The queen of all lilac bushes lives a few steps away from my bedroom window, next to the brick patio. She is my pride and joy each April, her banner of scent announcing spring’s arrival. I tell time by her: how long until the blossoms open? How many branches can I give away, with plenty left for our multiple vases? A month has passed since blooming season and now I must deal with the undergrowth. Sprouts are pushing through the edge of the patio, through the stone retaining wall, too. I know nothing about duty—my landscaping neighbor Wayne tries to embarrass me into being a better gardener by pointing out my weeds. I have such an affection for him that I allow him to harass me—I know the names of those wildflowers, and I tucked them into the perennial bed on purpose. If Wayne knew I wrote anything about gardening he would laugh himself silly. So it’s just between you and me.
My daughter agreed to come outside if I’d help her make a tent from jumpropes and a flannel blanket. My mother crafted a baby sling when this child was born, from the same red tartan. We clip the corners onto a fence and a tree and the corner of the porch, and she lays down a red gingham quilt my grandmother Fern made for me, so she can read her next volume of the Oz books by Frank Baum, in the shade. We needed to leave Scott and Brendan to their naps—it’s been a big week for all of us, but the last week of teaching nearly did Scott in, and the last weeks of school have found Brendan in a heightened state of excitement. Our end-of-year parties lasted until the no-see-ums threatened to eat us alive, yesterday, so this nap is a good beginning to summer break, for both of them.
Madeleine tells me she is bored and threatens to return inside. I ask if she will bring us cold water. When she returns, we crush mint leaves into our glasses. I ask her what plant she’d like to learn about today, and she looks at me, amazed at the idea.
“I don’t know, mama. Which one would be good?”
“These columbine have very interesting seed pods—would you like to take them apart and see where the seeds live? That’s how scientists learn about things, you know, they look carefully to see what they can learn from the insides.”
Madeleine eagerly sat at the patio table with a pair of scissors, a magnifying glass, and half a dozen seed pods, while I went to find the blue shovel.
The lilac starts are remarkably stubborn. Each one tosses soil onto my face and head when I finally pluck it from the ground. This is probably because I don’t root them out often—I think I didn’t even bother to trim this bush last year, feeling blissfully free of gardening duty. This year, though, I’m the sole person responsible for this tiny patch of backyard. The two other abutting owners tiptoe around when they see me mowing and weeding, but I don’t mind. I don’t have much know-how, just enough to be dangerous, so I take the small shovel to the base of the lilac bush after a few false starts, and find one line of sproutlings to chop from the taproot. I start with the outermost lilac starts and dig up each one, working closer to the mother bush. The small ones I throw into the bin for weeds, and the larger ones I save for Cora’s backyard after they spray me with dirt from head to toe. I’ve already started rows of smaller bushes along the ugly stone wall to the back of our terraced yard. I own as many as I can sustain.
Madeleine brings me another round of water, and asks if she can take the small bushes to Cora’s house. I know what will happen, and I think about my two nappers. This is as good a time as any for her visit, so I say yes, and I know she’ll be un-bored for a few hours at Cora and Lila’s house.
I keep at the task of freeing my favorite lilac bush. She is so like me. She needs a haircut, a manicure, a little attention. She seems to believe that she can take up this whole corner of the yard, that there ought to be no end to her, in exchange for the goodness of those prolific spring blossoms. She pays no attention to limits, adding shoots and green leaves in any direction that seems good. I trim some of the smaller shoots from the center of the bush, and I dig as close as I can to the patio stones. I haul out the visible balls of roots, too, to make way for shade plants that will thrive under this small canopy.
As soon as I finish I take the scissors to my favorite forget-me-nots, “trimming back to the mound” as they say in the gardening books, so they might continue blooming. I eye the forsythia, huge and in complete disarray, just as much as the lilac bush. One forsythia threatens to bar my way to the compost bin! The pussy willow is far too large. Not today, my friends. Soon, but not today. I’ll have to borrow the hedge trimmers to get to the top of each of these shrubs, but I’ve done enough. The queen of lilacs looks open and airy. She is my first priority.
Scott emerges from his nap to tell me he’s going for a long bike ride, on this his first real day off of summer. I listen for Brendan waking, just as I listened when he was a baby, as I clean up the tools, the mower, the tent, the clippings. I take off my dusty Keens at the door, when I set down Madeleine’s orange bandana, her book, her blankets. When I look into the bathroom mirror, long fronds of forget-me-nots stick to my curls and a fine mist of soil covers my hair and face with grit. All that’s missing is a vine of green and a halo of leaves.
A quick shower with the lavender soap and I am ready for my little nap, too. But first a bowl of strawberries from the garden—small but delicious—and another glass of water with a sprig of mint.
Happy June. School is out. May you have a day off, to trim or nap, as you please.