Pieces of April

I’ve got pieces of April, I keep them in a memory bouquet.

                             —Three Dog Night

Suddenly there are dandelions, bold and yellow, brash and arrogant, next to the violets nestled quietly in the rich green grasses of Spring. A yellow season—the bobbing daffodils, the outspoken dandelions.

I remember, randomly, picking dandelions for pay. There was an old lady—Wait. How funny: she was probably not much older than I am now, but in fourth grade, that gray-crowned, stern person seemed ancient, mysterious, threatening, and venerable. Her name was Mrs. Aitch, and she lived in the house across the street, lived there by herself: a widow.

Mrs. Aitch, most of the year, yelled at us: to keep our wiffle balls out of her flowerbeds, to keep our dogs off her lawn, to wipe our chalk off her sidewalk. But in spring, she recruited us to pick dandelions. She would buy as many as we could pick, and she’d give us a penny a plant. We could pick a lot of dandelions for that kind of incentive, and so, each spring, we had a temporary truce. She’d inspect the baskets full of brassy-headed weeds, counting carefully, biting her thick lower lip, and she would pat our heads. Then she would get out her change purse and count out our earnings as carefully as she counted the dandelions.

I was too shy to ask what she used all those bushels of dandelions for. Someone spoke knowingly about a kind of fritter their grandmother liked to make, the bitter greens dipped in egg wash and breadcrumbs, fried in olive oil, sprinkled with parmesan. Maybe, someone said, dandelion jelly—the flowers boiled in a big old pot until they relinquished their sweet essence. The older brothers were pretty sure she made dandelion wine, bottles and bottles of it, and drank it, maybe, all by herself, as she watched TV, and the neighborhood, from a chair in her front room.

We had never been invited inside her house. But from that chair, we guessed, she could spring to the door and yell in a shrill voice as soon as a child toed onto her lawn.

I imagined her slapping down a thick, dewy tumbler filled with amber liquid and heaving herself out of an old flowered chair, and hurrying, on thick legs, to push open her screen door.

One night, deep in cold February, deep in the heart of the night, there was a fire in our duplex. We threw on clothes randomly selected, caught the coats our parents tossed us, and shivered on the sidewalks as the firetrucks blared down the street.

The whole neighborhood came out, and, because it was not a bad fire, and no one was hurt and nothing was lost, it became a grand adventure. I huddled with my friends and speculated; my aunt and uncle drove down from their house, six blocks away, ready to take us all back with them, to find us makeshift sleeping places until the house situation could be assessed.

The adults gathered and conferred in low, serious voices, and Mrs. Aitch opened up her front porch door and slowly walked to join them. I don’t remember how long we watched the fire fighters ply their trade, or where I slept that night, or what I wore to school the next day. And I don’t remember the aftermath, except for the vague sense memory of fading smoke-smell permeating the house.

But I remember Mrs. Aitch hurrying across the street to join the grownups, her gray hair in a long, long plait that reached below the back of her knees.

Those are the memories dandelions unlock.

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Two years ago—maybe three—the city planted trees all the way down the hell-strip on Yale Avenue, from Dresden Road to Normandy Drive. And this year those young trees, having rooted and acclimated themselves, having decided, “This is where I live now; might as well make the best of it,”—well, they all burst into glorious bloom.

Their blossoms were snowy white, and they wafted a sweet light fragrance.

It seems like they bloomed on Monday, and on Tuesday, the petals began their slow drift to the ground. It was, sort of, like walking in a make-believe snowstorm, the kind where I can enjoy the drift without worrying about the consequences. And it made me think for some reason of crowning the May Queen back in the day. The weather was a little slower there than it is here; early in May the fruit trees were just blooming, and we could be pretty sure, in western New York State, that the snow was finally gone.

And May was the month of Mary, the Blessed Mother, with feast days in her honor—the Annunciation, the Visitation. And it was a month to pray for peace, one of the Popes had decided, and Mary, of course, was the Queen of Peace.

At St. Joseph School it was the month to crown the May Queen.

The girl chosen to crown the Queen was always a third grader. The selection process was mysterious and much muttered about, and to my shock, I was chosen, that one year, to do the crowning.

It was a tradition, probably, that predated Christianity, that sprang from roots we would have called pagan, that celebrated the blooming of flowers and the fertility of the world. But to us it was a solemn, beautiful day, one of the few in that old Church devoted to the Holy Feminine, and we loved its pastel, fragile power.

If the weather was good—and that year, it was,–the Crowning took place outside. A big statue of Mary was propped on a tall base, and wooden stairs were placed behind it. Surrounding the array were tubs and urns and vases of flowers—hothouse blooms and blossoms cut by grubby hands, placed in Anchor Hocking glass by patient mothers, and carefully carried on the long walk to school.

The awful priest led the prayers, and the black-robed nuns led us in song…and voices swelled the air because, dammit, when the nuns said SING, we sang. Mothers lined the sidewalks in nice dresses, unusual for a weekday, their hands clutching the straps of big purses.

I wore a floaty green and white dress, the exact colors of apple trees in the spring; I think it was a hand-me-down from my cousins in Buffalo. My contrary hair had been threatened and corralled into submission by spiky pink curlers kept on the whole painful night (it was GOOD to sacrifice for things spiritual) by hard little plastic cages. My too-short bangs curled briskly onto my forehead, and I wore white ankle socks and white patent leather sandals that hurt my feet and blistered my heels.

At the exact, certain time, my teacher prodded me in the back, and I climbed the wooden stairs and laid a wreath of flowers carefully on Mary’s cement head. At the moment of contact, I swore I felt a buzz of power enter my fingers and zzz up my arms.

And then it was over, my moment of glory; I climbed back down, and we went into the school gymnasium. We had dixie cups of juice and a cookie each, and then school began again. Mary wore her crown all that day; I checked on her before I walked home from school. But the next day, the statue and all the flowers were just gone….gone as surely and completely as my fleeting sense of fame and importance.

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Scents crescendo this week as I walk, and, approaching the first intersection on my morning wander, mulch tangs. But suddenly, the breeze brings me something else—something sweet and tender. It’s the smell of lilacs, and I love lilacs so.

In my first growing-up house, there was a bank of lilac bushes back by the old garage. They made a kind of safe corner, a place to sit and read on days when my mother said, “Get your lard butt OUTSIDE!” I would take my library book and head outside, drag an old chair into the shadow of the lilacs and read and dream until something stopped me. The sand box my father built was out there, too, and when the lilacs, their season so temporary, went by, their tiny lavender petals would stain the lake beach sand.

There was an impossibly young nun who taught first grade; I think her name was Sister Mary Theresa, and she loved us and Jesus and the Blessed Mother, and she believed we would grow into loving, devout people capable of great spiritual sacrifices. We loved her, too, and we tried very hard to fill the magnificent outlines she drew for us.

At the end of April, we did an Art Project; we created flower baskets from triple-layered construction paper. The baskets had handles designed to hang on the front door.

We were to smuggle them home, fill them with flowers, and hang them on the door of a special person on May 1st. Then we were to ring the bell and run away.

The special person, Sister said, would come to the door and find a wonderful Mayday basket. And because we had hidden, we would get the extra blessing of doing a lovely thing anonymously.

I filled my basket with lilacs, which were perfectly in bloom on May 1st that year. I had to twist and turn them off the bush, having no scissors or clippers, and the stem ends looked a little frayed and woody, but they made a lovely display in the construction paper. I had to hurry, though, because the paper was getting wet.

I hung the basket on the front door for my mother. I rang the doorbell hard, and then clambered off the porch.

Hiding breathless behind the rose bush, I could hear my mother stomp to the front door, fling it open, and stop.

“What the HELL?” she said, and the door slammed as she went back inside.

I waited a few moments, and then I crept out to look.

The May basket still hung there; looking at eye level for a PERSON, my mother hadn’t seen the basket.

I took it in to her, and she humphed a little (“Flowers from my OWN bushes,” she muttered), but she pulled a heavy green glass vase down from the way high up shelf and filled it with water. She trimmed off the frayed ends, and she put the lilacs, a truly magnificent bunch, in the center of the dining room table. I think they made her happy.

I loved the bushes even after the flowers faded, loved the tangled, thin trunks and the heart shaped leaves. This year, I think, we’ll take the old holly bush out from the corner of the front yard—its poor leaves have blacker spots than old Jack Sparrow. We’ll enrich the soil and put in a lilac bush. There’s room in that space for a sturdy outdoor chair, and a little bit of privacy for an outdoor read.

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I walk down Yale this morning, and the petals are all on the grass and sidewalks; the little trees are completely greened. The world around me has changed from Monday when I wore my winter coat to walk, to today when Mark said, as I pushed off, “You know, it’s almost MUGGY.”

I have walked through the blooming and the budding, through the birds’ raucous chatter, through thoughts of what this summer will bring and through memories long-buried. Aprils present, past, and future contributed their pieces, surprising and touching me with this week’s bouquet.

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