Here's how we put the 'May' in Maine

On the mellow evening on the first day of May 1919, I hung my first May basket to a young lady named Tangine Krangstople, as I recall, who had carrot red hair and buck teeth, lived next door, and was a newcomer to town.

Miss Krangstople responded curiously. The moment might have been - and by custom should have been - youthfully amorous. A young lady receiving a May basket would chase the donor and bestow a kiss. But when I suspended the May basket on the doorknob, Miss Tangine galloped forth, jumped off the porch, and fell into the rain barrel.

It was not the beginning of a romance. It was, however, a Downeast May Day in my boyhood and I believe the custom of hanging May baskets has largely subsided. Pity. In recollecting Miss Krangstople with rainwater dripping from her hair, I recall

also two gentlemen who were important to May baskets: Mr. Skillin and Mr. Dennison.

My town of Freeport, Maine, after its era of wooden sailing vessels had passed, became dependent on the shoe industry. We made shoes. Every pair of shoes needed a cardboard box, and Mr. Skillin made cardboard boxes.

A shoe box made a beautiful May basket.

I went to Mr. Skillin's box shop and cadged a size 10 shoe box which my mother ornamented with crepe paper until that shoe box was a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It had long, braided, colored handles to loop over Tangine's doorknob, and below it had great streamers. A beautiful sight to see. Around the edge were crimped crepe-paper rose buds, a bower of beauty. Inside the box was fudge, cookies, an apple, an orange, and some walnuts.

Mr. Dennison made the crepe paper and, I suppose, still does. But for many years now not in the vicinity of Freeport.

In the beginning, Mr. Dennison was a cobbler repairing shoes in a small shop in Brunswick, Maine. One day, having something to send by parcel post, he punched a hole in a small piece of cardboard. With his cobblers' tools he put a shoe eyelet in the cardboard, tied in a string, and invented the shipping tag. He soon stopped cobbling, made shipping tags, and moved his business to Framingham, Mass., where the Dennison Manufacturing Co. (now called Avery Dennison) will supply you with crepe paper should you wish to hang a May basket to the Tangine of your choice.

Why don't you do that, and maybe the happy custom of May Day baskets will be revived? It may be difficult to find a Miss Krangstople nowadays and also a rain barrel. Water caught under an eave was soft, while well water was hard; it lathered more readily and was considered superior for laundering.

The event in scrutiny eventuated rather well. After rescuing Tangine and wringing her out, the family and I retired to the kitchen, and Tangine's mother distributed cookies and cocoa with lavish hand in all directions. Tangine's father played the banjo, and we sang until almost 8:30.

May baskets were hung all during the month of May and as the years passed I was involved in many. But for some reason the Krangstople occasion was different.

I have no idea today whatever became of Tangine. In her teens she wore braces and her teeth were straightened. She became a preferred blonde. She was a cheer leader. Then the Krangstoples moved to Chicago.

A more lasting May-basket affair concerns Carlene. Carl Groves lacked a son, so named his last chance Carlene. Never by any means a boy, Carlene persists today in her 90s, and the first of every May she hangs me a basket. The basket is in true tradition: frills, rosebuds, streamers, and all. Inside, I get fudge and cookies and walnuts and tidings of the season. She has never missed, and I am looking forward to May Day.

A May Basket need not be crepe paper and streamers, and does not require a doorknob.

When our son did his military stint, he was assigned after basic training to the Army's 1st Guard Company at Leavenworth, Kan., quite some distance from his native Maine tide.

The next spring, his mother sent him a loving May basket. She telephoned our friend Ken, the seafood shipper, and on May Day a five-gallon tin can arrived in Leavenworth by air express. The can contained one peck of long necked, soft-shelled steamer clams and a double supply of live lobsters. The residue of red lobster shells was evidence of a good May Day feast and something few of his company comrades had ever seen before. He wrote home that it was the best May basket he'd ever heard about.

Why not hang a May basket and surprise a friend!

To hear recordings of John Gould telling stories, or to read a few of his essays that span his past 60 years of writing for the Monitor, log on to: www.csmonitor.com/gouldaudio

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