Today, after buying some fresh lilacs at a local farm and readying to push my cart out to the parking lot, I heard a voice. Someone I didn’t know was speaking to me. It took me what felt like a full minute to realize that the words coming from a woman’s mouth were aimed at me.
“You have to mash the stems and put them in hot water,” she said. I stared at her. I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“The stems. You have to mash them, and put the lilacs in hot water. They’ll do well that way.”
Slow to understand, I repeated what she had said in my own words. “Cut the stems and put them in a vase with hot water? That’s what I need to do?”
She nodded. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or gratified.
“Thank you,” I said, and headed to my car.
I meant it. A stranger had taken it upon herself to tell me how to care for my lilacs. Why did she care? What was it to her whether the flowers bloomed wider or folded in on themselves? I didn’t know, but I was strangely grateful.
While I drove home, I thought about the fact that the woman’s interest in my lilacs was actually very much like my interest in other people’s school-aged children.
No, they’re not my children, and yes, I have my own children to tend to. But still, I care deeply about whether or not they thrive. When I see them in their not-yet-fully-developed state, I instinctively want to ensure their optimal growing conditions. Read a lot. Get outdoors. Get off your phone. Train your eyes on other people’s eyes. Say thank you. Try new things. Push through. Write another draft.
I have to be careful not to speak my every thought about what other people’s children need to thrive. But once in a while, I can’t help myself and I speak to someone I don’t know and his or her child in the library. I tell them, I’m a teacher. I say, that’s a really good book. My daughter and I loved that book when she was your age. Have you ever read… ?
Although I had never before heard that lilacs do best with mashed stems and in hot water, there was no doubt in my mind that the woman at the farm really knew, and loved, her lilacs. The minute I got home, I did my best to shred the stems as I cut them down and placed them in a vase filled with warm water. They’re doing well so far.