The Lilacs Remember

Abandoned farmstead gate and shed in southern Indiana

Whenever I get out in the country, I see some of these old farmhouses.  They are falling in, you know, wrecked.  I never fail to think, that old place was somebody’s home.  They probably had a bunch of kids and chickens, and fruit trees and flowers.  I always think of that.                        —Roxie Davis, Martin County, Indiana (born in 1917)

Our ancestors lived uncertainly on these vast plains.   —Bill Holm from Landscape of Ghosts

I may be more aware of them than some, but Roxie Davis’ observation about the abandoned farmhouses in her area of Indiana, and Bill Holm’s writings about the lost farmsteads of western Minnesota indicate I’m not the only one.  My heightened awareness of such places traces to one special morning in May of 1974.  Here is what happened.

I had just completed my Master’s program at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins and my wife, Mary Ann, and I would soon be moving to St. Paul where I intended to continue my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota.  Our plan was to take both of our cars with us to Minnesota, but since Mary Ann was to give birth to our first child in early May, we deemed it best for her not to make the trip to Minnesota by car.  We decided instead that I should drive one of the cars to the Twin Cities myself after our baby arrived, stay a few days to look for an apartment, and then fly back to Colorado to finish preparing for the move itself.  My Dad was planning to come to Ft. Collins at the end of May and help me to drive the second car to St. Paul along with the rental truck hauling our household goods.  Mary Ann and the baby would come by plane after Dad and I had things settled into the new apartment.

With newborn daughter Jill - May 1974

Daughter Jill arrived on May 7th, and after I was sure that all was well with her and Mary Ann, I made plans for my initial trip to Minnesota to deliver the first car and to rent an apartment.  Early one morning, it was probably about May 20th, I left Ft. Collins in our 1967 Volkswagen Squareback and drove east on Highway 14 towards Sterling, Colorado.  I had taken this road many times during the previous two years as I traveled to eastern Colorado to do my Master’s field research.  However, this trip was different.  My head was spinning from all the momentous changes and transitions we were experiencing then—completion of my Master’s in March, the birth of Jill just the week before, and the  anticipation of moving to a new place and beginning a different graduate program.  I was apprehensive about what Mary Ann and I would find there—or not find.  We had loved living in Colorado and couldn’t imagine Minnesota being as good for us.  Plus, in the immediate term, I was concerned about difficulties I might encounter in finding an affordable apartment in the Twin Cities that would accept a newborn child.

As I drove across the Pawnee National Grassland in northern Colorado, these concerns receded for the moment.  I was caught up in the early-morning light as it spread over this unique prairie landscape.  I looked forward to this portion of the trip because the area reminded me of what I envisioned the West must have looked like before settlement.  This was truly “big sky country,” and on this particular morning it never looked finer.  As I drove, my eyes mostly scanned the left side of the highway towards the north hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pawnee Buttes and the Pine Bluffs, which were landmarks to which I had been initially introduced when I flew over them in helicopters as I was transported to  various Minuteman Missile Launch Centers in northeastern Colorado during my time as an Air Force officer before entering graduate school.

Lilacs and abandoned farmhouse in eastern Colorado

I don’t recall now whether I even saw the buttes and bluffs that day because my memories  have all been trumped by my recollections of the farmhouse—that farmhouse.  It was on the right side maybe fifty yards back from the highway.  It looked abandoned and I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought were it not for the lilacs.  In front of the boarded-up house were two lilac bushes covered with blossoms.  I slowed my car, pulled to the side of the road and got out.  I walked slowly towards the house not knowing exactly why.  There were strip fallow wheat fields in the distance behind the house, but no other signs of human habitation besides the house itself.  There was a breeze, of course; there is always a breeze or wind in eastern Colorado.

I had always been fond of lilacs since childhood and I may have been surprised to see them growing so vigorously in such dry country.  I was impressed by their beauty, and perhaps I intended to walk downwind from the blossoms to a place where I could experience again their intoxicating fragrance.

Sometime during my walk to the house, I considered an obvious question—how did these lilacs get here?  Situated as they were symmetrically on both sides of the doorway, I knew they had been purposefully planted, possibly by the farmer and his wife who had built the house in the first place.  I surmised that it had been constructed about the time of World War I, and had perhaps been abandoned sometime during the 1960s.

As I walked, I envisioned the house during the “Dirty ‘30s” years of the Dust Bowl, as well as the war years of the early 1940s.  I imagined a mother and her children leaving the house in the morning on a day much like this one to pick blossoms from these same bushes to take inside the house and decorate its simple interior.  I envisioned those children, maybe five or six of them, bunched tightly together at night in two small beds in a dormer bedroom on the second floor.  There would have been no indoor toilet, at least not initially, and everyone in the family would have used a small outhouse located several feet from the back door.  There may have been a hand pump and washbasin in the kitchen, but water is scarce in the Great Plains and baths happened once a week at best.  Highway 14 would have been a more lightly-traveled gravel road then, and trips to Sterling or Greeley, the nearest towns, would have been infrequent.  Perhaps the children were fortunate enough to have a one-room school located in the vicinity—but maybe not.  They may have received most of their schooling from their parents.  Even today, this area is sparsely populated and has few amenities.

I expect that, in time, the children grew up and left the farm.  As they aged, the farmer and his wife also probably left their house and moved to town where they could be closer to medical care and other necessities.  Finally, there was no one left to live there—except the lilacs.

*******

Twenty-five years passed before I drove that highway of my youth again.  It was August and Mary Ann and I were traveling from Minnesota (where we had remained after I completed grad school) to Ft. Collins for a visit with friends.  As we exited Interstate-76 and turned onto Highway 14 once again, I thought of that long-ago farmhouse.  I had, in fact, remembered it many times in those intervening years living in Minnesota, and each time I felt a mix of melancholy and inspiration.

As I drove west, I wondered what might have become of that house and whether it still remained.  My eyes scanned the south side of the road looking for any remaining evidence of its existence.  Nothing.  I had mostly given up hope of finding the house site and I blamed my faulty memory since I assumed I had missed seeing it, if it still existed.  Then, out of the corner of my eye as I passed at highway speed, I caught a glimpse.  I looked back, braked the car and turned around to take another look.

It was a large, fallow field into which I assumed the farmer intended to plant wheat that coming September.  Alone and isolated in the expanse of bare soil were two bushes.  Because of their location in relation to the highway and to each other, I knew they must be the lilacs.  There were no blossoms in August, of course, but as I got out of my car and slowly walked towards those bushes, as I had done so many years before, I again considered their meanings.

The old house was gone now—not a trace was left.  Even the native sod that once surrounded the house twenty-five years before had been turned under to make room for more agriculture.  But whoever had broken that sod to expand the field had left the lilacs to continue to grow. She or he continued to cultivate around them each year.  I wondered who might care so deeply about these two old lilac bushes that they would go to such bother?  Maybe it was simply someone who appreciated viewing and smelling lilacs.  Maybe it was someone who had known the family who originally lived in the house, and had kept the bushes as a kind of memorial to them.  Maybe it was even a member of the family itself—a son or grandson perhaps—who was still farming the land.  I will never know.

The lilacs remember

I’m grateful that, for whatever reason, those lilac bushes were left to grow and blossom after the house was torn down.  I still feel a tinge of sadness as I think of the farmer and his wife planting those bushes maybe ninety years ago with their hopes of a bright future grounded in that place.  Yet the lilacs bring even stronger feelings of inspiration for me now as I think of them blooming every May—each remembering the hopes…and echoing the dreams.

With daughter Jill and grandson Samuel - May 2010

__________________________

This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011.  All rights reserved.

20 Responses to The Lilacs Remember

  1. Glenna Rae Hovey says:

    Steve, I LOVE your story about the Lilacs. At my childhood home, across the back alley, was a wall of large lilac bushes, and the fragrance and texture are vivid memories. They graced our kitchen table frequently. Thanks for your writing.

    PS — I’m so sorry, but I did not receive your May 7th material. Could you send it again. Thanks, friend. Blessings, Glenna Rae

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for your affirming comment, Glenna. Mary Ann used to bring lilacs indoors to make bouquets, but then she developed an allergic reaction to them. Bummer!! I’ll send you the May 7th retreat materials again.

  2. Warren Malhiot says:

    Nice story, Steve. It’s therapeutic sometimes to revisit places we’ve been earlier in our lives and mark what has changed and what has remained the same. It also serves to remind us how transient life on this earth is and long for the eternal that awaits all who know our Lord.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for posting a comment, Warren. I came across a quote by Marcel Proust this past week that confirms the transient reality of life:

      “In theory, one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice, one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed. So it is with time in one’s life.”

  3. Lavonne Lovstad says:

    Thank you for another lovely story, Steven, that brought back my own childhood memories of our farm flower garden abundant with lilacs, iris and peonies. This morning as I walked into Lourdes Chapel at Assisi Heights with its magnificent visual feast of marble walls and stained glass windows, the fragrance of lilacs filled the air. The aisles and altar were flanked by tall brass vases of lilacs as if to say a wedding was going to take place. As I considered this, I thought, yes! Perhaps it is a reminder of the marriage of Father Sky and Mother Earth and the consistent seasonal invitation we are given to fill our senses and give thanks for the abundant landscape of beauty that their oneness provides.

    • steverobert says:

      I appreciate your taking the time to read my essay and offer this thoughtful response, Lavonne. I’ve never heard of decorating a church with lilacs before, but I’ll bet it was nice. And the analogy of the chapel being decorated to celebrate the awakening (of spring) is right on the mark! One thing that Catholics definitely understand is how to involve all of the senses in their worship places. 🙂

  4. Tammy says:

    Hi Steve,
    Forget the lilac bushes! I loved the pic of you and Jill! You should also have an updated picture of the two of you on this page to match the change in the lilac bushes!

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for reading my essay, Tammy. I’ve taken your suggestion to heart; please check out the essay now! 🙂

      • Tammy says:

        You’ve added a great photo and your blog is complete! I heard a motivation speech this morning at a breakfast function and the young woman told a story about herself and her point was that she thanked her “younger self” for taking the time and energy to focus on the present because you don’t know how it will affect your future self. I hadn’t thought about thanking your younger self before, but I think you should do that based on your lilac story.

      • steverobert says:

        Thanks for posting another thought on my WordPress site, Tammy. I like the idea of thanking one’s younger self! We’re in Seattle now, but let’s you and I connect again in July after I get back. Fondly, Steve

        Sent from my iPhone

  5. Don Coon says:

    Steve, I really appreciated your story of the lilacs. As Jeane and I travel around I see old farm houses and barns and I always think that if they could just speak, what stories they would tell. Tales of hardships and families that struggled to make a life out in the wilderness and the things these buildings have seen over their many years. What they have witnessed of history on that region. Thanks for reawakening those memories in me.

  6. Gene Bakko says:

    Steve,
    Your lilac essay took my breath away – and I have to tell you why! I had my first sabbatical from St. Olaf College during the 1976-77 school year. I received an NSF grant for field research on prairie dogs in Colorado working out of a lab in the Zoology Dept. at CSU in Ft. Collins. We packed up our two kids (Brett born in 1974, by the way, same age as your daughter) and a UHaul trailer and headed to “The Fort”. When we got to Sterling we turned off on Highway 14 and headed straight west. It was about noon on the second day of the trek and, with food packed in the car, we stopped AT THE SAME FARM HOUSE IN THE PICTURE ABOVE and had lunch with our 2 year old and 7 year old! I remember it clearly. The lilacs weren’t in bloom as it was July but it was that house. In the course of that year we drove by that house 4 times – going out in July, back and forth for Xmas and then home again the next summer. Then in 1984-85 I got another NSF grant to work on prairie dogs at CSU and made 4 more trips past that house over the course of that school year. We didn’t stop again but did become very familiar with Highway 14 between Sterling and Ft. Collins. It is a small world.
    Gene

    • steverobert says:

      This is absolutely amazing, Gene. I told Mary Ann after our last time together in Northfield that I felt connected with you “like a brother.” Such close-encounters in our life stories make me feel even more that way! 🙂 Your story suggests that the farmhouse was torn down sometime between 1985 and 1999, which is about when Mary Ann and I saw the bushes on our trek back to Ft. Collins. Thanks for sharing this amazing coincidence of your connection to that farmhouse. I wish you could have experienced the lilacs on one of your trips past the house too, but you got the idea from the photo.

  7. Kathy says:

    Hi Steve,
    I found many surprises in your essay about the lilacs. First, I was surprised how observant you were of the lilacs on your first trip. You apparently were preoccupied by your major events of moving and the birth of Jill. (By the way, I recognized the feet logo on your T-shirt!). I was also surprised at the ending when you found the site again with no house. It made me want to go and find it also. I thought you were going to tie in the finding of lilacs with all of the lilacs that grow in MN as a sign that you made the right decision to move to MN. When my mother moved to Chicago from St. Paul as a newly married woman, she made sure to have a lilac bush in our backyard. Perhaps the farmhouse folks also lived in a place with lilacs, and brought it with them to their new home. I’ve wanted a lilac in our yard for 12 years now. I’m going to plant one this summer. Nice essay.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks, Kathy, for reading my piece and offering your reflections. Yes, those “Hang Ten” shirts (with the feet logo) were quite popular back in that early 1970s day–good eye! Since I’ve written this essay and put it on the website, I’ve been finding that MANY people have associations with lilacs, and some of which run very deep. I think you’re right about the farmer and his wife (if they were the ones to plant the bushes in the first place). They might have brought those bushes (as saplings) with them from wherever they came to this area of Colorado (perhaps from someplace in the East). Mary Ann’s ancestors moved to the High Plains of Montana from central Illinois, and although i don’t recall if they planted lilacs on their homestead, I wouldn’t be surprised since I’m sure that (at least for her grandmother) those would have been a connection to her former life in the Midwest.

      That’s a wonderful story about your mother’s lilac bush–and your own desire to have one. Go for it! I look forward to seeing your new lilacs in bloom sometime after the bush gets established. 🙂

  8. Kathy says:

    I bought a lilac bush today Steve! The salesperson was a little overwhelmed with all of my questions. I told her I was particular about lilacs. She agreed. I wanted to get the perfect lilac!

  9. steverobert says:

    Good for you, Kathy! By the way, what criteria account for the “perfect ” lilac?
    I look forward to seeing your new bush once it gets established. Today I saw the largest lilac bush I’ve ever seen! It was located in near Mt. Vernon, Washington, and it has several trunks that are each seven or eight inches in diameter! The homeowner where this bush is located said that it dates back to the days of the original farmhouse that used to occupy the space where his current house is located, and his house is itself probably thirty years old. So I expect the bush may be 100 years old.

  10. Norma says:

    Steve! Your beautifully written story about the lilac bushes touched me. I was so happy to read that they survived the years and other changes. Although Lilacs would have never thrived in southwest Oklahoma where I grew up in the 1930s your story brought to mind several years ago when my younger brother Bill was visiting the place where our little farmhouse had stood; but there was no evidence that our house, barn or chicken coop had ever stood there. He happened to notice a piece of corroded iron sticking up about a quarter of an inch from the soil; he kicked it loose and it was a hinge from our old barn. He brought it to me to confirm if it was ours. It was. Husband Bob cleaned it up a bit, bought a piece of fine hardwood, cut, finished, etc., and made plaque with a small engraved brass plate that said: Barn Hinge from the Bowden Farm. 1930-1945. It is proudly displayed in on my brother’s desk. Thanks for your story and for tweaking my memory.

    • steverobert says:

      I can’t wait to see your book about growing up in Oklahoma in the “dirty thirties,” Norma. Thanks for your kind words about the lilac essay. I’m finding that many people resonated with that one. I think lots of folks have history with lilacs or other such plants.

      Your story about the barn hinge is impressive. I have a similar story about an ornament I took once from an old fence on the farm where my mother lived when she was small. I’ll show that to you sometime. But I never thought of making a plaque out of it though. Good idea.

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