Love and Lilacs


I  nearly missed it. A glimpse of grace among all the random events of a crazy day.

Yesterday morning when I walked into my office, the aroma of lilacs hit me as soon as I opened the door. I breathed in the divine scent and saw a blue water bottle filled with lilac sprigs sitting on my desk.

Suddenly I was transported to my mamaw’s house in Kermit, Virginia, and I felt like I was eight years old. Mamaw Leonard had a huge lilac bush in her side yard, next to her white painted clapboard house. As a kid I ran around barefoot in her yard.

I spent many pleasant hours at Mamaw’s house in my childhood. I remember being fascinated by the way she lived: she had no indoor plumbing, so there was a chamber pot sitting under her bed. Behind her house was a weathered gray wooden outhouse, and outside her creaky screen door was a rusty old well pump with a long handle that I used to love cranking up and down.

Mary Maggie Leonard was my grandmother’s name. Her face was leathery and wrinkled, and I remember when she kissed me, I instinctively drew back because she had brown juice around her mouth from dipping snuff, but then when the deed was done, I loved her sticky kiss and the strangely sweet smell of her breath.

My dad, mom, and I used to go visit my grandmother every Friday night. In the wintertime her living room was unbearably hot because of the woodburning stove which glowed from the coal she used to heat her 4-room house. I can see her living room in my mind: a tiny room about 10 by 12 feet,  withher rocking chair sitting beside the stove and an antique sewing machine with a black iron foot pedal placed near a window. On the wall hung a sepia-toned portrait of my dad as a 19-year-old Army private in World War II.

Funny, I remember Mamaw’s rocking chair and the screened door that slammed loudly, but I don’t remember what kind of couch she had. Probably a bristly maroon worn-looking overstuffed couch that later sat in our basement.

I remember sensing that my mom didn’t want to go to my grandmother’s, and she would be strangely quiet and I just knew she hated being at Mamaw’s house. I think she felt like Mamaw clung to Daddy too much, and it also irritated her that Mamaw sounded kind of whiney when she talked. My mother was an outgoing, positive person, and she got impatient with people who were “sad sacks,” as she called Mamaw.

Now I understand why Mamaw sounded the way she did. She led a hard life. When she was 13, her mother died, leaving her as the oldest of five (?) children responsible for cooking and supervising other household responsibilities because her dad, a farmer, needed her help.

Mary Maggie Blessing married James Campbell Leonard, who worked for the railroad in their mountain valley. They had six children, four girls and two boys. One of their twin daughters died from diphtheria at 18 months. Papaw Leonard contracted tuberculosis and died when my dad, Walter Paul Leonard, was only 9.

Mamaw was left with four children to raise (the oldest, Kate, was married by that time). She worked hard as a farmer, selling milk from her prized dairy cow and vegetables from the garden to eke out a living. She also worked as the postmaster at the Kermit post office.

When I was born, she was in her 70s. I remember hearing about her getting struck by lightning once when she was down near the wellhouse. It threw her to the ground and left a scar where it blazed up her arm.

Somewhere along the way, Mamaw had an accident that cut a tendon on the ring finger of her right hand. Her finger was permanently curled into her palm, and her knobby fingers were swollen with arthritis. Still, she had a smile for me every Friday night and freshly made molasses cookies waiting.

So…the smell of lilacs takes me back to Mamaw’s house. And I feel grateful for my friend Doug, who brought me the lilacs after I posted a simple comment on Facebook under a picture of a lilac bush blooming outside his bathroom window: “Bring me some lilacs if you get a chance. Lilacs are my favorite scent…they remind me of my grandmother.”

Thank you, Doug, for helping me remember.

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