What I remember about the year my mother was a Girl Scout leader was that she went to the yard and cut armloads of lilacs after she got roped into making the centerpieces for the troop's thank-you luncheon.
There was probably a lot more to her being leader—I also have vague recollections of macaroni arts-and-crafts projects and of camping in Wisconsin—but that stuff has gone hazy because it didn't smell like lilacs.
Photography via 29 Blackstreet.
Above: The flowers sat meticulously arranged in vases on our kitchen counter (I can still see the Formica pattern: little boomerangs and sparkles), and later were packed in cardboard boxes and cushioned with crumpled newspaper as a precaution against the drive to school. As soon as my mother backed out of the driveway, however, everything spilled across the back seat. Water dripped from the car, flowers were flung everywhere, and—I must say—the wreckage smelled heavenly.
Above: Crushed lilacs. There is no other perfume as synonymous with nostalgia or with loss. Walt Whitman understood this when he wrote the first lines of his great elegy to Abraham Lincoln, after the president was assassinated during lilac season: "When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d...I mourn'd—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring."
Above: And in 1972, my mother knew it too, as she stood in the driveway in full troop leader's regalia (a uniform which in those days still required white gloves and the wearing of a special pin at the collar), trying to decide what to do. "Oh hell, just jam them back in," she finally said. "It won't matter."
Above: It did matter, though. Her last-minute lilacs turned out to be a great improvement over the earlier version, because the jumbled-up messiness invited you to stick your nose into the center of each vase to take a deep inhale. Which is how I encourage you to arrange yours, as well.
Above: For a fragrant (and winter-hardy) variety, consider Syringa vulgaris 'President Lincoln'; a one-gallon pot is $27.95 at White Flower Farm. (N.B.: In warmer climates, try S. x chinensis 'Lavender Lady'; a 6- to 12-inch plant is $18 at Fox Hill Lilac Nursery.)