When Charles was about a year and a half old, we started looking for another house. The house we were in was fine, in fact, we loved almost everything about it, and if it hadn’t been located on one of the busiest streets in the city of Hamilton, we might have stayed put. But the traffic was wild, and there was nary a glimmer of traffic calming or pedestrian safety ideas anywhere in the minds of the city council at the time, (or since, to be honest) and the street we lived on seemed designed to be a sort of pre- or post-highway in that as drivers sped toward or from Highway 403 as they moved along the street. Meaning that, depending on which direction they were headed they either ramped up to or maintained 400 series of highways speeds. Posted at 50km/h, like most of Hamilton’s streets, the average speed along that stretch of road was, in the mid-90s, 85km+. Is it any wonder the gardens at the front of the house were neglected? We were walking distance from the entrance to the 403, but it sometimes felt like we lived on the highway itself.
And while we wanted to get away from the busy street, we still did want to stay in the same area for all the reasons people like to live in the neighbourhoods they like to live in: proximity to schools, groceries, parks and greenspaces, and other amenities as they say. So, in the spring and early summer of 1999, we started our hunt.
I don’t want even want to let you know what our budget was or what our first house was listed for, it’s too sad. Let’s just say that in 1999, the only half-million and million dollar homes around here were homes that looked like you would think a half or million dollar home would look like. Not the 1.5 storey, 2 bedroom one bathroom kinds of deals you get around here now. In other words, housing prices MADE SOME DAMN SENSE.
Anyway, we made our list of things we wanted in a new house: Two bathrooms; an extra bedroom that wasn’t the size of a small closet; maybe a basement that was finished? These don’t seem like extremely luxurious expectations, but they were to us. We knew we would likely have another child within a year or two, so we wanted a little more space. And mostly we wanted off the super highway known as Aberdeen Avenue.
Our real estate agent printed out (I know!) lists of homes for us to consider. The listings had all the details, of course, and small black and white photos of the houses in question. Because we were still looking in the same neighbourhood we would bundle Charles into the stroller, and off we would go to check out the properties.
There was one house on the real estate printouts that we would walk by all the time. It was slightly out of our price range (again, you would weep if you knew what this price range was) but it was really lovely to look at. Not from an aesthetics point of view, mind you. Visually it was a bit of a clown house: brick painted bright red with white trim around the windows, a yellow screen door, that very 70s light green aluminum siding in parts. A bit of a train wreck, an assault on the senses if I’m being honest. But it was more the feeling I got when we waked by. It just felt like comfort, like happiness. I could picture Charles playing in the backyard, I could envision our family on the deck. The vibes, I guess you could say, were good. When our realtor guy asked us what houses we wanted to see, that house was always one he recommended. But we always hesitated, even when the price dropped and dropped again.
“It doesn’t have everything on our list,” I would say to John, to the realtor.
“Just take a look,” said the realtor.
And privately to John I would say, “I’m afraid to go through it. Because it doesn’t have everything we’re looking for and I’m afraid that if I do view it I will want us to buy it, I will want us to live there, no matter what.”
And, you have probably figured out, that is exactly what happened.
Eventually during our search, the house moved right into our budget (we later learned that it’s likely because it’s a corner lot, and who wants a corner lot with all that much more snow to shovel) and so I finally relented and off we went to see it.
The first steps through the door I remember thinking, “Well, I told you.” and then I went happily along paying little attention as the realtor pointed out features and things that might need to be fixed or changed. The house just felt happy. I can’t explain it, but there are happy houses and there are sad houses. We toured some houses where I would just shake my head at John and say “Sad” or “Cold” (not in temperature but in temperament) or in one case “Death.” Again, I can’t explain it, it’s just feelings I get, but John agreed that we didn’t want to live in sad, cold, or death houses, so he followed my lead. And this, this was a happy house. And while it might not have checked all the boxes on our house hunting wish list, it offered something else: it felt like home, already. This would be our new house, our forever home, all things going according to plan. And we went through it for the first time and then we all stood on the sidewalk to debrief and told our agent that we wanted to put in an offer.
It’s been a very good house to us, and it continues to be. We did have another child of course, Max was born in July of 2000, and it’s really the only family home either kid has known.
In the spring of 2001 I surveyed the state of the gardens and decided that what was missing to make the entire place complete was a lilac. Lilacs, to me, are home. The house I grew up in had two massive lilac trees, one light purple, one dark. The dark purple was old, my grandmother had planted it at some point after my grandparents moved to Hamilton from Winnipeg. The lighter one not quite as old, my mother planted that one after she and my dad bought the house from my grandparents who had moved to Nanticoke. By the time I was leaving home both trees were taller than our house with massive, fragrant blooms every spring.
I didn’t plant a lilac at our first home because I knew we would likely be leaving, but here, I thought, here is where we will stay. Here is where we will raise our family, here is where we need a lilac tree.
So I planted one and it thrived, and it is now taller than anyone can reach and the boys don’t know this home without it, which is exactly perfect and exactly what I wanted.
If you believe Flora’s Lexicon (which I do!) the symbolism for lilac is “first emotions of love” and I think that’s fitting.
I think love can be a place just as easily as it can be a person. I think planting anything with intention – especially something that is likely to outlive you – can also be love, a promise to future generations, a gift from the past, a legacy in some sense. And for my grandmother who didn’t love Hamilton right away, who missed her Manitoba family, maybe planting the lilac was her way of putting down of roots (quite literally) and striving to make something beautiful in her new life.
My lilac is 20 years old this spring. It feels like a lifetime and in a lot of ways it is. But, compare that to the lilac my grandmother planted, closer to 75 years old, and the one my mother planted, nearly 60 by now, surely. I hope they’re still there, I hope that other families have marked the years based on the height of those trees, have cut bunches of blooms for their tables, to take to friends, teachers, neighbours.
A lot has changed in 20 years for our family and our world, and our lilac has been there for all of it, a beloved constant each springtime no matter how harsh the winter. A metaphor if ever I heard one.