#442 The Smell of Childhood

Back in late May 2020, when the pandemic was already feeling endless but we were all still in ignorance of how much longer the ordeal was yet to last, I succumbed to a fit of madness and ordered a lilac tree. Syringa chinensis, to be precise. I mean, it wasn’t complete madness. We do have a fairly large garden for a city home, and I did give a little bit of thought about where I would plant it later. I even did a wee bit of research (aka about 5 minutes of googling) of whether it would fare better on the shady or sunny side of the garden before clicking the “checkout” button in the online garden store. But even with all that, let’s be honest, the due diligence carried out before executing this plan was …. scant. Ergo, fit of madness. I bought a TREE.

Now I wasn’t expecting the postman to come around with a fully grown 8 foot tree show up at the front door, but to be perfectly honest I didn’t really know what to expect either. What arrived, on an overcast early June day, was a somewhat sad looking sapling in a small pot. The “assed” portion of my half-assed planning was beginning to assert itself as I realised that I wasn’t actually ready to permanently plant it where I intended and my first obstacle was to find some kind of a box or pot that could accommodate a growing sapling. Thankfully, one of the neighbours that we have gotten to know over the past few years is a landscaper and came to the rescue with a giant tub-like planter and so my fit of madness was planted and maneuvered into a sunny spot by the fence where I watered it and watched it and fretted about it and then gradually got used to it.

Did it survive the winter? Why yes, yes it did! I was pleasantly surprised come early April 2021 to see green shoots coming and the sapling took on a much healthier look overall as the summer progressed. However it didn’t bloom. I took comfort from further research (aka, another five minutes of googling) that young lilac trees do not necessarily bloom in the first few years until their branches are stout enough to support the flower growth, and kept watering it.

I did not plant it in the ground however.

Why? Well…. 2021 is why. I mean, 2020 was no picnic and everyone said good riddance when the new year rolled around but by middle of the summer no one was under any illusions that the pandemic was about to end suddenly. The days grew long, and the weather turned warm, but nothing else was normal again and everyone was exhausted from yet another year of simply surviving in a constant state of uncertainty. The garden suffered as I did. The best description I can give of the care my plants received last year was benign neglect. Stuff generally got watered. I might have pulled up the odd weed, and trimmed back the odd branch, but that was the extent of what I managed last summer. The lilac tree turned verdant green, and then come autumn the leaves turned brown and fell and it went dormant and I wondered again….. would it still be alive next summer?

The green shoots showed up much earlier this year. We had unseasonably warm spells in January and February interspersed with very cold ones. The seasonal confusion was underscored by a single rose blooming in January on one of my rose bushes while a tree further down the garden broke out in little white flowers before discovering to its consternation that winter wasn’t actually finished yet. But the lilac leaves budded and began growing steadily until come April there was a solid green halo on the sapling.

And then …. I saw them. Pinkish buds dusting the tips of some of the branches.

There may have been some shouting and undignified squealing. There was definitely cheering. Not only did I manage to not kill my young tree-child, but it was blooming despite still not being in the ground. I spent most of April checking in regularly watching the flowers open up and the delicate lilac scent that has always held such strong memories of childhood for me.

I do still think of my Russian childhood when I smell lilacs – the tall trees in front of our apartment block turning dark green before blooming purple in the spring, the rustle of the leaves in the wind, the smell of earth and lilac and wet leaves after a spring rain. But surprisingly one of the first thoughts I had this year was of my Austrian friend, who shares a similar association with lilacs. We haven’t chatted much, but as soon as the flowers blossomed fully I sent a photo to her with my unexpected epiphany. Now, before I remember those hazy wet spring days and blurred images of the tree canopy seen from our balcony in Moscow, I remember how my friend and I have been exchanging photos of lilac trees that we have come across every spring. It was a delight to finally send her a photo of my own lilacs.

She replied to say that she was thinking the same thing – the lilac trees down the street from her have not quite come to bloom yet but she is waiting for them to do so precisely so she can photograph them and send them on to me again.

Lilacs still remind me of the spring of my childhood. But now, they also remind me that a friendship, that even if temporarily dormant, can always blossom back to life with a little bit of attention.

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