Through the Lilac Grove

I was a young kid in the early 1960s, living in a small town. When Minnesota winters can be sub-zero and Jack Frost leaves his artwork on every window, it’s nicer to stay inside. Winter can seem like a long season when one is indoors for most of it. For the housewife, there was plenty to do with the housework and taking care of the family. If she wanted a break, she could watch a soap opera on TV, or telephone a friend, but by spring, she was ready to get out of her abode and catch up with the other cooped up ladies.  When winter was over it was much easier to go back and forth to the neighbors to visit. No need to bundle up and step over snow banks.

Most women were full-time housewives in those days. Not many were out in the workforce. My mom worked a few afternoons and Friday nights at my dad’s hardware store. She was home mornings and made good use of that time. Coffee with a neighbor was as important as anything else she would do that day.

When the first sunny warm spring mornings appeared, my mom opened the windows. The unlocked screen door let in plenty of fresh air. With the opening of the windows and doors came the active season of morning coffee visits with a neighborhood friend. Each spring these ladies were like birds let out of their cage.  There was so much to catch up on, and in addition, the stroll over to the neighbors itself was pleasant too. Warm sun, tulips blooming and birds singing are just as nice as the cup of coffee with a friend. It didn’t happen every morning, but most weekdays the birds would see the crisscrossing bathrobed women on their morning mission.

I was still a preschooler at my mom’s hip. These early morning coffee times are some of my first memories.

This was before social media and cell phones. Keeping in touch was much different than today’s instant connection, and instant coffee. Most women are working now too. Ways have changed how we keep in touch, but we still have the need and desire to connect.

Not every housewife did this. But many did. I know women on the other side of town were going back and forth, as well as farm ladies who lived across the country road from another farm wife. The ladies my mom would ‘coffee’ with, had different neighbors in the direction away from our house that they visited with. Through that social web, you could find out what’s happening two or more streets over. Those homes that were a little too far to visit while adorned in your bathrobe.

After their husbands left for work, the wives, usually still in PJs, bathrobe, and maybe even curlers, walked next door or a few doors down. They just left. When in your bathrobe you carry no purse. You are traveling just a few yards, literally. Nobody locked their doors when they left home. It was all spontaneous and casual.

They may or may not knock. Our neighbor, Violet, petite and cute, always with a smile on her face, would let herself in as her loud high voice called out to my mom, “yoohooooo“. She and my mom would sit at the kitchen table, both in their robes. They enjoyed one cup of coffee in a pretty coffee cup with a matching saucer. No big mugs or throwaway cups. My mom made perked coffee on the stovetop. Maybe a cookie or toast was offered. They talked about the weather, their gardens, kids, why the cops were whizzing through town last night and what they were making for supper. I would go in the next room and play with my toys. Twenty minutes later, the visit was over. Violet was in and out quickly because she may have another house to stop in.

When my mom and I would go to Norma’s, she’d offer my mom coffee and me some toast while she did the dishes or ironed. They lived upstairs in a big square house on the corner. It reminded me of The Honeymooners apartment. I stood around looking at her baby or went into the living room to look at the framed photos of family members. Norma was a soft spoken person and my mom did most of the talking. When Norma moved, they kept in touch. She would drive over to see my mom from time to time for many years.

The person my mom had the most coffee visits with was Dolores. Our backyards shared a border where a few lilac bushes tucked away grew on a small hill. They bloomed each spring bursting with a mix of deep purple, soft purple, and white lilacs. There was just enough room to walk through the center of the bushes for adults. Us kids went through the lilacs like nothing, but our moms had to duck a little to make it. The sweet smell was heavy. This was the path my mom and Dolores would go back and forth for about 45 years. They had morning coffee until Dolores started working, then they switched to weekend coffee, and baking pies together on Saturdays. These friends were going through the lilacs for other reasons too, to borrow an egg or bring over extra rhubarb. It didn’t take too many years for the well-worn path to become permanent hard dirt where grass didn’t stand a chance to grow. My mom wore her bathrobe all morning long those days, but I don’t remember Dolores coming over wearing hers. She was always put together and reminded me if Sophia Loren had been a regular person living in our blue collar part of town. Dolores might stay for two cups of coffee. She and my mom talked about everything under the sun and were very close. Her kids were my age so I had playmates during those coffee visits.

When I started school, my guess is my mom continued to morning coffee with her neighbors, especially Dolores, until one by one they got jobs or eventually down the years…died. The tradition for my mom and her coffee mates slowly evaporated. Things change. 

A few summers ago when my mom was in a nursing home and my sisters and I were preparing to sell the home place, I remember walking through the now shriveled up lilac grove over to Dolores’ with some rag rugs we thought she might like to have. I didn’t need to walk through the lilacs. It would have been easier to walk around them, but I was being pulled that direction. I had to squeeze through the overgrown unkempt branches but I was determined to go through. I was going through the lilacs for my mom and Dolores because this is the way they would have gone. The path was barely there. To my trained eye, I could still see it though. And even more, I could see my mom’s feet from years back, making one of the many warm weather jaunts over to Dolores’. I could still see the neighbor friends going back and forth through the lilacs. They needed to get in as many cups of coffee as they could before the silent winter sets in.