Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Kayla Lutes is an MFA candidate in fiction at Minnesota State University. She is inspired by history, travel, and everyday grace. She has been published in the Asbury Review and the Jessamine Journal.
Lilacs in Memoriam
From WTP Vol. VII #9
According to the Farmer’s Almanac, lilacs are hardy, easy to grow, and low maintenance. Just don’t choose a place with too little sun, or they won’t bloom. And don’t give them too much water. They don’t like wet feet. Then they’ll become dependent on you for a drink, and you’ll have stripped them of their best attribute. They’re a common sense flower. Give them sun and some water and they’ll do fine. In fact, they’ll do better if you ignore them.
Lilacs can be planted in spring, but autumn, when everything else has been picked and processed is preferred—so they don’t take away necessary nutrients from newly planted crops. They’ll need a layer of mulch and compost in the spring, and they should be pruned then too, right after they bloom. That is crucial. If you let them grow too tall, they’ll concentrate on making seeds instead of blooming.
Lilacs are prone to attacks by slugs and snails. The pests are hard to notice since they feed at night and their color camouflages them in the dirt. Get rid of slugs by drowning them in beer or coffee—at night when you can find them. If the summer is hot and muggy, lilacs can also develop white powder splotches on their clusters of purple petals. Though unsightly, it is harmless. Ignore it.
My first two real experiences with grief happened within days of each other. First my dog died, then my grandmother. All of this transpired during finals week the spring semester of my sophomore year at a small Christian college in Kentucky. The days of exams felt unreal and also more real than the loss that was happening at my home an hour and a half away. I would study at the desk in my dorm room, staring at my color-coded British Literature notes and picture my grandmother coming to babysit with a purse full of treats—double-bubble and mini flashlights that broke by the time she left. She’d tell us not to cry. We were the ones who broke them.
I didn’t tell my professors about my Grandma. I didn’t ask for an extension. I held my breath like when I was training to become a lifeguard in high school. We had to stay underwater while the instructor clocked a minute. I sunk to the bottom of the pool, knees pulled to my chest—an upright fetal position—waiting for the sound of the whistle with burning lungs.
The weekend before my Grandma’s death, my mom called to tell me that Grandma was in the hospital. She had been in and out a few times in recent years, and neither Mom nor I thought the last time was really the last time. Mom was gentle and encouraging and optimistic. I shouldn’t worry myself with the long drive. I had a week left of school, and I could see Grandma when I finished. I guess that’s why I pushed through the finals leading up to Grandma’s funeral. I had convinced myself they were important the week before, and if I didn’t finish them, the guilt would be unbearable. I would have missed the last moments with my grandmother for nothing.
My mom called me about Annie while I was in the parking lot of a cake shop. Some friends and I had planned to celebrate the end of our sophomore year with cupcakes, and I’d thought it would help me feel better about losing my grandmother. The cupcake just stuck in my throat, which ached with the tears that I was holding back until I was alone. On the phone, my mom told me Annie, the blue-tick-hound mix we’d had for thirteen years, had passed that morning. Countless times I’d sat with her on the floor, in the space between my bed and the wall, hidden and crying, her blue-hued fur a tangible comfort, and now she was gone. She’d fallen into my mom’s arms, leaned against her, and closed her eyes. Weeks afterward, I’d sit, knees to chest, in that same place between my bed and wall and trail my fingers through the rough carpet, wishing for the feel of Annie’s soft fur.
I arrived home in time to kiss Annie before my dad buried her in the garden. It was the day before his mother’s funeral. I hated picturing him physically working out his grief with a rusted shovel against recently tilled dirt, but I also envied the catharsis. I didn’t know where to put my emotions. They felt awkward inside me. I was a bag of chips in a college lecture, afraid to open up because the sound might be too loud. People might turn their heads and look. I didn’t want them to look. I felt like there was a “right” way to grieve. Some ingrained process I had missed the memo for, and if I gave my emotions physicality, I would be open to judgement on how deeply (or not) I had loved.
Everyone around me seemed to know what to do. How to communicate what was happening inside them. Dad cried in his pew during the funeral. My twin, Kari, could put words to what she felt and did not feel, to what she would and would not perform. She posted a poem to Facebook, and all our relatives liked it. “My first Elegy,” she called it, for the first person she had to miss.
At the gravesite, the priest told us granddaughters to sprinkle holy water on the casket. I motioned for Kari to do it, I guess because I wanted to, but I didn’t want to alone. I thought it would be a way to show my grief while honoring my devout grandma, but Kari shook her head. We were raised in the tension of Catholic and Protestant disputes, and the ritual must have felt too Catholic for her. Too much like choosing a side. I didn’t sprinkle the holy water either. I wasn’t attending a Catholic church anymore, and it might be wrong of me to pretend I was. To steal their rituals and symbols. After the priest invited us to take the roses atop Grandma’s casket home with us, my cousins knew to walk to the hill where my grandfather was buried when I was one-year-old, where my grandmother would be laid to rest as well. Instead of following them, I met my dad along the line up of sedans and SUVs now dusty from the cemetery’s dirt road.
“I’m going to the church,” he told me. There was a lunch waiting for us there.
I hugged him in response.
“Are you guys going home?” he asked.
“No, I just thought you needed a hug.”
He gave me a funny look, then walked away. Leaving me to wonder if the way his eyes darkened and his face cleared of emotion was due to embarrassment. Maybe it was grief. Either way, I was certain I had said the wrong thing.
I sat in my older brother’s Mazda with the rest of my siblings, looking through the glass of his car window. Wishing I had the courage to get out and make a solitary trek up the hill. I picked up my phone and told myself to ignore the nudge to get out of the car.
Wikipedia notes that Shakespeare never referenced lilacs in his plays. Perhaps they hadn’t made their way to Europe from their native Balkan Peninsula. Perhaps Shakespeare paid them no notice. Despite this snub from the famous bard, lilacs are not uncommon in poetry. When Abraham Lincoln died, Walt Whitman honored him with the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Doorway Bloom’d”:
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.
Lilacs bloom early. They signal spring and the hope of new things. Whitman defied death—the solid black coffin—with bushels of flowers that proclaimed the coming of new things before Lincoln was even in the ground. At the time, it may have felt right to cover death with the promise of spring. The nation mourned the commander in chief but had a leader worthy of mourning. And the war was won, slavery was outlawed, and the south was promised reconstruction. There was hope.
But you are now on this side of history, where there is a commander in chief that you block on Twitter. And there are statues of the people from Whitman’s time who fought for the right to own other people. And you wonder if there is hope and if there is any reason to believe the lilacs.
The only time I’ve ever cried with joy was when I received my acceptance to study abroad at the University of Oxford in England. One of my best friends from college and I had applied to the competitive program for the spring semester of our junior year. We were both put on the waitlist. There were days of emails with Simon, the assistant director of the program. They had opportunities in Australia or over the summer that we could consider. Days when Hannah and I checked in with each other, did you get in? We held our breath. And finally, Hannah did get in, and I resigned myself for a shorter stint abroad over the summer. Then, I got the email from Simon: I was in. I cried in the hall shower of my dorm building, glad no one was else was in there, or if they were, the static from the Christian music radio station playing on a stereo by the sinks would drown out the sound.
I wondered how my family would react to the news. None of my siblings had been out of the state, let alone out of the country, for more than two weeks at a time. But I would be gone for four months, living in a city 4,000 miles away. Hannah told me the lectures her parents gave her on safety, that her mother was certain we would be bombed by terrorists or kidnapped. My family responded with mild enthusiasm, gifts of overly warm clothes that came in more handy two years later when I moved to Minnesota, and few questions about where I would be living or what I would be studying.
I assumed my family would ask more questions once I got to England, so my second week at the program, when I had finally memorized the 45-minute walk from the Vines, the house in an Oxford suburb where I lived with twenty other American college students, to the city center, I took pictures at each turning point and sent them in a group text to my family. The white-lined cross-walks called zebra crossings by the English. The wooden road signs not even as tall as me. The cow grates leading into the Marston bike path, which was swampy and prone to flooding. I think my mom and Kari responded with one word. Something like cool! or neat! The rest of my family was silent.
T.S. Eliot mentions lilacs in one of his most famous poems, “The Waste Land”:
April is the cruelest month
breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.
Eliot wrote the words as he walked beneath a grey England sky fifty years after Whitman, surrounded by rubble, crumbled cathedrals, and other scars left by World War I. The lilacs promised spring, but when death surrounds you, hope and optimism are cruel.
Dr. Penner, one of my English professors, introduced me to “The Waste Land” near the end of that terrible spring semester of my sophomore year. She had printed it onto copy paper and passed it around the class, gazing at us expectantly, eyebrows lifted over her glasses toward her neat bun, as if we would feel the poem’s weight just by seeing the words. The first time I read it, I had no idea what it meant. Dr. Penner explained the context of a world in the midst of a first world war. Death loomed larger than it ever had in the history of mankind. There were bombs that could be dropped from the safety of the air. Technology that made killing more efficient than it had ever been. Of course, there was doubt. Of course, there was chaos. Of course, there was fear. Of course, “The Waste Land” ends with pleas for peace.
My favorite band NEEDTOBREATHE had released an album that year, called Rivers in the Wasteland. It’s taken from a verse in the Old-Testament book of Isaiah: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” The band had just come off a dry season. Their popularity had sky-rocketed after touring with Taylor Swift and so had their egos. One brother (the lead guitarist) punched the other (the lead singer) and sent him to the hospital. There was a three-year gap between albums. The title track of what came after the wreckage, then the rebuilding, includes this verse: “Yeah in this wasteland where I’m livin’ //There is a crack in the door filled with light.”
To me, it was all grace. This idea that water, what Eliot’s speaker is so desperate for, peering in to empty cisterns, could rush through and bring life, even in a place that was barren, that wasn’t growing any signs of hope. I began to read the poem in light of this, thinking that there may be a chance that Eliot found the same river that NEEDTOBREATHE had happened upon. Thinking that, maybe, lilacs are grace, not rubbing impending death in our faces, but a first sign that things can change. That a wasteland is not the only landscape. There are also gardens with white bridges and ponds full of water lilies.
I asked for my own copy of “The Waste Land” before my trip to Oxford. That and Eliot’s later work, “The Four Quartets,” which Eliot had written after he converted to Anglicanism. I decided I would compare the two works, and that by doing so, I would find the water source in the desert. I told one of my professors at Oxford this when it came time to prepare for our 15-page research papers that would finish off our semester abroad. He told me it would be hard to compare the two, since they have very different subjects, but I could certainly track the way Eliot’s voice and themes changed throughout his career as a writer. Arguments bubbled inside me: comparing two works by the same writer is a common thing to do; I see place, observation, sound, and so many other things in both poems; how can they not be compared, they’re by the same man? But I held them all in; I made Eliot’s career my project instead. Though, even now, I’m still not sure what my professor meant. Everything is about being human. This is about being human.
When the Greek god Pan pursued the nymph Syrinx, she turned herself into a lilac so that he wouldn’t be able to see her. She made herself very still. She made herself camouflage. She picked the lilac for its ignorable properties. Unless it was April, she would have no flowers beckoning Pan’s gaze; she’d just be an uninteresting, normal, everyday bush. It didn’t work. Not because Pan noticed her, but because Pan cut the lilac branch and carved it into the very first panpipe. Which are now called Syrinx, after the nymph. The nymph is the pipe. The pipe is the nymph. They are both lilacs.
Despite this story, lilacs are considered a symbol of first loves. First loves because they symbolize things that don’t last. Lilacs bloom first but die fast, sprouting in April, going dormant by May. This reputation caught the eye of symbol-obsessed Victorians. Widows would pin lilacs to their black mourning dresses, honoring the love that had been snatched by death.
Lilacs symbolize other things as well. Their blooming period coincides with Easter, so you see them in church services, celebrating resurrection—life after death. They represent confidence, so you may receive a bushel of them when you graduate. They can also be a sign for wisdom. In Russia, parents hold sprigs of lilacs over their newborns, soft purple petals maybe an inch long, falling gently on minute-old skin. The parents believe it will give their babies wisdom. Perhaps, the wisdom to know when something’s gone and symbols won’t bring them back.
At Oxford, we didn’t get a whole week for spring break, but Hannah and I were able to squeeze in a few days in Paris. The Eiffel Tower was the spot I most wanted to visit. I’d had an iron Eiffel Tower hanging in my room since 8th grade. I’d told my whole class that I was going to study French in high school and make it to Paris one day. At the time, two of my older cousins were studying abroad there. The summer when they returned, I listened in awe of their stories. Picnics on the lawn below the Eiffel. Non-American roommates enthralled with peanut butter and jelly. Visiting museums with famous works of art. I turned to my dad, excitement pulsing through me. Desire so clear and hot, it was almost painful. “I want to do that,” I told him.
My dad laughed and looked around at my aunts and uncles. “Well, that’s what student loans are for.”
Hannah had been to Paris before and she insisted that the Eiffel Tower was best at night. I’ve never been there in the day, but I know she’s right. We saw its light from a distance, just as we climbed up from the Metro. The spotlight glided over us as we walked to purchase our tickets. The tower was golden with light. At the top, with the wind whipping at my face and hair, making my nose and cheeks ruddy, I was breathless. I kept picturing that iron miniature in my bedroom. I kept picturing that little girl who had hoped to make it to Paris. I looked up, the sky inky, the stars invisible. I looked out at the city, the lights of cars and people’s apartments glowing like an offering to make up for the stars they pushed out.
The last two days in Paris were split between museum visits and historical landmarks like L’Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame. My favorite paintings were in the Musée d’Orsay, where one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist works are housed. I was most fascinated by Claude Monet’s paintings. I loved watching the works become less clear the closer I looked. Far away, the paintings made something recognizable, seasonal landscapes, boats, women with parasols; but up close, they seemed to be a bunch of random splotches. It was part of the magic, knowing that the textured strokes would make sense at a distance.
I also loved Monet’s subjects. Flowers. Monet’s garden and water lilies. And his lilacs. Lilas, temps gris. Lilacs, grey weather. The painting is served well by the impressionist style, the inaccuracy of the shapes, the smudges of a line. Attempts to capture the essence of things, not their distinctions. It makes the whole scene cloudy. A girl in white sits under a cloud of pink lilacs, the blooms taking up a full-third of the piece. Instead of getting the whole picture by standing far off, this painting asks you to take notice: you have to pay attention to make out the two boys beside her. You have to look close to see she’s not alone.
Three years after my semester abroad, the week leading up to Easter, Holy Week, brought up memories of Paris and memories of my grandma. Norte Dame was burning. Centuries of art, history, and faith were threatened. The fire started at the center of the cathedral near her famous spiral, a suspected electrical short-circuit. Something was wrong with the smoke detectors. They didn’t sense the fire—they ignored it. The entire world mourned. We refreshed our screens. We prayed she’d be spared.
For two days after the fire, I would wake up with the image of one of the photos I took while in Paris filling my vision. Candles, burned in memory of souls that have gone before us, line the bottom of the picture. At the center stands a priest in the middle of mass, wearing the color of lilacs. One of the cathedral’s famous trio of rose windows is at the top of the shot. Stained glass arranged in a stunning mosaic, the shape of a wheel or a flower, sometimes called Catherine windows, after the Catholic saint who was put to death on a spiked wheel. The glass holds medieval interpretations of saints and angels and the resurrection of Christ. But the windows are not a deep, romantic red of a rose, they too are the color of lilacs.
I visited Notre Dame eleven months after Grandma died. I listened to the priest’s French homily without understanding a word. The scent of frankincense brought me back to the last time I had smelled incense burning, in the church where Grandma’s funeral was held. Her last mass. I walked slowly around the cathedral, admiring the stonework, the intricate images in the stained glass. As I walked, I imagined my grandma taking the same steps when she’d visited Paris years before me. I thought then, that she saw me underneath the arched and vaulted ceilings. I considered lighting a candle for her. Then, I didn’t.
Those were the moments that I thought of as I read the news reports out of Paris. As the images of a collapsed roof and charcoal debris were released. The cross at the cathedral’s center still stands in the daylight streaming in through the hole in the vaulted ceiling. The light cloudy from the smoke. Before I knew whether or not the cathedral would be saved, I swayed between the privilege to have visited her before the fire—the chance to have experienced personal and global connection beneath the spiral—and the thought that I would not be able to share the experience with my sister or my future children. And still, there was connection. There was a global bated breath. A unanimous hope that all was not lost. That rebuilding was possible.
I light a candle.
I write words for Notre Dame and words for my Grandma.
I break the sprigs from the lilac bushes.