In researching the cultural mention and memory of lilacs amongst the Mennonites, I was not surprised to discover how deeply identified this stalwart travel companion and constant comfort to many a Mennonite farmwife has been identified with the journeys and experiences of the Mennonites, especially those of Russian and Ukrainian origin.
In her blog posting, “Mennonite a People,” posted May 31, 2009, Linda May Shirley of Rosthern, Saskatchewan, indicates how deeply she identifies this symbol with the Russlander Mennonites, “Strange after all these years, and after all what the Mennonites have contributed to Canada that we are still not recognized [as a unique immigrant community]. Rosthern [Sask] was/is a large community of Mennonites and in the early 1900’s was the largest exporters of flax. We brought with us winter wheat, apple trees, lilacs, and many other things that many do not know about. Back in Russia it was the Mennonites that first built a harvesting machine. Still we are not known of our contributions rather many are ridiculed as a religion.”
The Mennonites of Chortitza and Molostchnaya colonies in eastern Ukraine proved themselves quite adept in adapting technologies, practices and seeds from their previous homes in Western Europe (many having immigrated from old Prussia (present-day Poland), and adapting new plants and opportunities discovered in Ukraine. Given the lilac's oriental heritage, it is possible that they discovered the lilac in Ukraine, or even that these hardy bushes had been old friends back in West Prussia. In his survey of the remains of Mennonite estates left in Ukraine, Helmut Huebert lists at least two estates where plantings of lilacs are still be found among the remaining chestnuts and lindens on the Klassen Estate and a maze of lilacs still exists about the grounds of the Regehr Estate.
The journals of William Allen and Stephen Grellet, two Quakers who undertook a visit of the Chortitza Colony in 1819 record the effect of such plantings, “On the visit to the pastor’s home on the Island of Chortitza: The pious pastor came to meet us in a little cart; we were both struck with the sweetness and simplicity which appeared in his countenance. After the first salutation, he set off at full speed to give notice to his wife of our coming; as we approached the avenue leading to the house, we found the path strewed with lilac blossoms, the rooms also were ornamented with flowers, and everything bore the marks of neatness and comfort.”
Today, despite the best efforts of Stalin and his Soviets to erase the memory of those quiet Anabaptist communities, plantings of lilacs remain as witnesses to our past. In their travel blog, Ed and Millie Hildebrand record how while on a tour of the former colonial sites in 2007, “We are introduced to our first cemetery. Formerly a massive Mennonite graveyard, only a few stones remain among the myriad of Ukrainian graves, and Victor teaches us how to recognize them. We hear how the “missing” tombstones disappeared over time, wrested from their moorings and recycled into foundations of new buildings in the area. Those left behind were either too heavy or too deep under the lilac bushes to merit the trouble. An additional feature of each Mennonite Grave is the blooming marigolds.”
Expert survivalists, these stalwart bushes remind us of more than past lives and distant memories. Continuity with our past is a powerful inspiration. Celebrating the creativity of both his great grandfather in recreating his long lost West Prussian gardens on the Kansas prairies, and the inspiration that these gardens provided his grandmother as a muse to her poetry, Melvin D. Epp records the important inclusion of lilacs in his great grandfather’s master plan, “Two fence-lined pathways led to a lilac arbor. Flowers mentioned next to these pathways were thymes, moss roses, yucca, and verbena. The lilac arbor was the most secluded, perhaps intended for intimate moments; when the lilac bloomed in spring, the fragrance must have been overwhelming,” Epp, Melvin D., “The Heritage of a Garden: Replicating a West Prussian Garden Among the Tall Grasses of Kansas,” Mennonite Life, Fall, 2003, vol 63, no 2.
More than shelters for amorous encounters, these lilac arbors were also planted into hedgerows that both sheltered the farms and gardens from the seemingly eternal winds of the North American plains, but also provided relief also from the dry, dreary grasses and busy work days for the farmwives. Not only would Mennonite families pack their windowsills and cover their tables with jars and vases of fragrant blossoms, but the cool breezes of June evenings would be spent walking along these rows, perhaps hand in hand but more importantly, free for the moment of long summer days’ toil. Smartly clipped wild grasses were often tamed, approximating wide lawns to accentuate the long, straight rows of lavender and green bushes. To my memory, as dusk overtook the hedgerows, it was a time of just being -- a time to quietly experience place and time, and family, basking in the scents of a well-tended yard and in the close companionship of each other. Sometimes these moments were shared with extended family and friends as in southern Manitoba where we would enjoy the evening banks of thunder fronts on the horizon and the scent of lilacs busily illuminated by lightning bugs. As we did not have these little flashes of wonder in the Montana prairies, they were always a treat to behold on these walks.
Gordon C. Eby of Kitchener, Ontario, records similar experiences almost a century earlier in his diary entry for Sunday, June 2, 1911:
…I was around home all day, it rained a little in the forenoon. Just before dinner Mr. Bruder from near Guelph came, he had his adopted daughter with him, they stayed for dinner and till some time in the afternoon. (Austin and Uncle Jake were here a while this afternoon) -- Right after dinner Lorne Israel, and Edwin Feik, came to visit me from Strasberg (ONT) -- we strolled around, played the phonograph -- I then started to repair a puncture in my wheel, but it did not hold wind -- I will have to go at [it] again some other time, Dora Moody and her chum Nettey Smith were here for the afternoon and evening -- after supper, I took a picture of Lorne and Edwin in the buggy just before they left. I then took a picture of Dora and Nettie standing in among the lilac blossoms, played a few pieces on the phonograph through the phone, to Dora’s sister, then she played a few pieces on the piano for me. Jake done the milking. As it was getting dusk I walked up home with Nettie and Dora, we had just started when a shower of rain came up but it only lasted till we walked down the garden -- got some old fashioned red tulips in a row of young apple trees, when we got out on the track it stopped raining. I walked up as far as Moodey‘s where Nettie said she would stay awhile with Dora. -- then I went home through town, got an ice cream at the restaurant, met Edward Baetz up at the camp meeting grounds, street lights went out up there till we got home, ‘of course I was only an onlooker for I can’t dance: the 1911-1919 diary of Gordon Christian Eby, Mennonite Farmer, (MLR Editions Canada, 2007), p 74.
In her essay, “Spiritual memoir explores heritage, place, relationships,” Rachel Lapp shares a selection from Cynthia Yoder’s Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life, from a more contemporary, Midwest United State’s perspective:
Talk turned to plantings: what plants would be bought at what greenhouses, and how Zem’s was having a good special on pansies. I was starting to feel less uncomfortable with them, more part of the scenery, like a stone settling comfortably into its place on a wall. The night crept cool onto our backs from the woods above. In summer, fireflies emerge in the field across the road, the same field AI pummeled with bare feet as a child, picking bluebottles for my Grammie. Now, there was only the anticipation, the waiting. Still, the air smelled of lilacs, as it always did, even before their season.
Understandably, after such a long companionship, lilacs have not only denoted where we have been and accompanied us to where we are going, having assisted us in falling in love and joined in our summer evenings, but in keeping us close to our roots, and to each other, often participate in our moments of quiet spirituality. In her blog, “Borrowing Bones: Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Days Three and Four,” dated June 19, 2010, Dora Dueck of Winnipeg, Manitoba, reflects:
…The day was pleasantly warm without being hot, but it was windy. All day the wind had been loosening elm seeds upon us like rain, swirling them into piles in front of the door and on our deck and any other place they could find to gather. Once, while I stood on the front porch, the wind also brought me the sweet fragrance of lilacs from somewhere down the street.
But walking the labyrinth [a spiritual exercise], I didn’t notice the wind. Not at first, at least. In that relatively sheltered spot, all seemed calm. And then I heard it, strong and unmistakable in the tops of the trees. Ah, yes, of course, the wind. A reminder of the vigorous, comforting sound that marked the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church, which we celebrated yesterday, on the day of Pentecost. A reminder of the words spoken to Nicodemus: “The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit” (John 3:8)…
I’ve been mulling on this…Thinking of how the images given us for Spirit involve both unknowing (mystery) and knowing (sound), remembering how the wind played above the grass and its turns of prayer, and how it scatters and stacks up seeds. How it carries the scent of lilacs. Dora Dueck
Nor are lilacs quite finished with their companionable task. Speaking also of the equally valued rhubarb plant, Erna Neufeldt recalls how yet in this latest stage of the Mennonite Trek from our farms in North America, to the cities, lilacs still stand mute testimony to our long journey and still mark the memory of our families and the faith that drove them and helped them to persevere in these less hospitable places. In a recent blog posting, she wrote, “if you decide to travel the province of Saskatchewan looking for old homesteads you can see rhubarb plants that identify many places where pioneers settled as early as 1900. The settlers always defined their homestead with a border of poplar trees, lilacs, caraganas, and an odd apple tree. Somewhere in the corner was usually a rhubarb plant. To this day, the buildings have all disappeared but the growth of trees and thurbarb are still intact and the homestead is thereby identified,” http://mennowoemencanada.blogspot.com 09 Jun, 2010.