Sybil McLain-Topel is an MFA student in the SCAD-Atlanta Writing Program.
Lavender No. 19
La lavande me manque.
Lavender is missing to me. This is the French construction of the phrase ‘I miss lavender.’
When I say I miss my lover, I say in English, I miss you. In French I say, you are missing to me: tu me manques. Listen for nuance. The noun for me, myself, and I now rests in shade. My lover takes on full sun. Tu me manques.
Subtle. Thought. Shift.
Early one Saturday I wrestle with the gray stems and twisted stubby stalks of lavender growing their third year beneath the window of my first husband’s bedroom. They are stubborn. I don’t know what to do with them. They don’t look like photos of lavender fields, row after endless row spread across hectares of French land, knee-high carpet of plush blue-purple buds holding down dry Gallic earth. Photos that hide the gnarled branches and roots beneath twilight petals, petals that release pungent oil, oil that makes the south of France one long inhalation for my soul.
Nothing like the dry driftwood knots under my knuckles that won’t yield to my vision of how these plants should behave. Like my first husband, who is distant, who is at work, who hates yard work.
If I cut them back, will the woody stalks sprout new shoots or just rot?
My nose filled with stale cigarette smoke and the foul arrogance of the man next to me who was about to miss his reservation at a five-star restaurant in Paris. He had peppered me with attitude for much of the flight, but at least had the grace to buy me a cognac when the plane turbulence caused my fingers to crunch the armrests with fear. It was dark and I could feel the cold Atlantic beneath us. I knew we would crash. I’m sure my naiveté amused him from time to time during the six-hour flight from New York.
The plane began to descend. Out the window stretched green fields sewn to earth by threads of bushes and trees, a quilt of welcome. Morning sun spilled jonquil rays of spring. My first smell of lavender fields was only days away.
Turbulence would never have the same effect on me again.
In the summer of my 19th year, somewhere in the South of France, I captured stalk after stalk of lavender buds and let them dry. The stems turned light gray, the buds lost their hard purple edge. But the oil remained and crushing the buds between thumb and forefinger and mashing them into my palm, the scent unfurled. I tugged the precious buds from their stems and made sachets. They went in my suitcase, tucked into my American clothes, next to the few French things that journeyed with me to my sophomore year in college.
One t-shirt with a witty French slogan.
Two bottles of wine, one a gift from the swimming pool manager where I took the girls to swim almost every day. He was nice to us all summer long, a mustache with the promise of handlebars to come whisked his upper lip like a brush. He was tan. Like a refugee from Jacques-Cousteau’s boat.
The other bottle of wine a gift from a gentleman farmer who bottled it himself, somewhere on the outskirts of Paris at his gentleman’s farm. He made meals for me because I was the guest of his son. His son was the friend of one of my French professors. The son and I became lovers on white sheets, near Paris. Not right away, not the first day in Paris. Not on the spring day when I landed in Paris, and dinner was veal, pan-fried with a delicate cream sauce and I don’t remember dessert because the jet lag dragged me under and they put me to bed gently and left me to wake up in a blue-sky April morning and fed me sweet red strawberries for breakfast.
Strawberries taken by surprise from their garden moments before.
We made the white sheets red in July. Maybe again in August. It’s hard to say now. He visited me in Southern France where I cared for the two young girls. He visited me when their parents were not home. We hiked in the woods and I fell in the orties bush and learned the French word for stinging nettle, orties brulantes, burning nettles.
In New York, the customs agent asked my age.
I beamed my prettiest smile.
“I’m 19 and I’m going to drink that wine in Tennessee, where the drinking age is 18,” I said. Please don’t take my souvenirs. They’re mine. I’ve heard stories of things stolen in customs. At least I didn’t try to sneak in stinky cheese and garlicky saucisson.
He laughed and tucked the wine bottles back where they belonged, snug in American clothes, next to sophisticated little lavender sacks. I sashayed off to catch my plane to Knoxville.
Lavender would not grow at my first house, a white brick home in Nashville, where I went into labor with my one and only child about seven months after moving in.
Our pitiful plants fought with shade and poor soil. My son grew.
My first husband, a young attorney, competed for billable hours, worked Saturdays at the office and sweated his way through yard work on Sundays. A few herbs poked their way to the light here and there, the oregano thrived and lemon balm invaded like an unwanted weed, like the university that kept creeping across the street into our yard, the one that finally took over the house.
At my second house, the big one, the one in the correct suburb with correct neighbors, where my child attended the right school with the right people, the lavender thrived. My French interior designer was jealous of my lavender, which satiated me in a strange way, like a middle-schooler winning an award.
The first husband bought a midnight blue Nissan Exterra without letting me know. I bought more time with the designer. C’est la vie, n’est-ce- pas? To each their own.
When the lavender outdoors would not bend to my will, I brought it in.
There’s a color in the evening in the sky, after the sun sinks. It’s not blue and it’s not purple and it’s not lavender. It’s that intense shade some call periwinkle, but it’s darker. It glows. In France that part of the sky after sun fall is called le crepuscule. The color we put on the kitchen walls should have been called Le Crepuscule. But it was called Paris Evening, like a Liz Taylor wannabe perfume, a knock-off.
We kept painting the walls in colors that reminded me of Southern France, terra cotta for the play room, light lilac for the guest room, jonquil sunshine yellow for the sitting room off the kitchen, the one that opened to the screened-in porch painted the parched gray of lavender stems.
At my third house, the one for divorced parents trying to pretend they still live in the correct suburb, the one where parents still strive to send their kids to the right school, not only did my lavender thrive, my rosemary grew to the size of a small car.
Sage showed up in our cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving. Chives came back year after year, their purple buds an early spring tease of lavender scents to come.
White clematis installed itself in the humid mulch at the base of the backyard deck. The vines climbed the deck posts and flowers unfurled like white flags of hope under the sun. At twilight, moonflowers opened their lustrous white petals.
The hammock in the shade of the deck gave a valley view of the backyards of homes beyond. I painted my bedroom a light lilac, like the guest bedroom from the big house, the walls now the same shade as the sunlit room where my military man and I broke the rules.
Alabaster skin, chipped front tooth and freckles – taches de rousseur.
Freeze tag brought us together in another state when he was 4 and I was 8. When he was 38 and I was 42, he lived not too close and not too far.
We became children again, the salty sweat of play fresh on our lips.
When he left I was barren. He never explained. Why. He left.
Trying still to stay in the neighborhood so my son could be near his father and keep attending the right school, I moved across the street to a house that was smaller still. The new owner bought my third house because of the rosemary, chives, clematis, sycamore trees and lavender, all of which I had planted, watered and nurtured for several years.
In my fourth and last house I didn’t paint. I left the walls a dark chocolate brown in the front hall. I stole a few lavender plants from my old garden, but they failed in the dusty red clay on the hill.
My old young lover had a new baby. He told me the day I saw him by chance at the airport. I understood then what he couldn’t tell me in the room with the lilac walls.
Youth. La jeunesse.
On the day I left town, I drove by all the houses. The magnolia my son’s father and I planted at the little white house in Nashville lived still, sweeping beautiful boughs out toward the street, embracing the neighbor’s yard. That tree’s 18, going on 19. The university rents our first home to students now. The herb garden’s long gone.
At the big house, the lavender was ripped out years ago. New owners planted something green and leafy, mundane, correct in a neighborly fashion. Tame.
At the smallest house, on either side of the front door, knock-out roses thrived and Russian sage pretended to be lavender in color and bud, with a tedious scent that’s nothing like the real thing, but much easier to grow.
Intense heat, powerful smell, purify my soul and bring my youth back. It was stolen from me one day in the South of my birth.