The Lilac Bush was Always Next to the Outhouse

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Robert Scott Photography
 · Before plumbing, lilac bushes were planted next to the outhouse to mask the smell. Apparently this one has seen many sunsets.

James Beemer

It has been often said that odors/aromas can be the strongest triggers of memories.

I was walking Remo yesterday morning. There was a very light mist. As we got halfway around the block, I suddenly smelled lilacs. The home we were approaching had six bushes in full bloom.

I was instantly transported back in time 53 years to my parents house in Middletown NY. We had 3 large lilac bushes in our backyard. In the days before indoor plumbing, when the outhouse pit was full, the homeowner would finish filling the pit and plant a lilac bush. We had indoor plumbing when I was born. My dad confirmed the old outhouse location just west of the old chicken coop brooder house. The other two bushes were plantings separate from an outhouse.

The bushes were used as backdrops for school pictures, communion and confirmation pictures. Cuttings were taken each spring for table centerpieces.

The bushes were lush and green in summer, providing some peaceful shade. Lots of songbirds’ nested in them, adding another serene aspect.

So many fond childhood memories. One reason why I love lilacs.

Have you visited Franktown, Ontario in Lanark County?

Yes, I had seen lilac bushes frequently on the site of old farmhouses. I thought of several I had seen in a line, usually towards the back of the property. “I’ll bite. I assumed it was decorative,” I said.

Chris shook his head. “Trust me, they didn’t spend much time a hundred years ago bothering with landscaping. That’s a pretty recent thing. Lilac bushes—“

“Lilac bushes or lilac trees?”

“Bushes, usually. The trees get about twenty-five feet tall, the bushes only a dozen or so. And the bushes are more fragrant.” Chris leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands. His degree in education shined through at moments like this. “They’d often plant them for two reasons: One, to mark the grave of a miscarriage or bury placenta after a birth.”

I shivered. My wife and I had endured three miscarriages. I remembered the sympathy cards: a soft lavender. The lilac.

“What’s the other purpose?” I asked.

“Not quite as honorable,” he said and chuckled a little. “You know the smell of lilac bushes?”

I did. I am not a horticulturist and have frequently failed to repair simple patches of grass in my yard, but I do have a lilac bush at the edge of my property (which incidentally is just over a hundred years old). Few things in nature smell as good as a lilac bush in bloom, and no candle or spray can ever really duplicate the smell.

“They smell good,” I said.

“Outhouses,” he said, nodding again. “They’d plant them next to outhouses and when it came time to move the outhouse, as it did when—uh—they got too stinky. Or full. They’d move the outhouse down and plant another lilac bush over the filled hole.  Decades later, same thing. Eventually, on old, old properties, you’d see a line of these lilac bushes, usually on the edge of the property. Far away from delicate eyes. And noses.”

Related reading

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Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Benson McRae

Remember Her? Still Living in a Bed of Roses!!

Gardening 2016–From Herbs to Edible Flowers?

Beware of the Stramonium Datura

The Outhouse is Trending Again!

Outhouses Need to Be Cleaned– Conditions of Our Rural School– 1897

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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