Elizabeth sat contentedly next to her grandmother and idly traced the pattern of the old woman’s faded blue gingham apron. A few strands of her grandmother’s yellow-white hair, smelling faintly of gingerbread and apples, brushed the child’s cheek.
“Grandma, tell me one of your long-ago stories,” Elizabeth murmured lazily.
“What kind of story today, Bess?”
“Tell me about when you were a girl living in England before you joined the Church and came to live here in Canada.”
“Oh, child, that was so many years ago! Let me think.” The old woman tilted her head in thought. Then her wrinkled face broke into a sudden smile. “Have I ever told you about our village’s May Day celebration?”
Elizabeth shook her head slowly, her dark eyes filled with curiosity.
“What a grand time it was, Bess. Before dawn each May first, my sisters and I would go into the woods to pick flowers and branches to decorate our cottage with. That morning our mum would make crowns of leaves and wildflowers for us to wear as we went singing from door to door. But the best part was the May Queen.”
“Your town had a real queen, like in fairy tales?”
“No, only a make-believe one for May Day,” Grandma replied. “The village chose the prettiest girl, and she rode in a flower-covered cart to the center of town.”
“Were you ever picked?” asked Elizabeth.
“No,” chuckled Grandma. “I was too plain. Of course, I always wanted to be, but I was never asked.”
“What happened then?”
“The May Queen, wearing a crown of wildflowers, was taken to the maypole to preside at the spring party given in her honor.”
“What’s a maypole?”
“It was a tall tree that had been cut down that morning. After all its branches were cut off, it was placed in the village green, and flowers and ribbons in all colors of the rainbow were hung from the top of it.”
“And then the party started?”
“Yes, love. The May Queen sat beneath an arch of flowers and watched the villagers dance around the maypole, welcoming spring. When I smell the first blooms of the lilacs each year, I feel like I’m a little girl in England again.”
“Grandma, I think I hear Mommy calling. I guess I’d better go now,” Elizabeth said, kissing her grandmother’s cheek.
Throughout the last week of April it rained constantly. Elizabeth stared out the window, muttering, “It will never be sunny in time. Everything will be ruined.” But on the morning of the first of May, the sun broke cheerily through the clouds and covered the land with warmth and brightness. Tossing back her covers, Elizabeth leaped excitedly out of bed. By the time her parents came downstairs for breakfast, Elizabeth had finished her cereal and juice and was slipping out the door.
“What’s the rush today, kitten?” her father asked.
“I have a lot to do, Daddy.”
“Have fun, sweetheart, but be sure to play closeby,” her mother said.
“I will, Mommy. I promise.”
For the next three hours Elizabeth was busy behind the barn. Occasionally she had to run up to her room. From downstairs her mother could hear Elizabeth’s dresser drawers sliding open and slamming shut, followed by the thumping of Elizabeth’s feet as she bounded down the stairs.
Shortly after noon, Elizabeth knocked on her grandmother’s door, bursting with excitement.
“Come in, Bess. I’ve just baked some biscuits.”
“Oh, Grandma, you have to come with me right now! I want to show you the lilacs. They’re blooming behind the barn.”
“Oh, how lovely! Let’s go pick a bouquet for the parlor.”
As Grandma walked around the corner of the barn, her mouth dropped open in amazement. The branches of a young peach tree, decorated with brightly colored hair ribbons, swayed gently in the breeze. Beside it, a rickety wooden chair had been transformed into a throne of roses and daisies.
“Sit down, Your Highness,” said Elizabeth with a curtsy. “The May Day party is starting, and you are the May Queen—the fairest in the land.”
As the old woman slowly seated herself, a crown of blossoms was placed on her head. Gracefully spreading the faded apron over her knees, she blinked back tears of happiness while she watched Elizabeth dance around the peach-tree maypole.