Essay: A-Tisket, A-Tasket...Baskets Full of May

May 1, 2015

Today is May 1st, which is marked by many celebrations around the world.  Many of them honor workers, but it is a different tradition that essayist Marjorie Pagel remembers from her Wisconsin childhood:

"May basket!"

The cry at the kitchen door rings through the stillness of the spring night. Immediately the whole house comes alive. I am the first to reach the door. Snapping on the yard light, I rush outside to see the backs of three fleeing figures.

"It's the Robinsons!" I shout. "No, it's the Stocks," my sister Arlene challenges as we race after our May night mystery guests, with Wanda and Vincent trailing close behind.

There is no time for discussion of identity ─ no time to inspect the construction paper basket with its handful of candy and spring wildflowers lying just outside the door. For whenever the call of "May basket!" came sounding at the door, there was never time for anything except action. It was the invitation to a chase.

And such a chase it always was! How I loved the exhilarating touch of the night air pulsing over my skin and rushing into my lungs as I pursued those welcome intruders, whoever they might be, out past the barn into the enveloping darkness of the open fields beyond. It was like cops and robbers, hide-and-seek and tag, all wrapped up into one wonderful, breathless night of May-time madness.

On this night, as on the others, our calls echo across the countryside. "Do you see anyone? Where did they go?" And then, "I've got someone. It's Jennifer. "

Jennifer Stock. That means we still have her two older brothers, Roger and Lyle, to find. "There's Roger," Wanda's voice rings out. "And Lyle too!" chimes in Vincent, the youngest of us four children.

At the moment of their detection, Roger and Lyle run for cover to the rows of almost grown pine trees, planted as windbreakers on the neighboring farm. The pine trees stand, row upon row, their needly arms stretched out to each other as if getting ready for their own May dance. Now they serve as an evergreen network of hiding places for the pursued to catch their breath.

In and out between the pines we all run ─ Wanda, Arlene, Vincent and I ─ searching for some sign of the escaped. With four of us looking, they can't get away, we think. But of course, they do and then back they tear across the fields, too fast for us to catch. We have to stop then, our sides aching from the wild chase, our lungs gasping for air.

When our call comes out, "We give up!” ─ Roger and Lyle emerge from some forgotten patch of darkness, smiling ─ and not nearly so out breath as we are.

Then all of us head back to the kitchen for hot chocolate and Mom’s home-made cookies.

Today the May basket tradition seems to have disappeared altogether. Yet every year, as I turn the calendar over to that first day in May, I remember the cry of "May basket!" and all the fun those baskets brought. And I like to imagine that somewhere on a farm in northern Wisconsin, where I grew up, a young girl sits making baskets out of construction paper or walks through the countryside to pick the first wildflowers of May.

Lake Effect essayist Marjorie Pagel is a Milwaukee area writer.