Monday, May 01, 2006

Giving Up on May Day

Giving Up on May Day

When I was growing up in a small town in New England, my younger sister would fill baskets with flowers early on May Day and leave them secretly on the doorsteps of neighborhood mothers. Seventeen years ago, on my first May Day as a homeowner in Ballard, there was a sharp knock in the late afternoon, but no one at the door. On the doorstep was a bedraggled little heap of flowers. My own rhododendron in bloom was still shaking. For the next hour there were knocks and the sound of children running away; little magic deposits on the doorstep. It was the street of my dreams. When I became a mother my daughter and I would make flower cornets on May Day and deliver them secretly. Emily would arrange the flowers from the time that she was three years old, mingling bluebells with bleeding hearts. For nearly ten years the May Day surprises were prepared with her best friends, two brothers from up the street. Some years they did them before the school bus, other years in the late afternoon, creeping along the bushes. Then other bouquets would appear in turn; a rapid knock on the door, flowers clumped on the welcome mat.

For the last few years I’ve had to coax the kids to make flower arrangements for May Day. The younger brother was the only one willing to deliver last year, although my daughter still enjoyed creating the bouquets, ensuring one lilac for every bundle. I would cut more flowers and watch them wrap stems in wet paper towel and aluminum foil. Every year something different was blooming on the 1st of May. I would remember the year that I was in France and how the French exchange Lily-of-the Valley on this day, their Labor Day. Meanwhile I would cajole the kids into delivering the baskets one more time, trying to rekindle the sense of joy that I’d passed to them and they had held as their own for a few years.

But I’m giving up on May Day this year. The older kids leave for their Metro bus at 7:30 a.m. and the younger brother bicycles to school . They have teenage lives and iPods in their ears. They would be embarrassed to be caught leaving flowers, just as they have stopped participating in the street’s 4th of July parade and talent show. They still have the water fight and play on the traffic-less block until long past the grand finale of the fireworks. But they feel they have outgrown certain rituals. The parade is for the younger kids on the block.

I haven’t outgrown my love for May Day, but I’ll stop forcing it - for now. I’ll call an old friend with a new baby who loves Lily-of-the Valley. I’ll call my sister as I do every year and reminisce on this anniversary of when she learned that she was finally pregnant with twins. I’ll remember the phone call from a neighbor who said that her mother was dying, her two year old had the flu, but that the flowers on her doorstep had given her strength. I’ll remember my first kiss on this day as an exchange student in France; a day when the city workers were on strike and there were no buses. But I’m giving up on forcing the children to fulfill my May Day fantasies of childhood and community. I have a very hard time letting go of the past, and a very difficult time imagining the future. I’ll do what I need to do to celebrate the return of spring, the Worker’s Day. I will try to stop wishing that my daughter still believed that this day was so special that she should wear her angel wings to daycare.

The seeds have been planted; they may not mature for ten years, perhaps even fifteen, but all along the street the seeds have been planted. I’ve had a chance to relive the childhood magic of May Day, and someday so will the children of this street. There will be new traditions just as this year’s crop of babies will be paraded on the 4th of July in decorated Red Flyer wagons. It’s the first of May and throughout the U.S., immigrants are marching and shedding their invisibility and throughout the world, workers are marching. But somewhere there are also bundles of flowers and little baskets being left on doorsteps to celebrate the return of spring. And for all that I claim to have given up on this day, I keep glancing outside my front window to see if there are any flowers on the doorstep.


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