For a good part of my childhood, I believed that May was my own private month, centered on my birthday and designed solely to shower me with delights. It didn't occur to me to consider how many people there were in the world, or to divide that number by the available 365 birthdays a year. I knew no one else born on May 5th or any other day of the month, and since there were no other major holidays to distract me, I saw no reason NOT to believe that May was mine. I was evidently part of a "Me" generation long before the term became fashionable.
My month started on May Day, which seemed just a warm-up exercise for the main event. We had three May Day rules in our house, and I tried my best to observe them all. First, my mother assured me that if I wanted to be beautiful, I needed to get up before sunrise on that day and wash my face in the dew on our front lawn. Willing to do anything it took for such a transformation, I faithfully set my alarm and tiptoed out in the cold, scrubbed hard at my little turned-up nose, and dashed inside for the closest mirror. Nothing ever changed, but the hope was always there. Next, if I wanted to bring on good luck, I had to make a paper May Basket, stuff it with some freshly-picked flowers, and hang it on someone's doorknob without getting caught. There were a number of elderly women on our street, and they always moved slowly enough to allow me time to ring the doorbell and scurry away. Sometimes, admittedly, the flowers were nothing more than a couple of scraggly dandelions, but the thought was there. Finally, May 1st was the first day I was allowed to go barefoot in the spring. More often than not, May 1st was cold, or wet, or both, but the anticipation was wonderful.
Then came "my day" itself. Birthdays seldom live up to their hype, and mine were not exceptions. I never found a pony in the back yard, and parties usually turned out to be huge flops. I remember one when I decided to forget ordinary cake and serve strawberry pie with a layer of cream cheese on the bottom, just like my mother served to her bridge club. My little friends took one look at the offering and went "Eeeewwww!" Not even my father's offer to take everyone out for ice cream cones could salvage that one. Still, it was my party and my day.
Eventually I learned that in other parts of the world, May celebrations occurred for reasons I had never heard of. May 5th is actually a nationally holiday in Mexico. It celebrates a classic "David and Goliath" story of a small Mexican militia that held off an invasion by the French Foreign Legion at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. May Day was, and still is, a major civic holiday in much of the rest of the world. It was originally planned to mark the date of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which resulted in the adoption of the eight-hour work day for American laborers. As May 1st became known as International Workers Day, many socialist and anarchist groups used it as an excuse for demonstrations, and Communist governments retaliated with public parades of their military preparedness. In Oxford, England, university students still hold ceremonies at dawn, and until fairly recently, some foolhearty students defied university officials by diving into the River Cherwell from Magdalan Bridge. Dangerous practice, that! The river is only about three feet deep.
But such international goings-on made little impact on me. My childhood month of May ended as delightfully as it had begun. Even Decoration Day, as we called it back then, had its connection to my birthday, for it was on May 5, 1868, that General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order declaring that Union and Confederate war dead would be honored on May 30th with flowers laid on their graves in Arlington National Cemetery. My mother's family had its own Civil War soldier to honor, and Decoration Day was the traditional day for the family to gather in North Sewickley Cemetery, right outside Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, for a day of clean-up and family reminiscing. Five sisters, carting picnic baskets, flower pots, rakes, hoes, grumbling husbands, and assorted children spent the day moving from gravestone to gravestone, not mourning but celebrating the good times they remembered.
There was the marker of the family matriarch, who brought her seven children from Ireland to the hills of Pennsylvania in 1795, traveling first in steerage, and then on foot. The stone bore only the single word, "Nancy," but it still stood firmly rooted on that hillside. There was Electra, who died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and little James, a victim of diphtheria at the age of two. By noon, the decorating crew had usually made its way to a circle of pine trees, where lunch was spread on tablecloths while someone told the story of Sgt. James McCaskey, who died in defense of his country in 1862. When I was old enough to read the headstone, I discovered that it said he had died in South Carolina. When pressed, the sisters admitted that he was not really buried there, but that the fake grave served his memory just as well. That made perfect sense to me at the time. It was part of the magic that made up "My May."