A bright spot in this weird spring has been the gigantic lilac hedge along my yard. Its blooms have been beautiful and every once in a while I catch their scent. It’s an important and nostalgic fragrance for me as it is for a lot of people. My story involves the measles.
Back in the dark ages of the 1950s kids got the measles, and I was one of those kids. There was no vaccine and measles was a dangerous childhood illness. I was sick a long time and ran a very high fever. I was delirious for a while and, apparently, even the doctor was worried I wouldn’t make it. My dad called my Grandmother Beall up in Billings, MT, my mom’s mom, and wired her money for the train.
I lay in my parent’s bed, why there I don’t know except I was probably sharing a bedroom with my little brother at that point. I guess my parents set up the roll-away bed in the room my dad used for an office, but I don’t really know. When you’re a desperately ill six your old you don’t really care how other people arrange themselves. The first memory I have of this whole thing is waking up from that to find my grandmother’s cool hand on my hot forehead.
A couple of weeks later, I was finally able to go outside. My mom had planted lilacs by the back door because “When lilacs last in the door yard bloomed,” right? As I walked out the back door, I re-entered the world through their lovely fragrance.
Here in America it is a “holiday,” Memorial Day. Originally it was meant to honor those who died in the (first) American Civil War back in the middle of the 19th century. My little town has some ties to that. The Homelake Veteran’s Home on the east end of town was built for Civil War veterans.
Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs First in the Dooryard Bloomed” is a powerful evocation of the sorrow and horror of the Civil War. He was a nurse in a battlefield hospital and saw the real nightmare of the war very close up. With no antibiotics, limited painkillers, the whole intense reality of the 19th century, a battlefield hospital was death and dismemberment in tents. (Please see the note below. I am afraid someone’s going to take away my degree in American Lit after this…)
I’ll just put the last stanza here, but the whole poem is painful beauty.
Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” Walt Whitman — idiot that I am I forgot that this poem is about the moment when Whitman learned Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. The story goes that Whitman was visiting his mother and brother at his mother’s home in New York; he stepped out the door and observed that the lilacs were blooming. I’m very embarrassed and think maybe I should write my posts AFTER I drink my coffee rather than WHILE I’m drinking my coffee. In my mind’s eye, was Whitman in the hospital tent with the horribly wounded soldiers. I’m very sorry.