By VERINA PALMER MARTIN
It seems like a lifetime since I’ve seen Montana during the renewal of spring, which may be because you never really know when spring is going to arrive. The Vernal Equinox, or first day of spring, officially is on March 20, but it takes Montana a little longer to warm up to the idea of the season than other places.
I’ve always considered May Day the first day of spring in Montana, and so I celebrated the entire month during my youth. Ok, I still do. I believe there’s a reason the lilacs, my favorite flora, always bloomed deep purple on my birthday. It’s all about me.
From my earliest recollection, the first sign of spring was the emergence of the buttercup. That tiny yellow flower peeking through pine needles and emerging grasses was the first indication that Montana was about to burst into a carpet of purples, blues, oranges and pinks. I set out looking for them every day, hunting them like Easter eggs, scouring the gullies and mountainsides for the first trove of this treasure. I brought home a handful for my mother, who put them in a shallow bowl, floating on water like lilies on a pond, and set them on the window sill above her kitchen sink.
May Day was possibly my favorite holiday. I looked forward every year to a secret mission and prepared with youthful exhilaration and creativity by weaving little baskets out of strips of paper colored with bright scribbles and patterns. I gently filled them with wildflowers—bluebells and yellowbells, shooting stars and purple prairie clover, daisies and lupine—then crossed the gully from my house on Miller Creek Road to Orchard Avenue, where I stealthily slipped them on the doorstep of my neighbor, Margaret Craighead.
Mrs. Craighead was one of my favorite people. I was her Dennis the Menace, always hanging around asking a lot of questions. The beginnings of a good reporter, I’m sure.
The Craigheads were cool because they kept a mini zoo of wild animals in the gully between our houses, and I spent many hours watching them care for wounded birds and displaced creatures. They had the best dog ever, which ran to meet me every day after school as though he were my own. His name was Jed, and he always had a slobbery pine cone in his mouth and was ready to play with this child who didn’t have her own puppy. Their yard also was lined with crabapple trees, and I thought I was pretty sneaky because Mrs. Craighead never, ever, ev-er saw me swiping them.
This is why I felt the need to anonymously bestow upon her the annual May Day basket. As wonderfully wicked as it was to pinch that sour little fruit, it was still stealing, and I had amends to make. So I’d drop the basket, ring the bell and run wildly to hide behind the very branches that reached into my tortured five-year-old conscience.
Mrs. Craighead would open the door, pick up the basket, and wonder aloud who would leave her such a precious gift. She’d look here, then there, and again proclaim that she couldn’t imagine who left her this mystery basket. I so badly wanted to run out and scream, “It’s me! It’s me!” But that would ruin the magic of May Day, and I was a purist.
Before I left Montana, I again knocked on the Craigheads’ door wondering if she’d remember the pesky child next door and, of course, she did. She welcomed me in, as Montana neighbors do, to catch up on the many years gone by. I felt compelled to confess my crabapple transgressions and May Day escapades. She smiled.
“Well, I never knew that was you!” she professed.
And in her eyes was a twinkle.
Buttercups and daisies-
Oh the pretty flowers,
Coming ere the springtime
To tell of sunny hours.
While the trees are leafless,
While the fields are bare,
Buttercups and daisies
Spring up here and there.
- Mary Howitt
Verina Palmer Martin is a Missoula native who fled town in 1986 in search of truth and eternal sunshine, which led to a longtime newspaper career in Arizona. She’s happily married to a Montana boy who tracked her down 20 years ago, and he still makes her laugh like he did in high school. She blames the UM School of Journalism for her addiction to news ink and ridiculously high journalistic ethics.