A Sweet Spring Gift Fights to Fill the Barn

There now, isn't that the loveliest thing you've ever smelled?"

Bob's voice is barely audible above the chugging of the vacuum machines and the whirr of the cooling tank. The cows crane their necks, and I look up from the one I am milking as our neighbor walks into the parlor with a spray of delicate pinkish-white flowers. As always, I take a deep, appreciative breath.

Each year he brings this same question, along with an offering of viburnum from the blooming acres of hillside surrounding his and Ellie's home. These octogenarians still maintain one of this area's premier flower gardens, visited annually by "green thumb" clubs, friends, and acquaintances.

Occasionally, a driver rounding the curve below their hill mistakes the well-tended beds and curving grassy swaths for a commercial nursery. I imagine Ellie explaining with her soft voice that it is not, and perhaps offering a small bunch of daffodils, no charge. She plants the garden with color, fragrance, and seasonal variety, not profit, in mind. Any blooms and bulbs that leave her care go as gifts.

I've come to anticipate Bob's annual trip to our milk room with his favorite gift bouquet. I expect him as I do the barn swallows, who swoop and flit to their old nests in the rafters always on the 17th of April. Bob no longer flits anywhere, and he is not so punctual as the swallows, but he arrives each year just the same, with his display of gruff good humor and viburnum.

As he sets the mason-jar vase on the countertop by the washing sinks, he cannot resist commenting on the little bouquet's formidable challenge in its new environment: "You could use a little freshener in here," he notes, wryly underestimating the pungency of the cows and barn-lot manure.

Viburnum belongs to the honeysuckle family. At close range its scent is overpowering, reminiscent to me of Lilac Sunday in Rochester, N.Y., but with its own distinct corner in my memory.

Bob and Ellie's source shrub grows at the edge of a field of theirs that we cut, rake, and bale for hay - right by a water pump. I cannot smell the milk-room bouquet without thinking of thirst-quenching breaks from that work. And I cannot drink from that pump without recalling Bob's last visit to the milk room with his mason-jar vase.

Usually as we chat, one of the animals lifts her tail to accent his observation about the milking parlor's ambience. Then, and long after Bob leaves, the flowers and the cows vie for airspace. If the wind blows just right through the front screen door, the viburnum holds sway, at least for a few brief and heady moments.

Ultimately, though, no flower - not even this one - can mask or outlast the pastoral odors steeping the room. Here, spring comes with its own distinctive bouquet. The cows enter, their backs and hips speckled with redbud, their tails gently swishing against the first thin assault of flies. They let down their milk, filling the buckets heavily with all of the fragrance of the green growing pastures. And suddenly, one day late in spring, they crane their necks toward the door, catching wind of their keenest competition - when Bob walks in with his bouquet.

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