A Backyard Legacy

July 18, 2014

Talk around the cul de sac tipped me off. The former mistress of our home and the former mistress of one of the neighboring split levels were both gardeners of merit, with a little competition running between them, friendly or not I cannot say. Decades earlier, they’d each planted a lilac bush, and the plants grew strikingly close to one another along the property line.

Eventually, one met a natural death, leaving the other to reign in solitary splendor each spring. In time, the two women also left this world, and with them went the possibility of knowing with absolute certainty whose lilac remained. Still, I always believed that we’d inherited it. I alone pruned and watered it, and I never tired of inhaling its intoxicating scent, as if appreciation could lay claim to ownership.

One morning, while sipping my coffee, I noticed two landscapers approach the lilac with shovels in hand. When I realized I was about to witness its execution, I quickly confirmed that I was fully dressed before darting outside to stop them.

The landscapers told me they did not speak English, but my animated gesticulating got the point across. They put down their shovels and pointed behind them. As I strode in that direction, I met my neighbor, who was already on her way to investigate the source of the commotion.

Despite our residential proximity, we did not know one another well and this was a curious encounter in which to become better acquainted. I begged her to let the lilac be. She pleaded with me to let it go so there’d be more room for the children to run and play, a cause I understood completely.

And yet, my heart would not budge. In our microwaveable world, the long-lasting lilac is worth its leaves in gold. Though it is, to be sure, a thing of remarkable beauty, it is also the invaluable payday of patience, faith, and determination. I was thoroughly convinced that, more than space for capture the flag and swing sets and soccer nets, our children needed the lesson of that fifty-something-year-old plant, whether they noticed its existence or not.

Sparing no dramatic detail, I shared with my neighbor the story of its provenance. I waxed on about our predecessors, who planted their gardens soon after this suburban development went up in the mid-1950s and tended them until their bodies gave out.

I suggested that perhaps the men with the shovels could transplant the lilac so that it rested solidly on my property. The move would give her children their grassy swath, while I would continue to tend the lilac, assuming it survived the relocation.

Instead, we somehow reached the wonderful compromise of joint ownership, and decided that it would stay put. The landscapers shrugged and walked back to their truck. Ever since, my neighbor and I have carried on with our separate lives, our shared lilac in the background. The matter has never come up again.

When the aromatic bursts of purple arrive each spring, I prefer to visit them at dawn. No one else is outside but the family of deer that passes through in the early morning. I have the flowers all to myself. I cannot help but wonder how G-d ever thought this gem of a plant up and I stand in awe at His kindness to let it thrive on our simple suburban landscape.

I know that it’s always been about more than the lilac itself and what I want it to mean to my sons. I’d venture that when the women of these houses first embedded their respective plants, they weren’t thinking beyond the lifelong enjoyment of their perennial gardens. But later, as time passed, they likely began to consider their own legacies and what would become of their lilacs down the line.

Inevitably, my neighbor and I will also one day pass our keys to their next owners. I hope that those women and their families will hear the chatter around the cul de sac about their predecessors, neighbors who almost lost the solitary lilac at the confluence of their yards. And I pray that in our names, the new mistresses of what were once our homes will allow no harm to come the lilac’s way.