When you transplant a lilac bush…
I don’t know how it is for you, but I find that neighbors can live in proximate anonymity. Like trees growing in a stand of woods, we are privy to each others movements, yet strangers to each others private worlds.
O, there is the occasional exchange of pleasantries on the way to get the newspaper, to retrieve the mail. Like companion tenors or sopranos in a chorale, we labor together in the seasonal pieces of raking leaves, shoveling snow, mowing grass, and tending flower beds. We wave at each other in our coming and going.
We step out into the yard and inhale the tantalizing smells of something grilling from a nearby deck. On summer evenings we hear the spritzing cadence of sprinkler in the next yard. We see each other almost daily, and yet there are times when months pass without a word spoken between us. After enduring the cold, darker winter months we stir out of hibernation and renew the common labor of maintaining homes and yards near each other.
Then one day you transplant a lilac bush (two in fact). And as you are digging the perimeter trench, your neighbor rides over on his mower and asks if you want to borrow a digging iron. The slow progress of spade against root and soil make one appreciative for this kind offer. Sure. And so, for the first time in five years, a conversation takes place between turns with iron and shovel.
Conversation seems natural as you lean on your shovel. You talk about the work at hand, yards, and the trees the neighbor planted 23 years ago when he first moved to this place. Those sapplings now tower some 25-30 feet into the air. You talk about the economy, the grandson who has just returned from two tours of duty in Iraq. You ask how he is doing. You hear that it is not an easy transition. Then you hear that your neighbor served in World War II. He was a part of the battle at Normandy beach.
Now the neighbor becomes more than a flat character–more than background motion just beyond the focal point of consciousness in daily activity. You are drawn into his story. There is a human connection.
The Battle at Normandy was intense. The Germans put up a fierce fight, my neighbor says. There were many casualties. A few weeks after the invasion my neighbor was injured by enemy fire. He was transported by boat back to England. He was twenty-one years old.
It is there, as he is recuperating, that he meets an English girl whom he will marry. After they are married, they return to Lancaster where he takes a job at RCA for 35 years. “So you are a member of the Greatest Generation?” (Tom Brokaw’s book). The pride is evident through the gleaming eyes on his weathered face. His head nods. “Yes…Tom Brokaw is a great man,” he says.
The first lilac bush has been moved, now the second one is being dug up. The neighbor saunters back over from his shed to inspect the progress. The conversation resumes. You talk about the situation in Iraq some more. You talk about the differences between WWII and the current Iraq war. The price of gas.
You find out he gets his heating oil from B.G. Mellinger. You talk about the sluggish housing market, the price being asked for the custom home for sale behind our yards. You come back to the questions about the current mission in Iraq. The questions about the seeming evasiveness of success hang in the air–the unfathomable cost of the war on military families, the economy, future generations.
As you drive the spade into the ground for another load of dirt, the conversation moves to talk about church. The pastoral transition at his church in recent years. The former military chaplain who is finishing up a two-year interim pastorate. The day is waning. The task calls for due diligence. You throw yourself back into the work.
“Thanks for the digging iron,” you say. “Your welcome,” the neighbor says. “Keep it as long as you need it.”
And so it is that when you transplant a lilac bush, sometimes you uncover something unexpected. In the same space as every other day, you encounter the presence of another.
The sun sets on a mild spring day. The task is completed. You are pleased.