“Lilacs and Laughter in the Rain”
I stood in my grandparents’ yard, fairly shaking with a combination of anticipation and worry. I was about as excited that day as any young girl could be.
My grandparents had a pretty large property near Port Credit. For many years, a line of weeping willows that were fairy castles and forts and dreaming spots for their grandchildren marked one side of the property. A long and full hedge of lilacs marked the other side. For a number of years, my family had lived right in front of those lilacs and while my parents were excited to own their first home miles away, the loss of the lilac hedge was a sadness for my Mom. So every spring, as soon as they bloomed, Grandma and Grandpa would arrive at our house with the back seat of their car piled with lilacs. I would come home from school and know that they were there to visit just from the lovely perfume that was seeping out of the door even before I opened it.
They had a much more important tradition in lilac season, though. For many years they had been active in the work of a Mission in downtown Toronto. Each spring, as the Ladies’ Group ended their season of weekly meetings, they celebrated with a picnic at my grandparents’ home. They would arrive in busses, thrilled to be “in the country” and find tables under the trees, set with Grandma’s best china and silver and everything lovely she could borrow or beg from her friends. She would have been cooking and baking for a week, and the Queen of England would not have had better treatment from her. She greeted them in her best dress, covered by her ever-present apron. Grandpa, dressed as he always was in a starched white dress shirt and suit pants, looked pretty formal but his gentle smile, and twinkling eyes were enough to make anyone feel comfortable. They loved those ladies and hosting them was joy. Grandpa would take a rare day off from work to help and my Mom and her sister would be conscripted as servers.
For the first time, I was considered old enough to take a day off from school and help serve. What an honour that was! I could hardly bear the excitement. I was very aware that this was God’s work and I was being allowed to be part of that. How wonderful! But now the busses were due any minute, the tables set and the storm clouds were moving in. The storm and the ladies arrived at just about the same moment. There was a mad scramble and in a very short time, the house was packed with women, and tables were in every room, even the bedrooms where the beds had been pushed to the walls. I was wide-eyed with questions.
My Mom had explained that some of these women would be very poor, and some of them would be a little “different”. My family was not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I did know there were others who knew real deprivation. They were the folks who found their way to our family dinner table, and sometimes stayed for days or months. And there were others to whom my Mom delivered the food she had worked so hard to can and “put up” in our pantry. But here were people who lived in a poverty I had not seen before. Some of them had such odd mannerisms, and others quite vacant expressions. I don’t remember feeling frightened or judgmental, rather just, well, wondering.
I wove between the tables and around the tightly packed chairs bringing trays of food from the kitchen. At one of the tables sat a woman with her chair turned backwards. She sat with her back to the table staring at the wall. I wasn’t quite sure what to so with this so I asked, quite hesitantly, if I could turn her chair around for her so she could eat? “O thank you, dearie,” she replied. “That is very sweet of you, but it doesn’t matter whether I eat or not. Look at these lovely lilacs!! The only time I get to be in a beautiful garden is when I come here each spring. I am so disappointed we couldn’t be outside. Looking at the lilacs helps. I am hungrier for that beauty than the food”.
My young heart broke. I knew about poverty of money or food. I even had some idea about the poverty of opportunities, but a poverty of beauty? I could not imagine. Grandpa saw my confusion and asked what was bothering me. Tearfully, I told him about the lady.
Grandpa looked out at the rain pounding against the window, then turned to look at me. “We need to do something about that. Do you think you would melt in that rain?”, he asked. “No,” I replied. “Neither would I,” he said, “Let’s go!”. Together we scooted out to garage and collected big garbage cans, emptying them, and picking up any boxes or containers we could find. Then, in the driving rain we ran to the hedge and began cutting lilacs. In seconds, we were soaked to the skin but shaking with delighted laughter. We giggled together as we stripped that 40-foot hedge of every bloom we could reach, loading armfuls into the containers and filling the porch with the fragrant blooms.
As each woman left that day, she carried with her an armload of sweet-scented beauty. And I took with me two precious gifts from my Grandfather – an appreciation for the necessity of beauty that feeds our souls, and a profound experience of the pure joy of serving another.
I have planted lilacs wherever I have lived. My mother’s last birthday gift to me was a lovely pink lilac tree. And each spring, as those blooms burst forth, I remember. I drink in the beauty, and the fragrance of the blossoms. My soul is fed, and I am overcome with gratitude for the fresh beauty of God’s green earth and for the goodly heritage of those who modeled joyful, selfless service for Jesus’ sake.