Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May memories, Mayhap, May help

When I was little--four or five--we used to hang May Baskets from the doorknobs of elderly neighbors. My mother instigated this, of course, but I enjoyed filling the construction paper cones with garden flowers, placing the surprise, ringing the bell and running away. It's not a tradition I ever tried to continue with my children. They're too old to appreciate it now, but it strikes me that, pleasant as those May Day memories have always been--and I can still see the stone porch back in central New York, across the street from my best friend's house, up the block from ours, pale green trim and maybe gables; I can see myself on that porch, arranging my offering, hurrying away--it never really occurred to me to "try this at home," so to speak. Granted, our elderly neighbors when my daughter was four frankly disliked us, disapproving of our lawn mowing skill, or lack thereof. Still, the elderly part isn't an absolute requirement, and we did have other neighbors, more forgiving. Double nostalgia then, my own childhood long gone and my children's littlehood, too.

I observed this spring morning on my own. Grayish sky, hint of sun--just a hope of that bright sun against gray velvet clouds  and sharp pink plum trees that I love at this time of year. When I set out to run, it was almost warm (not warm enough for shorts, but I realized that too late to turn back and change). Ducking under the neighbors' full-bloomed apple tree as I headed down the hill, I remembered I had dreamed last night that I was pulling snails off a fruit tree still in bloom. Anyone who has gardened in Oregon will understand this dream, this waking nightmare, this continual struggle. . . never mind. I dreamed a spring dream, and along with it, a cry for help. 

So mayday, not just May Day. My dictionary gives the definition of this international distress signal as the French (venez) m'aider, (come) help me! Who knew? (Not me, obviously). A not-quite translation, a homophonic or sound translation--historically, as David Bellos notes in Is that a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, a rich source of vocabulary growth as languages come into contact and their speakers try to mimic foreign words using the closest sounds they can muster from their own experience. Turns out, again, translation is everywhere.

Including the eye of the beholder. Later, out the bus window on the way to work, I watched a woodpecker pecking away at one of the small, tasteful signs the city places to urge trail users to "leash pets" and "obey scoop laws." A kind of live underscoring, subtitling as highlighting. But I've also seen (and heard) the woodpecker--presumably a different woodpecker; it was a different spring--attacking the STOP sign down the road, the gong of its beak meeting metal louder than any distress call.

Message here? I'm not sure. But it's spring, hope springs eternal, memory and mayhem and possibility dancing 'round the May pole, one big happy family. Happy May Day, everyone!


  1. I vaguely remember May Baskets. I think we may have made them in grade school one year, but I was a feral child and it would have meant nothing to me. And anyway, I lived in the country where neighbors were far away and their dogs did not take kindly to furtive visitors.

    I think it was about the fourth grade when our school had a May Pole and girls danced around it, plaiting colored streamers. I cannot imagine that such paganism went unremarked, and I do not remember it being done again.

  2. A friend of mine does a May Pole party--a different color every year, working through the rainbow. Sadly, I haven't been able to attend the last few times.