My Ohio: Blooming Generosity

For one writer, lilacs have a special quality beyond their beauty and fragrance.

As a little girl I lived on a hilly country road. I was poor. But not dirt poor like the family up the road. They lived in an old white farmhouse that long ago had seen better days. The porch had collapsed, the front door didn’t close. Frayed lace curtains blew outward from windows with no screens. 

My brother and I laughed when we drove past on the way to the store with my mother. We called it the Old Woman in the Shoe House. It seemed children of all ages (all thin, with scraggly hair and clothes that never fit) were always going in and out.

Some used sticks to draw lines in the dirt driveway that was being swallowed by weeds because no car ever parked there. Others would swing on a wooden board that hung from a tall oak tree. We wondered why the school bus never stopped there, and we envied the children’s freedom.

We stopped laughing, though, the year one of the girls fell through an abandoned well on the property and died. The house took on a different aura then, one of childhood fears and legend. To laugh would mean we would meet a similar fate.

The house continued to deteriorate, its slate roof half gone, its trim rotted. But the four, large, beautiful lilac bushes in the side yard flourished.

The family had no near neighbors. Attempts by some in my town to leave a loaf of bread or clothing were always met with a polite but firm, “We don’t need help.” 
One day, my father and I were out driving when the lilacs were in full bloom. My father pulled off the road in front of the house and waited until one of the older boys warily approached the car.

“My wife likes lilacs,” my father said, not getting out of the car. “Our lilac bushes are small, not like yours. I’d like to buy some flowers. Go ask if it’s OK.”

We had lilac bushes, and it was true, they weren’t as full. But I couldn’t believe my father offered to buy the flowers, knowing that our family didn’t have money to spend on anything but necessities.

The boy ran into the house. He returned with his father, a small, wiry man, who said cautiously, “I understand you want some lilacs. All right then. My daughter will cut them for you.”

Behind the man was a barefoot girl about my age. She held a rusty pair of scissors and looked at me as shyly as I looked at her. Her father gave her a nudge and she raced to the lilacs. I jumped out of the car and followed so I could pull down and hold bloom-filled branches while she cut. When we cut more than we could hold, my father called me. He handed the man a five-dollar bill.

For several years after that, my father and I made a once-a-year stop to buy lilacs. The children would yell, “The lilac man is here!” The same daughter always cut the blooms and I would always help. We never talked, just worked side by side, knowing our fathers had chosen us for a special mission.
One year in early spring we drove by and saw the house was empty. The screen door banged open and shut and a dirty orange cat peered from around the back of the house. The family was gone.

The lilacs outdid themselves that year. Their pink and purple flowers were massive, their heart-shaped leaves huge and bright green.

The house stood vacant for years until it was demolished, but the lilac bushes continued to bloom. Finally, the land was cleared for an industrial parkway. The lilacs were gone.

Now in spring, when my own lilacs bloom, I sometimes wonder about the family. I cannot smell lilacs without the memory unraveling in my heart. A part of me is sad. And a part of me is proud of my father.

Ohio Magazine contributing editor Jill Sell is based in Sagamore Hills.