Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, May 6th, 2019.
Our first spring in Kamloops, back in 2013, came with a big surprise: lilacs! Everywhere you looked and lots of them, from majestic old trees to wee starter shrubs: We had landed in Lilac City! (I grew up immersed in lilac every spring and had searched for ‘lilac places’ since.)
Our first home in Kamloops was on Nicola street, towards the east end. Come spring I’d walk the back lanes just so I can see all the wondrous flowers hanging heavy and fragrant. Again and again, until the season was over.
Soon after we moved in August 2012, I met our neighbour who lived across the street. I was to cherish her presence, her wit and wisdom, and somehow because of one magical visit we had during lilac season (among many other visits before and after,) these flowers will always remind me of her. And it is that time of the year. Our neighbour has passed a while ago, but she will always be part of our Kamloops story. Among the few precious keepsakes she had gifted me during the time I knew her, is a magical visit which I shared, with her permission, back in 2013 and I am sharing once again below.
We had returned home after a few days away and found two big beautiful tomato plants on the porch, with a note attached. It read: “Cherry tomato plants need a transplant to good home. :-).” It was signed by our neighbor across the street. She was 92.
I had met her after we moved to Kamloops in September. One day I saw her puttering around the yard and went to introduce myself. I was charmed on the spot. She was witty and funny. I was about to discover that she had a lot of stories of Kamloops and western Canada too, which she loved sharing.
‘The only wobbly thing is my vision,’ she said after we met. She could not see further than a couple of meters in front of her and even close range was tough. She accepted it as a fact of life. ‘Complaining would not bring my vision back,’ she said laughing. She still read papers and books with a magnifying glass, and she did all that she needed to do around the house, including gardening.
During our first chat she told me stories of old Kamloops, how it changed over the years and she said that I will love it here. A magpie was hovering over her house and she was quick to point out that a crow will show up soon to chase it away. As if on cue, the crow did its thing. It takes being somewhere long enough to know that.
Another time she told me that the house our family lived in and so many others around there were built for the returning WWII war veterans and their families. I loved listening to the stories of old Kamloops she shared. I never really kept track of time when I went to visit her and every so often all four of us would find ourselves there for a visit. People say that age is but a number, but our neighbor really made it true with her sparkly, upbeat presence.
On the day we found the tomato plants waiting, I went to thank her for. She was in the backyard. I sat next to her in the shade of her apricot tree, ‘the old girl’ as she called it, and the afternoon sun made puddles of warmth all around us as we chatted away.
She showed me her secret garden patch where she proudly pointed to a rainwater collecting system that kept her vegetables and flowers thriving. I was sure butterflies and hummingbirds called that their happy place. Because it was, for humans too.
White and purple clumps of lilac were hanging heavy and fragrant, as if guarding her precious garden. I had told her about the surprise of discovering that Kamloops was a lilac place. She smiled and showed me her very special one, a dark purple one with flowers so big they seemed unreal.
I was instantly transported back home to where lilac abounded each spring and visiting neighbours just for a bit, or a bit longer, was part of life. I told her how much I cherished that and she knew it true. Every place becomes better to live in when you know your neighbours.
As I was getting ready to leave, she invited me inside. A keeper of precious memories, the home was nice and cool and there were countless family photos on the walls, including some very old ones. She showed a sun-drenched room with blue carpet. ‘That’s where your tomato plants grew,’ she said. I knew then that our garden will always have her yummy tomatoes growing in it. Promise kept.
In the hallway I noticed a violin hanging on the wall with the bow next to it. It was almost as if sounds and memories trickled out of them as they were hanging there. She noticed my gaze. Her late husband’s violin, she explained.
Some say that violins carry their owners’ playing styles in the wood. An imprint of some sort. It must be true. I saw my neighbor’s hand reaching out to touch the violin as if to cradle in her palm once more the memory of the music that she had once listened to and of the man who played it. Her eyes lit up. Her soul saw further than her eyes could, and I was humbled to witness it. A moment I will never forget.
I left that day with a beautiful bouquet of dark lilac, having been reminded once more that the best way to see what’s ahead is to look behind us and cherish the stories we gather as we go; stories we need to tell and listen.