When I smell lilacs, I imagine what life was like when they were in high vogue around a hundred years ago. Like fashion, garden plants have trends, too. For instance, evergreen bushes hardly sell now, but they seemed a mandatory addition to the houses I saw built in my 70’s childhood. My family once lived in a house that was built during World War I, and it had a massive common lilac bush in the back yard that had grown heavier with blossoms with each passing year. By the late 80’s, this bush had become a yearly riot of purple joy that measured about 12 feet in all directions. Prince could have shot an album cover in front of it. I can imagine our claw-footed tub transplanted to the foreground of the bush, with steam rising from it as Prince pouts at the camera.
This house was so dilapidated that our landlord sold it to a prison rehab project for a dollar when we moved out. The linoleum had buckled in places, exposing a lining underneath made of newspapers from 1917. As the floor slowly fell apart, I saw the hairstyles and must-have dresses of that era. If I closed my eyes, I could see these women chatting beside the lilac bush, eating crust-free watercress sandwiches cut twice on the diagonal as they sat around a wrought iron table painted white. Their 18-month-old children would already have been potty trained and could have built houses of cards for the entire forty five minutes it took their mothers to finish tea.
In contrast, we the last occupants of that house as it was originally built were barbarians. This was the house I lived in when I started wearing bras. When I balked at this change, Mom reassured me that things had become so much easier for womankind regarding foundation wear. There was a freedom in never thinking a girdle was necessary.
Mom raised this subject again recently, and told me, “You should have seen some of the crap women thought they needed to wear. I remember women wearing gowns that were ridiculous. If they moved wrong inside them, their entire body would be punctured.”
This was the house where I daydreamed of vacationing with Duran Duran, the narratives of which were deeply informed by V.C. Andrew’s starter smut. This was also the house where I later gained 30 pounds in a summer listening to the Beatles while sipping Classic Coke and eating Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls by the box.
We moved out the next summer as the lilacs moldered from the heat and relentless bees. A couple months later, Roseanne appeared on the cover of T.V. Guide for the first time, and I was horrified to notice that she and I were wearing the same Lane Bryant plaid shirt.
This is what comes to mind when I smell lilacs, all the women I could have been.