by Hospice clients, counsellors and staff, all people who had suffered intense grief, some very recently. I wanted to be sure that my talk connected with people in a respectful way. I was a bit anxious but just as I entered the room a dear friend placed a bowl of lilacs on the table beside me and the scent of those lovely blooms was with me throughout the reading. It felt right.

For me, lilacs always evoke remembrance, loss and renewal. I think of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.


Memory and desire take me back to my childhood home in which every April my mother gathered lilacs and the house was filled with that delicate purple perfume. Later in the summer there were bowls of sweet peas but it was the lilacs that signaled the return of spring and newness. During those days we often had family singsongs and one of my uncles used to like to sing Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring.

Every April I recall taking the bus to UBC in 1958 to see a performance of Marcel Dubé’s play Les Temp des Lilas. I was fifteen years old and thought I’d never seen anything so moving and so sad. My French was not good but I understood enough that the play set my desire to move to Montreal. Years later when I was living in Montreal with my husband I learned that he too, then twenty-one, had been at that same performance.

Still later, when we lived on Protection Island, we had four lilac trees outside our home: purple, light blue and white. The white were the most fragrant and I had them in vases in the kitchen and living room. Nowadays I live in a townhouse and there are no lilacs to gather, so when I first see a lilac in bloom I consider stealing branches to bring home. It’s lucky to have a good friend who will bring me a bowl of lilac at just the right moment.

          Last night I went to the Ou gallery in Duncan for an opening of Montreal artist Xan Shian’s exhibit called Eulogy of Gravity. I found her watery images evocative and was moved by the essay accompanying her works in which she writes:

The concentration of experience files itself deep within our bodies, an archival register for moments. We carry our experiences with us, like bones they grow and shift over the course of a life, break, disintegrate and return to earth. As pieces of ourselves they form bridges, infancy to childhood, to adolescence through adulthood and old age; they determine the things we hold on to or let go of.


Afterwards I went for a beer with an old friend and, while talking about memories, I asked what association he had with lilacs. Without a pause, he recited Walt Whitman:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.


Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.


Sometimes everything seems to connect.




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