My great-grandparents emigrated from Italy not long after they were married; my great-grandmother had a three month old son wrapped against her chest and the oldest girl was still in nappies. Another war had broken out in their homeland, and she had known nothing but fighting since her own childhood in the late 1850’s. They left with only as much as they could carry.
Headed for Canada, they were to meet family, who had acquired farm land in Hawtrey, Ontario, to be divided once they arrived. Somehow along the way they changed their last name—dropping the “i” for fear of mafia associations to Angotti. It was in Hawtrey that great-grandma Angott planted the slip of a lilac she had carried across the ocean…it was from the bush that grew next to her bedroom window of her parent’s home.
In the early 1900’s the Angott family immigrated to the United States by way of Detroit. Once more a slip of a lilac was smuggled and then planted at the house on Oakwood just north of River Rouge. The new home had three lots; a two-story brick house was situated on one and to the east were the gardens.
My grandmother, Margaret, would bring me along on her weekly visits to see her mother and sister. It was here that I remember my great-grandma Angott, and my great-aunt Rose.
Great-grandma never spoke, nor do I remember her standing. The small burgundy velvet-brocade chair seemed too large for her petite frame. Her dark olive complexion was wrinkled and creased from years of laboring outdoors, and in her arthritic liver-spotted hands a crystal blue rosary always laid. Looking through her thick glasses she would follow my every move, her eyes freakishly magnified by the lenses. I can’t say that I loved her; to me she was strange and inanimate. I was told she was a loving mother when my grandmother was a child, and for this reason alone I would pet her unmoving hands and smile into her wide-eyed gaze.
I was very young during those visits, and remember being sent outdoors to “Go play in the gardens.” Trying to contain my excitement at being liberated, I would do my best to walk slowly and lady-like through the red and white porcelain kitchen and out the back door. At the foot of the porch steps I would burst into a run down the perennial gardens’ paths. I was free to do as I pleased but the garage and equally large shed at the back were off limits. If the top of the Dutch door to the shed was left open, I would pull myself up on its narrow shelf and peer in at the bins of pots, racks of tools and chandeliers of tomato cages.
From a child’s eye the gardens were grand and filled with wonder. The dwarf apple trees along the back fence were Espalier. The island of peony flowers with their tufted gold centers bobbled with the slightest breeze. The dozens of song birds unafraid of my presence darted about and splashed in the three-tiered fountain.
Aunt Rose loved fragrant flowering shrubs and bordered her gardens with them. The seasonal scents of late spring included the French lilacs in white, periwinkle and deep magenta. But the lilac I loved best was the delicate pink one brought from Italy—it flowered two weeks after the French had spent their beauty.
My grandmother had brought a slip of the Italian lilac to her yard when she married. This tall and tightly clumped shrub was planted off the kitchen door and the fragrance in early June was dizzying.
I was nearly forty and finally had a home of my own when I cut a slip of the family lilac. It was the year my grandmother would die. I made the two hour drive back to Detroit, to Ferndale and her abandoned house on Hazlehurst. Working quickly I nipped a few shoots and dug a root, shoved them into a water-filled milk carton, and headed out before anyone knew I was there.
Only two cuttings took root, but that was all I needed. One lilac grows along the east fence of my yard, the other—nearly two stories high—grows beside my upstairs bedroom window.
This week it is blooming. Its delicate pink panicles, drooping over at the tip, fill the air with heavenly perfume…and in the night, with memories mingled in the scent, “I breathed my soul back into me.”