You’ve Got to Smell the Lilacs While They Are In Bloom

Prologue:  Lilacs change very quickly, and in that sense, the post is almost past its time.  I started it and was not able to finish my thoughts until now.  I’ve actually been working on this post off and on or a week and a half.  And yet, because of that, it is important I finish it. 


I’m in a musing mode, so this is a reflection on an episode that happened over twenty years ago, along with the events of this week, and the common thread running through them all.  Lilacs.  Life. Living.

In the spring of 1991, I was a young Benedictine Sister.   I was going to school full time at Dickinson State University, and lived in a small house three blocks from the school with a couple of my  Sisters.  It was very convenient. I could pray in the morning, go to classes, come home for dinner and prayers with the Sisters and go back and hit the practice rooms at night.   It was also twenty miles from Sacred Heart Monastery, so I could return quickly and frequently.

So, I was combining university life as a music major , monastic life, and daily living like preparing meals, shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn, and taking care of the garden. It was a wonderful time.  Then the phone rings on the evening of May 20, 1991. It is my Mother.  She says, “Hey Jill Maria, what do you have going this week?  I have my garden all in, and have a bunch of extra tomato plants.  I’m thinking of bringing them over.”

I said, “Our Sister Josephine died, today, and we will have her funeral,  but other than that I’m free.”   Mom said, “Oh, I would like to go to that.  I am coming over.  It will be good to see you.”

Now, that is all well and good, but let me put it in perspective.  Mother lived eight hours away in Chinook, Montana; and I was in Dickinson/Richardton, North Dakota.   So for Mom to pick up and say,  “I’m going to drive eight hours to bring you a few tomato plants….” and to do so in the middle of the week without taking my Dad on the road trip was all a little bit unusual.

a_yellow_butterfly_on_my_lilac_bush.previewWell, she came, and it was gorgeous Spring weather.   She got out of the car and hugged me, saying  “You’ve got to smell the lilacs while they’re in bloom.”  Fine…. and I  happy to see Mom.  But it was still all a bit strange. We had coffee and a good time and planted the tomatoes.

That night we went to Sister Josephine’s Wake.   Now, Josie was from Hershey Pennsylvania, and always had a bit of candy to give, especially to “the Fathers,”  so that night we passed out Hershey’s Candy Bars to everyone after the service.   The next day we buried Sister Josephine.   It is a short walk from Sacred Heart Monastery Chapel to the cemetery where we laid Sister with all her old friends.   On the way we sang  “Jesus Remember Me,”   and “Surrexit Christus”   as the casket was lowering in the ground.   It was a beautiful, fresh day, with lilacs and spring, and resurrection, and hope.  We were laying to rest a Sister who lived a long full life.

Throughout her days with me, Mom kept remarking in a sing song voice,  “You’ve got to smell the lilacs while they are in bloom!”   She left, I smiled, and didn’t think too much about it, getting back to life as usual.     That week I got a letter from Ma saying  “Thank you for being there for me.”  It was an unusual statement, and I could of just taken it as meaning she had a good time, but it began to  niggle away inside me….   I started praying hard for Mom, and dreaming about her.   In retrospect, I am pretty sure she already knew she was sick, and that she was somehow sharing it with me.  I think that experience of the joyful, playful funeral gave her an important piece that she needed at that time.

Life went on.  The lilacs faded.  Summer came and we had glorious tomatoes.   That October, I got a call from Dad on a Monday night telling me,  “Your Dear Mother is quite ill.”     They found cancer, and were doing biopsies.  On Friday, I talked to the Folks again.  Mother told me herself they were estimating she had six months.

My whole family was together for Thanksgiving that year.  It was the last time we were ever all together at 700 Minnesota.   Usually, when Mom cooked, you stayed out of the way, and let her, because you couldn’t do it as well or as fast as she could, but this year was different .  She wanted me by her side.

There is a moment in the Catholic Mass called the Anamnesis, or remembering, during the institution narrative, as Jesus tells the disciples  “Do this in memory of me. ”   For me, that last Thanksgiving was an anamnetic experience.    Mother would tell me,  “Remember, we always put the cranberries in this red dish.”   “Remember, this plate came from your brother.”     “Remember…..”   I always remember.

Mother died March 20, 1992.  That spring, I looked out at the garden, remembered her tomato plants and the lilacs, and wept.   I don’t think I could smell the lilacs that year.   I wanted nothing to do with the garden.  None of the other Sisters had time so it sat dormant.

I graduated from DSU,  and made my final profession of vows that summer.   I was no longer living at the Dickinson house.    So imagine my surprise when my dear friend Sister Brigid called me, saying, “Come by the house, I’ve got something to show you.”    We prayed together and had coffee and talked, and she said,   “Lets take a walk out back.”    There in the garden were tomato plants.  They had reseeded themselves.    How amazing that life is.   There again was a simple but beautiful example of the resurrection. Mother was teaching me, showing me.


Fast forward a few years to 2002.  As much as I loved the Sisters and the monastic lifestyle, it was becoming apparent that for a number of personal reasons, I needed to make a change, so I  made the difficult decision to leave Sacred Heart Monastery.  I entered a three year leave of absence, called exclaustration. During this time, I could return to religious life, or make a decision to sever my formal ties with the community.

It was a challenging time.   I was starting a new ministry as director of music and liturgy in a large parish.   It was a huge transition.   I worked hard and there was a lot to learn, a lot to wrap my head around.  I was living in a simple apartment most of the year.    But basically, I was 40, and starting over from scratch.   In the spring of 2003, I decided it was time to buy a house.    If I decided to return to the Monastery, I could always sell it.     If not, well then, the best way to get equity was to purchase property.  (LOL  remember it was 2003, not 2013!!!)

The market was hot.  I placed offers on a couple homes and didn’t get them.   Then my Realtor said, “there is this place on Hilltop I want you to check out.”   Hmmm… I read the add for the place in the paper, and it was not at all what I was thinking of, and the front looked kind of blah.   But I dutifully went to check it out one Sunday afternoon.   Ironically, the selling Realtor had a flat tire, and never showed, but by the time I drove up the lovely meandering street to the top  I was charmed by the street and the neighborhood.

866018779_ee6d568da6_zI  had not seen the inside of the place yet, but there was this great little brass sign out front that said, “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”   It tickled me so much, I knew I was home.     A few days later when we could reschedule a private viewing, my Realtor was grinning from ear to ear.  She’d walked through the house and already “knew” it was for me.  The flat ranch layout was wonderfully kind on bad knees.  An older couple had the house first, so there handicapped rails and many other extras. So many of the features were things I didn’t know I was looking for, but were perfect when I saw them.

We made the offer and the process started.   A friend of mine had helped me find my mortgage, and worked for the bank whom I got it through.   However he  chose to come to the signing as my friend and support, rather than in a professional bank position.  I was nervous and extremely emotional.   As another old friend would say, I was weepy with “boogery t-shirts.”   I used my friend’s handkerchief, and don’t know if I ever returned it to him.

Throughout the proceedings I kept thinking,  “Dear God, am I doing the right thing?  Should I be buying this house?  Oh, I wish I could talk to Mom.”    I talked to Dad, and Aunt Donna was a great help, but I was still missing Mom.  After I signed the papers on the house, and I was given the keys, the friend from the bank came with me to do my first walk through.  I opened the kitchen double doors and walked out  onto the patio, and breathed, and cried.
There, filling the air, filling the yard was a large lilac bush in full bloom.  Mother was with me.  Smiling and blessing me.    It was such a wonderful gift.      I smiled and laughed and cried some more and breathed it in, thinking ” You’ve got to smell the lilacs while they are in bloom.”


This spring 2013 has been strange on many levels.   The weather has done a number on just about everybody’s psyche.  Rain, snow, storms have created many natural disasters, and there have been many violent man made disasters this year, including school shootings and bombings.  In April I turned 50.  This is supposed to be a milestone, but I’m not sure about that yet.  Actually, I am.  I am sure that I am grateful, and that life is not to be taken for granted.   I am reminded of the shortness of the span of the lilac in so many ways.

In my family, my Mother was 60 going on 25 when she died.  My Grandmother was 52, my Uncle, 49, and another Aunt at 63.  My Cousin passed away at 30.   So there is definitely a history of that demon cancer.  However my Grandfather was in his 90’s when he died, and  another Uncle led a good full life, so I’m not being a woman of doom.    I just am reminded that one cannot take life for granted.

In my work at the parish, I deal with life and death on a regular basis, as  we see weddings, baptisms, first communions, confirmations,  and funerals.   The cycle continues on and on.  But our source of hope and salvation is in that, in the Resurrection.

Ecclesiastes tells us:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,

vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

What profit have we from all the toil

which we toil at under the sun?

One generation departs and another generation comes,

but the world forever stays.

Yet, there are times when simply speaking, “it ain’t easy.” Within the last  two weeks, there have been six deaths within the parish, including a dear old friend, and a man in his 50’s.  Three friends lost their Mothers on or near Mother’s day, and I attended two of those funerals.   And it was the first anniversary of a sweet friend’s Father, who died a senseless death right before Memorial day last year.

Today, my Dad called, telling me that my  Step-Sister Jody died after a three year  battle with pancreatic cancer. May she rest in peace.  It is ironic to me that I work with funerals and families all the time, and yet feel so helpless to help my own family so far away. So  what can I do?  Pray.

All in all, it leaves me in a place of wonder, recognizing that God is God, and I am not.  There are many things I’ll never be able to understand, and there is probably no scripture, no hymn, no poem, no image that can change that.   There are may things I cannot fathom or comprehend.    This is when I must just turn it over to God and ask  him to increase my faith.

But this is when I must combine the wisdom of Rosemarie and the wisdom of Quoeleth…”What profit have we from all the toil?”  “You’ve got to smell the lilacs while the are in bloom.”   There are seasons and times when we definitely need to toil and to toil hard, but I need to remember to smell the lilacs, or the roses, or the crocuses; or listen to the chickadee, robin, cardinal, loon;   look at the sunrise, sunset, stars, clouds, and moon.

If I do not take the time to be grateful for all life, and to put it all in perspective,  then I am of no good to anyone else, and no good to myself.  I’m no longer serving and praising God if I’m slaving or murmuring.   None of us knows if we will live another day, another year, or another thirty years.    There are chronic illnesses, debilitating diseases, and  unfathomable accidents.  We may waste away slowly,  or be gone in the blink of an eye.   But it is life!  So hang on, live it, and be grateful.

Thank you to all those who have gone before me, and for the  wisdom you have taught me. I pray that I may always live my life fully, gratefully.  

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,

Let Perpetual Light shine upon them. 

May they rest in peace.  AMEN. 


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