The 17th Of May
It’s a big day in Ballard today, Norwegian Independence Day, and Ballard hosts the second largest parade in its honor, outside of Norway. This is my 17th year living in Ballard, and I feel like every year I want to write exactly the same thing about Syttende Mai. I think about the first year in the house when we realized that a parade was assembling at the base of our street. Marching bands mingling with dancing clams, Scandinavian dancers alternating with skiers and a Ballard Market shopping cart drill team. It seemed like a foreign movie, Fellini Does Ballard. There were also the pink and blue balloons tossed by nurses from then Ballard Community Hospital. “Ballard’s Having Babies” the unfilled balloons announced. How symbolic.
We had our baby in Ballard and so even though I’m a transplant; she’s a native. Every year on the 17th of May I want to write about how she went to every single parade from the time that she was two months old until she was thirteen; how she would be in a child carrier, strapped onto my back, peering her head around mine for a better look. Yet I always seem plagued by regrets in May as though I don’t feel equal to this stunning month, the month when the lilies of the valleys cross with the rhododendrons, and the scent of wisteria wafts with the daphne. I don’t know why so many ghosts seem to walk with me in May. You would think they’ be scared off by the Shriner’s driving toy cars or the Seafair Pirate/Cowboys.
For almost thirteen years the 17th of May was also my bosses’ birthday. It became tradition in the office to make his favorite dessert on that day, and so it became known as Pie Day. I always made strawberry rhubarb and he would say that it was his favorite, even amidst the table heaped with butterscotch, key lime, green tomato, black bottom, and deep dish apple.
May is such a beautiful time in Seattle; the greens of the trees are still so fresh, the mornings so refreshing. So much bursting and popping from the flowers and yet I feel wistful. I miss Pie Day. I miss my daughter’s face nuzzling around the back of my neck. I miss gardening in the mist. Plus, I miss my friend Rucy. She loved my strawberry rhubarb pie too.
Rucy was a writing partner, a gardener, an artist, a grandmother, a friend. Her birthday was in May and if she had lived she would have been 74 years old this month. Each year on the anniversary of when she’d completed treatment for breast cancer she would share chocolates. She was a 27 year survivor. But three years ago the doctors realized that her dry cough was a symptom of lung cancer that was extremely advanced. We kept meeting and writing together for the next eighteen months, or at least writing together until about three weeks before she died when she had said that she couldn’t read her writing anymore.
Two years ago this May we met at the Java Bean on 24th NW. She had brought her own cushion to tie to the seat of a chair. Rucy had always been very small but her illness was rendering her smaller, so that it hurt to sit on her bones. Three of us drank tea and wrote, then our other friend had to leave and Rucy and I proceeded on an errand that I had volunteered to do with her. Rucy could be fearless in her words and deeds, but she didn’t particularly want to go to the Gob Shoppe alone to buy a bong.
The Gob Shoppe had been a near institution up on Sunset Hill; a head shop perched at the summit of Ballard’s highest rent area. But when it moved to Market Street and changed hands it seemed to become just another nails/tattoo storefront on a rapidly changing block. Rucy drove us a few blocks closer to Market Street and we parked two blocks away. She was in sweat pants and sneakers, short sleeves and her baseball hat, walking slowly. I felt robust next to her in sandals and shorts. Her skin was incredibly soft as she let me support one arm.
The shop was in the rear and on the 2nd floor of a tattoo parlor by then. The stairs looked long and steep to Rucy. But she made it and for over 20 minutes we moved back and forth between glass cases, stepping around a dormant yellow dog. Rucy’s son had made some suggestions and Rucy wanted a bong that would be as soothing a possible, a water bong. Her throat was always irritated; was there a way that trying to smoke could be soothing? The owner gushed over hand blown pipes and shared his tips on freezing water in the bowl, for the coldest experience possible.
When Rucy had made her choice the Gob Shoppe wouldn’t take a credit card and so we went through our backpacks to find every last dollar, uncovering money from nooks and crannies as though we were desperate magicians. “You could go to the ATM just down the block,” the owner suggested. Rucy glared at the owner in his blond dredlocks and apparent good health and said, “I couldn’t survive those stairs again.”
“I could meet you downstairs,” he said more quietly. But we counted out dollars and by magic there were enough. “Give it a special wrap,” the owner called out to another worker, “and throw in a cleaner for free.”
We moved slowly down the stairs. Rucy took as deep a breath as she was able before starting down. “Have fun ladies!” the owner called to us, as though our errand were recreational. We walked slowly back to her car. She asked me to repeat some of his directions for use and care. “Have fun ladies,” I kept parroting and she managed to laugh. Along 24th NW a City of Seattle truck was stopping every few feet for a worker to unload sidewalk signs that declared, NO PARKING, 5/17 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The bong didn’t work out well for Rucy. She said that she couldn’t get the hang of it and the effects certainly didn’t make her more inclined to eat. A neighbor tried baking her brownies but she said that they tasted awful. Yet when I would visit her she would give me lunch and even after she had stopped eating, she gave orders to her daughter on what cookies to have in the house for the visitors. That was when she was still able to be downstairs. The week before she died she said to me, you have to be my witness now. I want you to write about this, because by the time someone gets into this state; they’re not usually not able to speak.
But two years ago, on that 17th of May, the sun was still pleasant for Rucy. Over tea she had eaten part of a square of coffeecake, putting small bits slowly into her mouth. We spoke of her garden and what was blooming. She had always had the most stunning garden and that May she said that she knew that it would be her last spring. She had been giving away her plants and wanted them to all go to good homes. I gave her arm a last squeeze and watched her slowly maneuver from her parking spot. I walked home along what would be the Syttende Mai Parade route later in the day. She had forgotten her cushion at the Java Bean and I went to the empty table in the window and untied the cushion carefully from the high-backed wood chair.