In May I think of lily of the valley—muguet, as they say in France, where as a young child I was first introduced to this sweet-smelling flower. Of the upright stem, with its two bright green, broad leaves and up to fifteen white, miniature bells, I was told that each one sprang up where Mary, Queen of Heaven, placed her foot. In my mind’s eye, I imagined that naked foot, neat and trim, graceful, with a high arch and a perfectly rounded heel. When I hunted with the other children for the white flowers, zigzagging first one way then the other, at the base of a tree or in the tall grass, my hope was—yes, to find the flower—but more importantly, to see that bare foot—just maybe—right before the lovely flowers appeared. Needless to say, it never happened. Maybe at night.
Lily of the valley remains one of my favorite flowers, despite the botany lessons over the years that made it clear that it is a rhizomatous perennial that forms extensivecolonies, rather than footsteps neatly placed by Heaven’s Queen. My wedding bouquet was heavy with them, fresh and spilling down, along with day lilies, ferns and white roses that perfumed the air. My florists, Russian women who manned the flower stalls along the walls of Tallinn’s Old Town, took the muguet, delivered that morning and placed them front and center. The scent still lingers on in my memory—soapy, fresh, clean, sweet, citrusy and with a hint of forest green.
May is also a time of year when I am reminded of Bruce, a younger brother, practically my twin, who was born and died in this month. It’s been years now, but the moment I heard the news, as if in a movie, my knees buckled and I would have collapsed, if not for the black counter and the kitchen sink. It wasn’t the fact—death, after all is inevitable. It was the instant disorientation. For me, there was North, South, East, West and Bruce. Two of a pair in that roving pack of French kids looking for muguet, I was finder and he was keeper.
A few perfumes almost capture the essence of lily of the valley—Diorissimo and Penhaligon’s Lily of the Valley—but try as they might, none is better than the real flower and its actual scent. What is it that I experience when I smell any flower? It is not unlike a broad expanse of ocean or a mesmerizing mountain—albeit in miniature. It is an arresting moment, a fleeting instant when nature takes over and promises something greater—mystery, magic, awe, perhaps a new construct… flowers brought to life by the steps of a female foot.
Recently someone suggested that all stories are shaped by their physical setting—mountains, forest, field, streams, ocean. Geography dictates the theme: majesty, adventure, boundaries or freedom, as the case might be. What about a life, a life story? If there is ever a single theme to a life, perhaps mine might be that simple hunt for lily of the valley with my younger brother following. If we were fast enough, quick enough, we might just catch that Queen. With that heavenly perfume in the air we chased magic, possibility, seeing things differently.
Over the years there have been many deaths in my family, and among friends, but no death quite like my brother’s. While it wasn’t sudden, it was quick, and I had to think fast, or like some untimely vortex, he might draw me away with him. Digging deep, I stayed grounded. Strangely enough, it was the words of that young Catholic nun that stayed me, assuring us that each white bell, every bright green stem on each muguet pushing through the dark earth on that May Day, was the footprint of Mary, Queen of Heaven, even if only momentarily. The door this young teacher opened to me, rightly or wrongly, allows me access to a creative life, permission to think differently, miraculously. Flowers and footprints.
As for Bruce, it took me a while to recover from the raw grief, but one afternoon, sitting in the back of a black cab, I looked up and, at first thinking of nothing in particular, seeing a perfectly arched cumulus cloud, I thought of him. It was a May day in London with the weather a bit this side of spectacular—blue skies and striking sunshine—when I heard peals of laughter, his laughter, raining down, collected and given to me as if in a bouquet, of muguet perhaps, our beloved lily of the valley. I considered it his message to me to view the distance between life and death in any way I chose to do.
Wishing you a Merry Month of May,