My grandmother hangs dresses on the clothesline out back near the lilacs. She hums Sinatra. The tune gets caught on a bulb of phlegm. She kneels on the ground to hack it away. Her shins are crisscross patterned from the warm grass.


My mother watches from the window, silhouette bent in anger. She storms outside, sour-faced, fistfuls of gloom: “You need to quit!”


My grandmother lights up as she says this. Her church lady friends bring over babka bread and honey cake from the Ukrainian bakery. They’re all crepe paper skin and big flower hats and handwoven shawls. They bask in the sun near the lilacs. They suck lavender cigarettes and sip scotch on the rocks. Blue smoke laces the lilac bushes and hovers all around them. The smoke is like an intimate ghost. It is ever-present. It lingers and it never disappears. It blankets the ceiling during nighttime television. It ribbons from glass ashtrays. It follows my grandmother from room to room and attaches to her like an angel’s wings.

By autumn, the lilacs are bare and the clothesline droops with frost. My grandmother knots a hot menthol cloth around her neck. She has pink rollers tight in her hair. She’s getting ready for Saturday night mass.


She boils red borscht in the little yellow kitchen that smells like onions, cabbage, the Old World, the land of hard work and dirt and defiance. She tells us how to care for the lilacs. She tells us how brief is their season. Her teeth are like pebbles, bronzed and smooth from the river where she was baptized during Prohibition. Her purple mouth instructs us on pruning, watering, fertilizing.


She lights up a smoke and I watch those teeth (they say bits of teeth remain in cremated ashes), and I know, down, deep down inside of her, with every labored breath, blooms the black flower she loves more than us and more than those lilacs in spring.



* "Lilacs" was previously published in Jabberwock Review, 2018.     

Lilacs