Cutting the lilacs, cleaning the coffee table.
Each May, Sarah did these rituals for her mother without complaint. When she was in grade school, she groomed her Shetland pony and filled his oat bucket, no reminders necessary. Sometimes her mom wanted fresh fish for dinner. With a child's fascination for a compost pit, she dug out a canful of worms, the best bait for sunfish, then fished from the bank for hours until she had a dozen good-sized sunnies to clean.
But her favorite chore was making a bouquet of lilacs.
For two weeks in springtime, the purple bush by the barn filled itself with blossoms more sweet-smelling than the hyacinth a month earlier. During the cool of the day, Sarah collected the prettiest branches she could reach in a rinsed-out utility bucket. Then she trimmed them in the kitchen sink, under water, taking off half an inch more with kitchen shears, splitting the ends, just as her mother had taught her. Arranging them was the best part. After she removed the leaves, she lined them up on the counter. She put the tallest and fullest branch in the middle, placing the rest of the stems around it, as many as she could fit, without crowding the vase.
Even from faux crystal, the lilacs gave a room full of auction cast-offs the glow of antiques. For days their fragrance masked the smell of an unhappy home until the blooms were spent.
One day Sarah would grow lilacs of her own, these perfect flowers with happy-marriage magic in them.
Last fall she bought a white bush with birthday money from her in-laws, white because it would bring out her rhododendron better than purple. She planted it in a sheltered spot on the side of the house facing more north than west, working bone meal and sand into the peat, babying it until the first frost.
In late April, the bush smiled to life with a profusion of leaves and buds then erupted into fragrant white clusters a week later. Bucket and shears in hand, she collected a half dozen stems and arranged them, and set them on the coffee table just polished with lemon oil-deeply, lovingly.
"Jesus, Sarah, get those out of the house," her husband said, plodding up the steps after a long day. Every day was long at his job.
"Nice to see you, too," she said. "Get what out of the house?"
"Those damn whatevers you have in the living room. I can't breathe," he said because he dramatized every discomfort.
Sarah put the vegetable peeler on the cutting board and fetched the vase from the living room. Snapping them in half to fit in the kitchen waste can, she crammed the blossoms in among peelings and meat wrappers-two day's worth of kitchen detritus.
The following May her white lilac bush didn't produce a single bloom.