Childhood recollections; Part 2

Here continues part 2 of my essay entitled “Blunt is engrained in me.”  Part 1 was posted on Oct. 9, 2014.  I was discussing lilacs and their presence at the Mentor Graham Historic Site in Blunt, SD.

Sophie Anderson 1823 –1903, The Time Of The Lilac


If you want to completely refresh your lilac shrubs and get them to perform as newly planted shrubs with smaller more flexible branches and a fuller canopy, you may cut all of the stems back to about 12 inches above the earth. It will take the shrubs a few years to recover, but when they do they will completely refreshed.

Thinning inside, competing branch from dwarf lilac.                   images

I didn’t learn that technique from my Master Gardener training, but rather from living in an historic house built in 1795 in Milton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I was privileged to live in that saltbox house for three years in the late 1980s and to be good friends with its owner, Polly Wakefield, whose ancestors came to North America on the Mayflower. Polly was my very own Yankee, a breed apart.  I love the photograph below of Polly in her great outdoors on her estate.


With no children of her own, Polly left her vast estate in a charitable trust.              Mary Binney Wakefield

Polly was the last in a long line of “gentlemen farmers”, or, as in her case, a “gentlewoman farmer”, and all the property she inherited was maintained as a land preserve just outside Boston. She was a important member of the very prestigious Massachusetts Horticultural Society and I met her through my research and writing of an article on her ancestor’s tomb in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. I was working as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and when Polly and I met and came to know one another, we were instantly fast friends. She was old enough to be my mother or grandmother and I was her honorary daughter and my husband was her honorary son-in-law. Polly taught me a lot about horticulture, especially trees and shrubs.


But, looking back in time, lilacs figure into one of my favorite memories as a girl in South Dakota. A girlfriend taught me how to make a doll’s pocketbook from a pliable lilac leaf: make a vertical cut along the central vein toward the end of the leaf with your thumbnail, roll the leaf starting at the end opposite the stem, and insert the stem in the slot you made. Other leaves can also be used, but none so well as the humble lilac leaf. These little purses were so sweet and my dolls loved having them. Well, I loved for my dolls to have them, is what I mean!

lilac leaf


Lilacs symbolized love in the erudite 19th-century language of flowers (which you can Google for more information). But this next fact is going to blow your mind: Walt Whitman, one of the most influential poets in the canon of American literature, wrote a poem entitled “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which is actually an elegy about the assassination of President Lincoln.


Whitman Drum taps

During the Civil War, Whitman worked in Washington D.C., where he saw up close and personal many of the wounded veterans returning from battle for care. That experience and the unimaginable horror of the assassination of Lincoln on April 14, 1865 led Whitman to write a collection of poems, Drum-Taps (published 1865), in which “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” was first published. In the poem, Whitman mourns Lincoln’s death and uses lilacs as a reference to the president. So, we must wonder, did Mentor Graham himself have lilacs planted around his Blunt home in memory of his illustrious student, or is it just a coincidence? I’ve read that Graham and Whitman were both on the podium when Lincoln was inaugurated, so there may indeed be a tie in. These are the kinds of facts that ignite my mind and imagination. It is also possible, of course, that someone planted the lilacs in the Graham yard simply because they provide privacy and are a hardy shrub. Either explanation is logical. One is more evocative, however.

Here is a segment from Whitman’s poem


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
(Nor for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)

If you would like to read the  poem in its entirety, you may find it on the web here:



Whitman’s recollections of Lincoln were obviously prized during his lifetime.

The authoritative book, Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (R.W. French, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., New York: Garland Publishing, 1998) opines about Whitman’s poem and how, in his mind, the lilac symbolized Lincoln :
While the assassination of President Lincoln is the occasion of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the subject, in the manner of elegy, is both other and broader than its occasion. “Lilacs” turns out to be not just about the death of Abraham Lincoln, but about death itself; in section 7, just after the poet has placed a sprig of lilac on the coffin, the poem makes a pointed transition: “Nor for you, for one alone,” the poet chants, “Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring.” Significantly, Lincoln is never mentioned by name in “Lilacs,” nor does the poem relate the circumstances of his death; indeed, the absence of the historical Lincoln in the poem is one of its more striking features. Historical considerations give way to universal significance. The fact of assassination, for example, is not mentioned, for, while all people die, assassination is the fate of only a few.

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