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A Lilac by Any Other Name Is a Rose

This revelation sparked a sea change in my thinking and caused me to completely recalibrate my understanding of the world's pecking order. All of a sudden the playing field was level and I felt that I had a right to be in the game if I had faith in myself -- regardless of my roots.
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One of the many great things about living near Boston is the annual flower show, which takes place at the World Trade Center. I love going every year because it's a magical prelude to what's coming soon, as spring settles in. The show transforms the grand room at the Trade Center into a veritable greenhouse with lush displays of floral designs ranging from the commonplace to the exotic. The colors and scents boggle the mind.

Out of the mélange of fragrances, one in particular teased my brain: lilac. Within microseconds of breathing in the lilac scent, I found myself floating back nearly five decades and reliving a conversation that gave me a big boost when it came to believing in myself. The chat, as fresh in my mind as the flowers at the show, went like this:

"Would you like one?" an older woman asked, opening an elegant tin filled with mints. I hesitated. "Go ahead, it's OK," she assured me.

I popped the mint into my mouth and my eyes must have lit up.

"Lilacs aren't just for sniffing, they taste good, too," she said, pointing to the lavender-colored bushes that graced the grounds surrounding us.

This took place on a warm, sunny day in Hyannis, back in 1964. At the time, I was renting a cottage with some college friends, and a few of us hadn't yet found steady summer employment. My buddy, Carl, knew one of the security guards at a magnificent estate on the ocean, a half mile down the road from where we were staying. The guard helped us snag a one-day gig serving appetizers at an outdoor spring bash, attended by 160 social elites. Other than the fact that the uniform I was given was absurdly mismatched for my body -- shirt too small, vest way too big, pants somewhere in the middle -- it seemed like a great way to make some money on a warm summer day. Besides who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall at a big Hyannis social event?

The caterer told us what to do, and we set about roaming the lawn with trays of appetizers, reloading when empty. That was the easy part; the hard part was feeling comfortable in the midst of people who were so far out of my league. From their pressed linen pants, skirts, crisp button-down shirts, and blouses to their shimmering Harvard, Yale, and Princeton class rings, these were tomorrow's movers and shakers. I was certain I was offering stuffed mushrooms and other fancy appetizers to tomorrow's business leaders and legislators. Maybe even a future president or two. The only thing they'd remember about me was the ridiculous uniform I was wearing and perhaps the scent of salmon puffs I was acquiring from the hors d'oeuvres.

It was time for my break, so I walked off to the far corner of the lawn to relax and watch all the beautiful and vivacious people doing their social dance. I felt envious and intimidated. Having come from a humble mill town where a backyard barbecue and a cold Bud was as good as it gets, I was an outsider gazing into a world where I'd never be welcomed.

As I stood there gazing, the older woman casually walked over, folded her arms, and began watching the party guests, too. She was dressed in a pink silk summer suit and carried herself with grace and sophistication. I thought perhaps she was a rich neighbor who'd might have wandered in to briefly enjoy the event. She seemed kindly and non-threatening, but even so I was startled when she offered me that mint and asked my name. She went on to ask what I did when I wasn't serving up appetizers. I told her that I was attending college and that this was my first time as a server. She commended me for getting out there in the world and doing what it takes to earn a living. Everyone else was so aloof, but she treated me as if I were a guest.

I was grateful, too, that she saw beyond the ill-fitting clothing. Still, she had good radar and sensed that I was out of my comfort zone; many of the people I was serving were not much older than me, yet they were on the launchpad for stellar success.

"They look so impressive, don't they?" she asked.

"Oh yes," I replied. "They certainly do."

"How many of them do you think will actually achieve their goals?"

"Why, all of them."

"I'd say three will."

"What?" I said. "How is that possible? These people are the cream of the crop in every way."

"Oh they're all ambitious and they all have wonderful dreams, and many come from successful families. But deep down most of them are nervous that their contacts will fall through or their plans will fail. No matter how confident they're acting, they don't trust their personal judgment when it's time to make important decisions. So they'll settle for far less than what they really want out of life."

I was stunned. Even people with stellar family pedigrees and Ivy League educations could fall short of their goals simply because they don't trust their own judgment or they worry about their plans failing?

This revelation sparked a sea change in my thinking and caused me to completely recalibrate my understanding of the world's pecking order. All of a sudden the playing field was level and I felt that I had a right to be in the game if I had faith in myself -- regardless of my less than aristocratic roots.

As the scent of the flower show lilacs came back into focus, the taste of the lilac mint from 1964 lingered in my mind. In fact, that lilac-infused day has stuck with me over the decades. I think about my chat at the Hyannis compound every time I make a big decision like launching a real estate development plan, diving into an upscale restaurant project, or investing in a local pizza parlor.

By the way, when we got back to the cottage and I told Carl about the woman I was chatting with, he laughed and said, "Do you know who that was?" When I heard her name, I realized that she had taught her own children to trust their judgment and to feel free to pursue their plans without fear of failing. She inspired confidence in the bedrock of their beings. She put a good dose of it in mine that day, too. And why not, she was Rose Kennedy.

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