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Seeds of something fine

The scent of a mother’s love

Staff writer

My grandmother’s last Mother’s Day before she died of Alzheimer’s was my first Mother’s Day as a mom. This traditional day of celebration has a bitter-sweetness to it in our family. My grandpa lost his battle with cancer on Mother’s Day when I was still in pre-school. It is a cloud of loss that hangs behind the food and family and the heavy scent of lilacs every year around this time.

Growing up, I remember Grandma’s house in Iowa had huge lilac bushes that filled the entire block with their perfume this time of year. I’ve been told that, as a boy, my father used to cut bunches of lilacs from those bushes and give them to Grandma on Mother’s Day. She has always loved their smell, and the way she says the word “lilacs” sounds like she’s telling secrets of the universe — her voice like water tripping over small stones.

The day before her last Mother’s Day, Dad went in search of lilacs to give her. A cold snap got most of them that year. They were a little wilted, but the smell was good and fine and heavy. He knew the wilt wouldn’t matter to her, not at that point.

I was six months pregnant when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The doctors told us she was declining rapidly and would live only a few months. I confess that I prayed she would hang on long enough to hold my baby in her arms. All those years her body would not let her go, and when it finally started to look like her body would cooperate, it was my heart that remained stubborn.

For as long as I had been aware of her as her own woman I knew on some level that Grandma just wanted to be with her husband in heaven. In the 20-plus years since his death she had survived a long list of ailments with surprising strength. Her gentle nature and petite stature veiled her fierce ability to overcome and to thrive. I guess that’s why Grandma always seemed like a fact of life to me, like seasons that come and go but always return.

I’m ashamed to say it truly startled me when Dad had to remind her why the name my husband and I chose for our daughter seemed familiar to her. After all, we chose the name Lyla in honor of the two men she loved most in this life — Hershel Lyle and Donald Lyle, my grandpa and my dad.

Dad brought her the lilacs he had found that afternoon near the end, a small bunch, slightly brown around the edges. She breathed them in deeply and said, “Lilacs. It must be almost Mother’s Day.” Somehow that deeply sweet scent had reached into her clouding mind and touched something solid, something more than memory.

I can only guess what it was, but my guess is it was something like tradition that spoke to her heart so deeply no clouding could touch it — it was part of the shape of her mother’s heart, not a memory she struggled to hold. I picture my dad as a young boy bringing this sweet and simple offering to her, year after year, and I can see how it would have carved the almost ineffable love of a mother for her child into the grain of her soul. I watch my daughter in her dancing and play, practically a mirror image of my grandmother as a baby, and I feel that deep unparalleled love shaping me as well.

My grandmother did get to hold my baby girl and held on for several more months. We all traveled to Iowa for the funeral in July right before my husband and I moved to Marion. We said our sad good-byes and on the way out of town my sister and I took our young families to the playground where we had spent many afternoons as kids during our stays with Grandma. This time, it was our children squealing with delight as evening settled in the little park that smelled exactly as I remembered.

When we moved to Marion, there were a lot of mysterious (to me) plants to be dealt with and either trimmed or removed in our back yard. There’s one bush along the back hedgerow that is different from all the rest and I thought I recognized the leaves but couldn’t quite place it. I don’t know why it didn’t bloom last year, but a few weeks ago I was out pulling weeds when I smelled something deeply sweet and familiar. My nose took me to the back hedge, and there in glorious lavender bloom was a bush full of lilacs.

I cut a few and put them in the kitchen window, and my kitchen is now filled with the sweet scent of the love between a mother and child that transcends words and shapes a soul in ways time and tragedy cannot touch.

Last modified May 5, 2011

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