Whenever I smell lilacs…

The cool spring of 2011 has resulted in the lilacs blooming late this year, but they are finally here and the warmer air of the past few days has been heavy with their scent.  In my family, the Sunday when the lilacs are at their peak is known as “Lilac Sunday”.  The tradition was started many years ago by my father’s eldest brother, Uncle Bill.

Uncle Bill was a barber.  He owned a building in downtown Owen Sound that consisted of a barber shop and a “beauty parlour” (which he rented out) on the street level and an apartment above where Uncle Bill lived with his wife Ethel and their two children.  Behind the building there was a small garage for Uncle Bill’s car.  A curve in the street resulted in the creation of a small triangular yard between the barber shop, the garage and the travel agency next door.  It wasn’t a yard really.  It wasn’t much more than a patch of earth in the middle of the concrete and bricks.  Uncle Bill and Aunt Ethel tended it carefully, though,  borrowing my father’s lawn mower each Sunday to cut the perfectly weeded lawn.  They planted a perrennial border on all three sides, leaving only a small gap where the gate swung open to allow access.  Morning glories climbed the garage wall.  It was truly a sanctuary in the middle of the downtown core.  Uncle Bill’s favourite flower of all was the lilac.  Unfortunately, although it was fertile, his small yard wasn’t large enough to host a lilac bush.  Consequently, every year on “Lilac Sunday”, Uncle Bill would request a bouquet of lilacs from my parents. 

We almost always visited Uncle Bill and Aunt Ethel on summer Sunday mornings.  We would get up early and go to 8 a.m. Mass and then Dad would load his lawnmower in the trunk of the car and we would deliver it to Uncle Bill’s place.  Once the grass was cut, Uncle Bill would repay Dad by cutting his hair.  I loved the clean and quiet of the barber shop on those Sunday mornings.  The black and white floor shone brightly.  There were two barber’s chairs with curled wrought iron and black leather seats.  Combs and scissors were arranged neatly on the counter and a bottle of bay rum stood nearby.  If I sat quietly and patiently while my Dad had his haircut I might even be rewarded with a bottle of pop from the pop machine!

When I was a young child we didn’t have a lilac bush in our own yard.  My father preferred a yard free of trees and shrubbery to make grass cutting easier.  Dad never forgot his older brother’s love of lilacs, though, and on the Sunday in May when the lilacs were at their peak he would visit  a neighbour or relative and obtain a big bouquet which he would then deliver to Uncle Bill along with the lawnmower.  Aunt Ethel would arrange them carefully in a vase and place them on a snow white doily in the centre of the kitchen table while Uncle Bill was busy cutting Dad’s hair.  When the two men returned to the apartment from the barber shop, Uncle Bill would breathe deeply as he crossed the threshold and sigh “Lilac Sunday!”

In the late 1960’s Uncle Bill died suddenly of a heart attack.  He was buried in Shiloh Cemetery, a country cemetery just south of Chatsworth.  Aunt Ethel took it upon herself to mark the special day, “Lilac Sunday”,  that Uncle Bill had created.  Each year she would request a bouquet of lilacs from my parents, which they in turn would obtain from a friend or relative, and Aunt Ethel would place them lovingly on Uncle Bill’s grave.  Following my father’s death in 1981, my mother planted a lilac bush in her own yard so she would be sure to have a ready supply for Aunt Ethel.  The lilacs provided a sweet bond between Aunt Ethel and the man she had loved so well.

Following Aunt Ethel’s death in the 1990’s, I took on the responsibility of placing lilacs on Aunt Ethel and Uncle Bill’s graves.  I have a healthy lilac bush growing in my own backyard.  It brings me great pleasure to be part of a tradition that so strongly represents love – the love between two brothers, the love between a husband and wife, the love within a family.  To me, lilacs will always mean love.

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