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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, April 22, 2017

May Day, My Dear. Part I

Originally posted: May, 2010

It was that very time of year
when open meadows hold the hue
of tiny flowers in the grass,
and all along the woodland near
the bloodroot glistens with the dew
as trumpet daffs call all who pass...
to spring.

It was, in fact, the very first day of May, a month the little boy did not yet know by name.

What use has a boy of four in corduroy bib-overalls for names of months or numbered squares upon a page? To children it is only the rhythm of remembered days that mark the passing of time. This day would never be forgotten, but the little boy did not yet know it had a name and number.

Waking to his silent sun-lit room, the little boy rolled from bed and carefully stepped into the crumpled leg holes of the same corduroy overalls he had stepped from at bedtime. His head popped through the same striped shirt he had worn the day before. He did have other pants and shirts, of course, but barring a slip in the mud or jelly spills or wind-shifts in the weather, it was a time when little boys, not yet in school, saw no need for different clothes on different days, and no one seemed to notice until Sunday.

Thinking none of this, the little boy struggled to reach the second shoulder strap of his overalls. It had dropped behind his back until with a grunt and a swing of his shoulders the buckle came within reach. "Gotcha!" he laughed, pulling the wire clip to the slide-snap on the bib.

Getting dressed by himself was so new an achievement that it still made him smile to look at his legs as he double-stepped each tread down the stairs.  Turning into the kitchen, he saw his mother alone and drying dishes from a rack beside the sink.

“There you are. I was just about to come upstairs and say, 'Happy May Day!'”

“Happy what?” he said, rubbing sleep from the corner of his eye.

“Happy May Day! It's May Day, my dear. Today is the first day of May. Yesterday it was April, but starting today it's May. Here, I’ll show you.”

She went to the calendar on the wall beside the refrigerator, pulled out the tack that held it there, and flipped a page over the one of Easter lilies and a cross.

The new picture was a quaint stone house with flowers all along a garden path. Below the picture was a small word above a page of numbers. There were three letters in the word, but they meant nothing to the little boy.

Mothers relish "teachable moments" when they take the time to unveil a simple new fact in hopes that someday a teacher at school will be amazed by how swiftly displays of brilliance follow their child's raised hand. Subconsciously, this hope prompted the boy's mother to take a wooden ruler from the junk drawer and begin a lesson.

“M-A-Y,” his mother spelled, pointing at each letter. “This month is May.”

“So who makes it May? You? You just turn the page and then…”

“No, Honey, I didn’t make it May. I turned the page because today’s the day to do it. It was May before I turned the page.”

“Well, then who makes it May?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“God?” asked the little boy.

“I don't think so. Well, maybe. God made days and nights and the moon, and I think the moon has something to do with months. Maybe not." Her confidence began to fade.  "I'm not sure why we call it May."

"Well, if God didn't make it May, who did?"

May is just a name the whole world calls this month. May is a month. Let's start with that. There are thirty days in each month—except some have thirty-one days and February has only twenty-eight... except in Leap Year when it has twenty-nine.”

The little boy looked lost. "How many years are there?" he asked.

"You're making this harder than it is," she said, wiping crumbs from the table into her hand. "Years are a whole different thing. There are too many years to count. There's all the years that passed and all the years to come. This year is number 1,961, but there are lots more than that."

"How many more?" asked the boy.

"Thousands and thousands more. These pictures and numbers on the wall are called a calendar. Each calendar holds a year. We've  gone through four calendars since you were born. That's why we say you're four years old. When you turn five, you'll start going to school in a month called September, and they'll teach you a poem all about this. But right now, I'm just trying to explain why today is May Day. Let's just stick to months. There are twelve months in a year—like inches on this ruler. See? Twelve months and twelve inches.  May is just one of the inches—except it doesn't measure anything...well, time I guess. It measures time. So... there are thirty days in each month—except, like I said, for the ones with more or less."

The little boy looked more lost than ever.

Weary from one minute of teaching, his mother retired the ruler to the drawer and retied her apron strings. “There's a poem about it," she sighed. "It’ll all make sense to you someday. Just trust me for now. It’s May. Today's May first, and that's why I said, 'Happy May Day.'"

Ready to change the subject, she paused and squinted toward the picture on the calendar. "Isn’t that a pretty cottage? Look at those flowers. I think those are tulips by the path to the porch. So pretty...."

“It’s a very small house," the little boy said, "Too small for a family.”

“Maybe a grandma and grandpa live there.”

“Maybe somebody like Ol’ Pete,” the boy smiled.

“That’s Mister Pete to you, young man, and his house is even smaller than this one.” Then she added without thinking, “...and compared to this cottage, Mister Pete’s place looks more like a shack.”

She turned to look through the far window of the room at a small shape in the distance. It was Mister Pete's little house, which looked completely out of place among the new houses being build around it. She shook her head, and smiled down at her boy. Taking the damp dishrag from the sink, she pressed down a cowlick in his hair and combed it into place as best she could with her fingers.

“There. That looks better. Now let me fix that twist in your strap,” she said, undoing the wire clip he’d worked so hard to fasten.

“Do you want breakfast or lunch?” she asked, and her son looked blankly back at her. “You slept in. The kids have been gone to school for hours. It’s past eleven o’clock— kind of late for breakfast.”

The boy was only slightly more familiar with clocks than calendars, but still he wondered where time went when he slept. He liked to wake up with his family for breakfast, but sometimes they were all gone by the time he came downstairs. The same thing happened when he took naps in the afternoon. Sometimes he was not tired at all and just stared up at the ceiling until he heard his siblings come home from school, but other times he drifted off so deep in sleep that his big sister, a nurturing third grader, had to wake him just in time for supper. Sometimes he fell asleep in the car but woke up in his bed. He never remembered being moved, but often spoke of flying in his dreams. He did not know that his dreams of soaring came when his father carried him to bed. It is a strange feeling to wake up and wonder where you are or what time it is, and had that feeling when his mother said, “…kind of late for breakfast.”

With a puzzled shake of his head he said, “I’ll have a peanut butter and jelly sammich.”

“A sammich?” she mimicked with a smile, grabbing the jars from the cupboard.

The little boy nodded, not knowing he’d left out the “w” in the word. His mother made the sandwich and cut it from corner to corner because she had learned that biting into triangle-shaped halves helped keep the jelly off her children’s cheeks. She took the knife, pressed off a corner of the oozing bread, and popped it in her mouth. This was her trademark on sandwiches, her meager reward for being “chief cook and bottle washer” for a brood of four children born roughly one year apart.

“There’s your sammich,” she said, pouring him a half glass of milk. “Your father called and said he’d be home by noon to work in the garage. Why don’t you play outside until he gets here. I have something you can do for me when you go out."

She ripped open a bag of sugar and poured some in cup. "Take this cup of sugar over to Mrs. Palmer for me. I borrowed it last week. Don’t bring back the cup because that is hers, too. Okay? Can you do that for me?”

"Okay," said the little boy. He drank the milk, and when his mother turned toward the sink, he wiped the white mustache on the inside of his T-shirt. Picking up the second half of sandwich in his right hand, he took the cup of sugar in his left and stepped out the back door.

His mother watched him from the kitchen window as he stopped, pressed the last bit of sandwich in his mouth, put the cup in his right hand, and carefully plodded along.

Through the screen, his mother said, "When you give it to her, be sure to say ‘Happy May Day.’ She’ll like that."

It may have been a cup of sugar in quantity, but what carried it was actually a plastic thermal mug, the inside of which had been pink before it turned a shade of brown from years of holding coffee 'til it cooled. The outside of the mug was clear plastic over burlap. The boy had seen the set of mugs at the Palmer's house when the grown-ups sat around the table talking.He could almost smell the coffee in the air as he stared at the sugar in the cup.

He passed the oak that held the tire swing and held the cup in both hands as he approached the ditch of the road between their house and the Palmer place. It had been a dry warm spring, and the ditches had no water he could see, but he had learned not to step in the soggy bottom that would sometimes wet his shoes, and with a small leap, he was half-way up the other side. He glanced both ways at the paved road, and then crossed the ditch on the other side. Standing there, he remembered something else he had to pass...

... Ol’ Pete’s little shack-of-a-house that sat on a sliver of land along the ditch on the other side. As he walked across the narrow un-mowed yard, the little boy stood to look at the house as if for the first time.
Continued in Part II below:

© Copyright 2010, Tom Kapanka, Patterns of Ink
"Four in Corduroy" is a short story in three parts. It has been in various draft forms for years. It is based on a true story that happened more than fifty years ago. This is not a picture of Pete's house. His was not so overgrown in the front (as we will see), and his roof was shingled not tin, but it was about this size and looked very much out of place once larger homes were built in the area. About a decade ago, when I was visiting Port Huron, I drove by to take a picture of Pete's house on Atkins Road. It was gone, and a new house was being built behind where the little house stood facing Charmwood Road.

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