Turn 55, and the shills for retirement communities come out of the woodwork. "You've worked hard all your life. Now it's time to lay back and enjoy life. You've earned it."
I don't think The Lilac Lady would've been persuaded.
Hulda Klager, born in Germany in 1863, came with her family to Woodland, WA, twenty-some miles north of Portland, in 1877. Here, she married, started her own family, and settled into the routines of a farm wife of the time.
In 1903, Hulda suffered an unspecified serious illness. During her recovery, she read about Luther Burbank and his plant hybridization work, and got hooked. She had been annoyed at how long it took to skin the small apples from her tree to make pies, so she crossed two variants and came up with just the right apple, in terms of both size and taste.
Hulda was always fond of flowers, and in 1905, she turned her attention to lilacs. In five years, she developed fourteen new varieties. Ten years later, she began to hold yearly week-long open houses during the height of the blooming season, so people could enjoy her flowers with her.
Her husband died in 1922, and Hulda, dispirited, thought of giving up her work. But with encouragement from her son, she continued, and the Klager lilac variants continued to grow in number and excellence. Hulda's open houses continued, and she received numerous honorary awards from garden clubs, academic institutions, and government agencies.
But it seemed that every couple of decades, a new challenge would arise, and 1948 brought probably the most daunting cruelty. The Columbia River produced the worst flood in memory in Woodland; the town was submerged for over a month. Except for the big trees, every plant in Hulda's garden was destroyed. It would've been understandable if the 83-year-old Lilac Lady had decided to just pack it in, and live out her days in a rocking chair in the home of one of her children. But she didn't. She set to work restoring her living treasure, aided by friends and customers who provided her with starts from plants they'd gotten from her. By 1950, she'd resumed her yearly open houses, and she continued her experiments until her death at age 97, in 1960.
If you live close enough, take a day to go to Woodland during the few weeks leading up to Mother's Day. The Hulda Klager Lilac Society now owns and keeps up the property. Before you go into the gardens, though, take a slow walk through Mrs. Klager's house, which was built in 1889, and is now a museum. There's a must-see photograph there - a picture of an 83-year-old woman, standing at the edge of her tool shed, a hoe in each hand, her face a study in human emotion. Passion is an overused word, but in that picture, Hulda Klager is in nothing less than a passion. She projects sadness and deep anger, but most of all, in her tightly-drawn mouth and hard-set jaw, there's indomitable determination. The first time I saw that picture, it put me in mind of the lines near the end of The Adventures of Augie March, where Augie laughs in sympathy at another character, "as hard used as that by rough forces, [who] will still refuse to lead a disappointed life. Or is the laugh at nature - including eternity - that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will."
After you've seen the photograph, then go out to the quiet, peaceful gardens. Sit on a bench amid the riot of purple blossoms. As the breeze blows the unique odor of lilac blooms across your face, you'll be surprised by an agreeable sensation of humility and gratitude, blended with more than a little inspiration.