Lilac Season

Thanksgiving is coming up, so it seems a fitting time to post this tribute to my grandmother.

petrin 045

Lilac Season

I was worried the cold would kill them this year, but they’re blooming—light purple, white, pink, with a fragrance you can smell from across the street. Lilacs are a highlight of the year for me, not only because I love their smell and promise of warmer weather ahead, but because these lilacs remind me of the ones that grew behind my grandma’s house. I have never seen any others like them—one tree bore the usual light purple flowers, but the other two had dark purple and fuchsia. I used to clip a sprig of each color and stick them in a vase for the house.

My paternal grandmother’s name was Dorothy, but her co-workers at the justice building and the police department called her Dot. I can still see “DOT,” cross-stitched on plastic canvas in pink and white yarn. I have a mental image of her desk covered with cross-stitched accessories: the pen holder, tissue box cover, name plate. Cigarette ends stained with dark rose lipstick. Back home, her Siamese cat, Tai, who didn’t like anyone but Grandma. Chrysanthemums and peony bushes lining the driveway. The familiar smell as I entered her house from the garage. Tai’s blue eyes glowering at me from under the couch. The bay window crowded with plants. The 100-watt smile of Aunt Pauline, Grandma’s older sister, who had moved in with her.

Grandma didn’t like to cook. Instead, she took me to Arby’s on Monday evenings for dinner, and we would talk about school, friends, and whatever was going on in our lives. Thanksgiving dinner was an exception—then she went all out. Gradually, she allowed me to help and taught me how to make the deviled eggs and cranberry relish and to cut radishes into roses. After doing my part of the cooking, it was best for me to stay out of the way. One year, Grandma’s partner gave me a photo of his childhood farmhouse and asked me to do a pencil drawing of it for him. He later gave it back to me, framed, and I won a blue ribbon for it at the county fair.

I remember Grandma when I sew because she taught me how to make the finishing knots. “Hide a knot like it’s a secret,” she said. Besides sewing, she used to cross-stitch, knit, and crochet.

One day when I was fifteen, Grandma had an aneurism. She was in a coma for a couple of days, during which I visited her in the hospital, told her I loved her, and begged her to be okay. It didn’t help, and she passed away. It was a huge shock for me because she was only sixty-two years old and I never had a chance to say goodbye. For years after that, every time I got a migraine I was terrified of dying in the same way. As I grieved, I struggled to remember what she had told me about sad tears and happy tears before her own mother’s funeral.

Several years earlier, Grandma and Aunt Pauline had started a recipe box for me—a small plastic box full of index cards on which they wrote some family recipes, including the cranberry relish and deviled eggs. I continued to make the deviled eggs each year for Thanksgiving and other family gatherings, following the recipe by memory—or so I thought—and they became my specialty. Imagine my surprise when I reread Grandma’s recipe and discovered that my recipe had evolved over the years into something completely different from hers. And I felt extremely guilty for thinking that my own recipe was better.

I miss Grandma and wish I could talk to her. But now that it’s lilac season once again, I can smell the flowers and let all the memories flow through me, proving she’s still here and always will be.

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