Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Here I Raise My Ebenezer..."

The two previous  posts, "The Waiting Room of Mercy" and "The Rhythm" are the context of these thoughts. 

Christmas Break 2018 officially begins at the end of tonight's concert, but a different cause for celebration has been in the air all week. While the bazaar with all its secret shopping and gift wrapping was happening in the main foyer, a quieter kind of enterprise was happening in the preschool room where the Senior Worldview Class had temporarily set up shop.

Just days ago these students and hundreds of others were praying fervently that their friend would not die as he lay motionless on our gymnasium floor with no heartbeat or breath (Vfib cardiac arrest). A defibrillator corrected the heart failure and a ventilator forced air in his lungs as the ambulance rushed him to Mercy.

It was a grave situation. Read Wednesday's reports on Luke here:

Grand Haven Tribune: A second chance at life and Thursday's Update

So what is the best use of instructional time on the heels of such an ordeal? Even though miraculously good news had come sooner than expected, their teacher, Mrs. Julie Kapanka, knew that a hands-on diversion would be better than jumping right back into last week's lesson plans.


"We're going to make something that will remind you of what God did this Christmas. Years from now, you'll see this and know it's not just an ornament. You'll remember the miracle of Luke 2 and Luke, too."









Mrs. K did not use the word "Ebenezer," but when she heard her explain the project to me I immediately thought of that word.

The name Ebenezer seems inseperable from Dicken's A Christmas Carol, and because of the character Ebenezer Scrooge, it often has a negative connotation. The word Ebenezer, however, is a solid stand-alone noun. It refers to a physical reminder memorializing when God divinely intervened in response to "cries" of those who call Him Lord.

The first use of Ebenezer is I Samuel 7:12, and in that case the reminder was a tall boulder. I like the way The Message puts it:
"He named it 'Ebenezer' (Rock of Help), saying, “This marks the place where God helped us.”

Keep in mind that in I Samuel 4, Israel had suffered horrible defeats and the loss of 34,000 men at that same place, and they bemoaned the fact that God abandoned them. Then in this third battle, with their backs against the wall, they begged Samuel to cry out non-stop, and God directly intervened. Does this mean that when bad things happen, God is gone and when good things happen He shows up? Or could it mean that He is not bound by human rationale. He writes the lesson plans and determines whether teachable moments come through victory or defeat; mercy or justice; healing or heartbreak.

We know God is sovereign and knows how to turn the tables on the haughty (see I Samuel 5-6) in order to honor those most dependent on Him. In the case of that first Ebenezer, he chose to dramatically respond to Samuel's obedience and effectual outcry.

In our episode last week, when the commotion and phone calls began last Thursday around 4:00, I have never known of so many people praying so fervently within minutes. The first responders were super fast, but literally hundreds if not thousands of people in inter-linking prayer chains across the country were immediately crying out, including the seniors in these pictures.

It is in that sense, that the ornaments the seniors made in Worldview class are little "Ebenezers" that will help them remember what happened this week for years to come. Don't get me wrong--I know we shouldn't dwell on the past beyond the extent to which it makes us more effective in the present. Tragic events are not easily forgotten, but ironically, when such events take a miraculous turn like the victory in I Samuel 7, they can fade as things return to normal. For that reason, all those who carry on with life need Ebenezers or reminders like tiny-stoned wedding rings, commemorative plaques, broken bread, rainbows of promise, and yes, even  ornaments depicting the nativity of Luke 2.

There is another place where we hear the word Ebenezer besides Dickens and  the Books of Samuel. It's in the great old hymn "Come Thou Fount". Those words were penned by a 22-year-old  Robert Robinson  in the year 1757. You remember the line in the second stanza, "Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home."

I began writing this post at 4:30AM. I was alone in my living room. Reading on-line news articles about Luke's incident and thinking about the short attention span we humans have. Why did Samuel raise a stone to remind them how the Lord helped them win the battle? Because he knew they were humans and tend to forgetas the old gospel song says.

It was for these reasons that I woke at 4:30AM to find the word Ebenezer word in a 260-year-old hymn written by a young man not much older than Luke, but when I read the lyrics a few other lines brought tears to my eyes in light of this week's events.

1. Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.


2. Here I raise my Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I'm come; [Hither means, "To this place"]
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,

safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above

[Press arrow to hear "Come Thou Fount" by Chris Rice]

I am pleased to introduce you to a new blog that Luke's mom and CCS Librarian, Sam Anhalt, just began yesterday. 
Sam's blog is called, "Crazy Might Work" at this link.
I know it will become a comforting place to stay in touch with this situation so we can better pray for this dear family as they work through  the ache of joy that comes from such experiences.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Waiting Room of Mercy

The waiting room of Mercy
is a place with no address
where loved ones mix with strangers
and faint smiles mix with stress…
where whispers catch attention
and laughter goes unheard
as stares fix on a distant door
awaiting some new word.
The chairs in Mercy's waiting room
hold hope and hints of strife.
The time is measured not by clocks
but subtle rhythms of life…
like blinks held shut and breaths held in
and sighs in sync let go...
or pacing feet past eyes that meet
while scanning to and fro
in search of strength from "they that wait"
for hours turned to days…
till, if God wills, all trembling lips
give way to pent-up praise.
 ©Tom Kapanka 12-16-2018






These pictures were taken in place called Mercy Hospital, street address: 1500 E Sherman Blvd., but the above lines are also about a more abstract place that can be called "The Waiting Room of Mercy," a waiting room that calls us all at different times in life and in any place where we learn from "they that wait upon the Lord" in prayer and supplication.

The opening lines of the post were prompted by some hours I spent at Mercy Hospital this past Thursday night, awaiting the news regarding a senior at CCS who, in the peak of health and fitness, suffered a cardiac arrest in our school gym during a routine basketball practice. His teammates were the first to gather 'round him. They are seated in some of the pictures above. Thanks to his coach, the AED in our gymnasium, and the immediate arrival of our local first responders, this story has a very miraculous outcome, but that was unknown at the time of these photos.

The last photo is the moment that the boy's father first saw his dear friend, his son's coach, whose calm and trained response saved his son's life. I will post a video link to the good news that came over the weekend. In the meantime, here are two initial news articles from Friday and Saturday.
 Click on title below: 

Mlive:
 AED and quick thinking by coach credited with saving West Michigan teen’s life

Grand Haven Tribune

Coach saves player who collapses at practice


Do you want to hear something that has brought comfort over these past few days? The student in this story is a leader on our school praise team. With him, the student body has sung a song called "I will follow" by Jon Guerra (a friend of CCS) countless times. The praise team sang that song Thursday morning in chapel, not knowing what the afternoon held.

A year and a half ago, The Lakes Church made the CCS building their home. Pastor Todd Ballard is lead teaching pastor of the church. His office is upstairs near the gymnasium, and he often practices with our basketball team. This was the case Thursday. He had left the gymnasium when he heard all the commotion coming from the gym and hallways. Here are his opening remarks from this morning's message. 



Just three days after that announcement in church, WZZM 13 ran this story on the 6:00 News.

Calvary Christian School coach uses AED to save basketball player's life


"Even in the Storms I'll Follow You..."

In the post above, someone left a comment that brought this thought to mind... (post-time-stamped to sequentially follow)

The student who is the unnamed subject of that post is a key leader in our praise and worship rotation for chapels. There was a  time when he was reluctant to sing in public. In fact, we had to coax him to join two years ago. That's hard to imagine now. I mention this only to say that Luke and his fellow praise and worship leaders have led our students in singing "I Will Follow" countless times at Fall Retreat and chapels, and the special K-12 praise and worship times we do at the end of each quarter.

This song was sung by the praise team the morning of the incident. The first clip provides the lyrics; the second clip is more reflective of our student body singing along.


 
(Incidentally, Jon Guerra is married to Valarie Strattan, CCS Class of 2003. Together they are "Praytell," and they were in town performing at the Beardsley Theater the day this happened. Here is one of the songs from their Christmas concert that night.) 

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Rhythm

The December 16 post above came to me Sunday morning before church For some people, writing is a cathartic process. Sometimes things I write are  never seen again. Sometimes they make even more sense years later. Other times, old drafts have subconscious influence on new thoughts. This happened over and over again this weekend. "The Rhythm" was first posted in 2007 and explained here in 2009.  "The Waiting Room of Mercy," echoed lines of  a post by that name in 2005. At any rate, the following, though mostly written a decade ago, is a fitting companion piece for this week's events. [The post date was changed to appear below the two posts above it.]

The Rhythm

Life is danced to rhythms
we soon forget are there.
The blink of eyes, the beat of hearts,
the breath and sigh of air
are lost to cycles of the sun
and pass with little care.
They slip our mind as measures
in time until we're unaware
we wake t’thm, walk t’thm,
work t’thm, talk t’thm,
laugh t’thm, cry t’thm,
live t’thm... die t’thm.
It becomes a most ungraceful dance
when we ignore the Hand that grants
the Grace and gently taps... the rhythm.
© Copyright 2007, TK, Patterns of Ink

The moment you were born, the rhythm of breathing in and out began.
Try this with me. Hold your breath for 30 seconds as you read this paragraph. Ready? Start.You are suspending a rhythm of life. If you do this for too long, your brain will begin screaming, “Hey, silly, let your body do what God made it to do. Let it breathe until it’s time not to.” Still holding?....  Now exhale and breathe in again. Ahhh... isn't it amazing?
.
Earth’s air outside our bodies has just the right amount of oxygen; our lungs have just the right design to take that oxygen from the air and pass it along to our blood; the heart sends the oxygenated blood coursing through our veins to millions of cells and muscles, including those that power the billows of our lungs that breathe in and out the air. Just as our brain whispered for breath as we read that last paragraph, our body itself cries out for air, "Keep breathing, lungs! Keep beating, heart! Your rhythms of life sustain me!"

This is just a hint of what the Psalmist meant when he said, we are “fearfully   and wonderfully made”? It is frightening. It is wonderful.

We cannot bank breaths. It's strictly an "in and out" account. The word "inspire" literally means "to breathe into." When doing something creative, we sometimes say this "inspired" me, meaning "this gave life to the idea."  When our last breath of life is let go, and the opposite of inspire happens: we expire (we literally ex-spire, breathe out). But more than that happens. The “spire” part of both words is the root of the word spirit. The spirit leaves the body soon after that last breath. This may seem too obvious for words, but events of recent days make it feel profound if not surreal. Those events prompted me to share some of these thoughts with our 6-12 students last Friday morning.

Our beating heart and breathing in and out measure time more surely than a clock, for they measure our time.

Is that what is meant by “fearfully…made”—that sometimes we are afraid the rhythm will stop? Maybe. It does happen. Scripture tells us life is a vapor, and its brevity is not something we like to dwell on. For that reason, I prefer to think "fearfully made" means complexity beyond comprehension. I touched on this in a poem called WONDER IS. The truth is we wonder about far more than we know when it comes to the miracle of life.
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One of the comments left in the Mlive article in the December 16 post came from a reader who could not understand why God and not science was getting credit for what many were calling a miracle. I understand that modern man is prone to give science the credit for such events. After all, science figured out the mechanics of how organs like the heart and lungs function, and man did invent the AED machine that provides the electrical impulse needed for resuscitation, but prayer cries out to the One who first put that impulse in the first heart. Prayer reaches beyond how things work and gives credit to the Creator who knows why they work (i.e. the reason for life) to begin with.

In that sense, the "fear" of being wonderfully made is the same fear as in "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." [Proverbs 9:10]

Those who reject God or relegate him to some far-off "force" seem to fear the fearful miracle... They fear of the implications of being "wonderfully made." It's not the wonder that frightens them... it's the word made. That word implies a Creator. What if the breath of life is inseparable from the breath of God? If so, believers and agnostics alike face two choices: to believe that breath and the God who made it have purpose. Or to pretend... that LIFE JUST HAPPENED.

If everything we see just happened--a galactic box of BBs spilled--then we owe nothing to anyone. We're accountable to no one. We can live and let live. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." The problem with pretending the intricate design and delicate rhythms of life just happened is that we lose any hope of relationship with God, time and eternity. We begin to think life is all about us and our fleeting existence. As Peggy Lee's hit song in 1969 put it...
"...When that final moment comes
and I'm breathing my last breath,
I'll be saying to myself:
Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends,
then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze
and have a ball... If that's all...there is"
[Press arrow to play]

That song depicts the last lines of the poem at the top of this post. It is a "... most ungraceful dance [that] ignores the Hand that grants the Grace and gently taps... the rhythm." As for me and my house [and our school], "[We] will praise Thee for [we are] fearfully and wonderfully made" That same psalmist added in the very last verse of the same Psalm:
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"Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!" as heard in this song:


Friday, December 7, 2018

Sometimes Our Roots Hold up Our Arms


I've written about roots before in reference to my father. More recently, I've written about "Roots around Rock" in reference to the importance holding to Biblical ideals in a less-than ideal world. 

Sometimes, however, roots serve a different function. Sometimes or roots literally help us bear one another's burdens. The image  of a banyan tree comes to mind. I have walked among  banyan trees in Thailand and Hawaii and they are quite unlike anything we see in Michigan.

This is my 38th consecutive year in full-time K-12 Christian education. The older I get, the more life feels like that, like a banyan tree... it gets harder to tell where our roots end and our branches begin. 

Beyond the curriculum and classroom objectives is the equally important goal of building a community of "family trees." Christian schools typically draw from many different neighborhoods, churches, and towns, so the "community" I refer to is based less on geography than common ground. Our students may not walk the same sidewalks to get to school (as my friends and I did in my childhood), but they do walk the same path and that path is illuminated by the same lamp.  Going back to the original metaphor, our family trees are rooted in the same soil. 

As our school families grow together, let us draw strength from those who serve by our side. May there be joy in knowing we are not alone, and when we do feel alone, or when we feel overwhelmed or short-handed, may we find strength in knowing our roots can  hold up our arms.

Exodus 17:11-12  11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses' hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Why this blog is called "To Begin With..."

This week has brought an unusual amount of traffic to this site and some have asked why I chose this name for my Administrator's Blog.

Here is the inaugural post  from July 29, 2011...

There is a great courtroom scene in the film classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) opens his closing argument by saying, “To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place....”

Those three words, “to begin with,” carry weight. They declare a foundational premise. They imply that we must first understand the beginning or what follows will not make sense. Worse yet, if we ignore the premise we will embrace an alternate "sense" which will lead to nonsense, and nonsense has victims. (I Corinthians 1:18-20)

In the case of the above courtroom scene, Tom Robinson falls victim to the nonsense that comes from ignoring the words “to begin with.”

The Bible opens with three similar words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”

Genesis 1:1 is primarily a chronological statement--as if to say, “Step One: God built a stage before adding scenery, lighting, characters and plot.”

Beyond chronology, however, the opening verse of Genesis implies a premise, a foundational truth supporting all other truth. It not only declares the when of creation, it also declares the who, as if to say: “To begin with, [or “understand this first,” "most importantly,” “make no mistake,”…] it was the Creator God who set all things in motion. He built the stage, placed the scenery, set the lights, cast the characters, and wrote the plot. He alone is the producer and director of everything that happens on the stage. Remember this premise, and the plot will make sense; ignore it, and fall victim to endless variations of nonsense before all is said and done.”

This blog is called “To Begin With” because the essays, anecdotes, poems, etc. posted here each month or so will reflect the foundational worldview of Christian education. I hope these gathering thoughts will illustrate that the partnership between homes, churches, and the Christian school is the ideal way for instruction to begin and that a foundational K-12 education sets the stage for God-honoring lives of service. In other words...

To begin with, Christian education provides a foundation to begin with...

Check here every month or so for a new post, and feel free to join in the dialogue if any in the comment section.

Tom Kapanka
CCS Administrator

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May Day, My Dear




It was that very time of year
when open meadows hold the hue
of tiny flowers in the grass,
and all along the woodland near
the bloodroot glistens with the dew
while trumpet daffs call all who pass…
to spring.



It was, in fact, the very first day of May, a month the little boy did not yet know by name.

What use has a boy of four in corduroy bib-overalls for names of months or numbered squares upon a page? To children it is only the rhythm of remembered days that mark the passing of time. This day would never be forgotten, but the little boy did not yet know it had a name and number.

The little boy woke to a silent, sun-lit room and listened for voices downstairs. Hearing none, he rolled from bed and stepped into the crumpled leg holes of the same corduroy overalls that had dropped around his feet at bedtime. On his bedpost hung the same striped shirt he had worn the day before, and he pulled it from the post and over his head, mindful to put the neck tag in back. 

He had other play clothes, of course, but these showed no sign of mud or grass stained knees or jelly spills, and like the boy, they deserved another day of play without a bath.  (It was a time when little boys, not yet in school, could sometimes wear the same clothes for days 'til Sunday came. (Church Day always called for fresh-pressed trousers with a button-up shirt and clip-on tie.)

Thinking none of this, the little boy clipped the second slide-snap to the bib and smiled. Dressing himself was so new a skill that it brought great satisfaction. He double-stepped each tread down the stairs and turned into the kitchen where his mother was drying dishes from a rack beside the sink.

“There you are," she said. "I was just about to come upstairs and say, 'Happy May Day!'”

“Happy what?” he mumbled, rubbing sleep from the corner of his eye.

“Happy May Day! It’s May Day, my dear. Today is the first day of May. Yesterday it was April, but starting today it's May. Here, I’ll show you.”

She went to the calendar on the wall beside the refrigerator, pulled out the tack that held it there, and flipped a page over the one of Easter lilies and a cross.

The new picture was a quaint stone cottage with flowers all along a garden path. Below the picture was a small word above a page of numbers. There were three letters in the word, but they meant nothing to the little boy.

Mothers enjoy "teachable moments" when they take the time to unveil a new fact to their child. Such lessons are taught in hopes that someday a teacher will ask her class if anyone knows the answer and then be amazed by the brilliance behind their child's raised hand. Subconsciously, this hope prompted the boy's mother to take a wooden ruler from the junk drawer and begin talking like a teacher.

“M-A-Y,” his mother spelled, pointing at each letter. “This month is May.”

“So you make it May? You just turned the page and then…”

“No, Honey, I didn’t make it May. I turned the page because today’s the day to do it. It was May before I turned the page.”

“Well, then who makes it May?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“God?” asked the little boy.

“I don't think so. Well, maybe. God made days and nights and the sun and moon, and I think the moon has something to do with months...." Her confidence began to fade.  "I'm not sure why we call it May."

"Well, if God didn't make it May, who did?"

May is just the name we call this month. May is a month. Let's start with that. There are twelve months in a year and thirty days in each month—except that's not really right....”

The little boy's face scrunched with confusion. "How many years are there?" he asked.

"You're making this way harder than it is," she said, wiping crumbs from the table into her hand. "Years are a whole different thing. There are too many years to count. There's all the years that already happened and all the years to come. This year is number one-thousand-nine-hundred-and-sixty, but there are lots more than that."

"How many more?" asked the boy.

"Thousands and thousands more from way back before we even started counting.... These pictures and numbers on the wall are called a calendar. Each calendar holds one year. We've gone through four calendars since you were born. That's why we say you're four years old.

“How many calendars have you used up?”

His mother laughed, “Well, I’ve used up thirty and your dad’s used up thirty-one. In a little while, you’ll be on your fifth calendar, and when you turn five, you'll go to school in a month called September. At school they'll teach you a poem all about this.

"They will," smiled the boy. "How's it go?"

"Um... Let's see... 'Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31 one except...' I can't remember how it rhymes after that. February has twenty-eight except in leap year." She started the lines again and got stuck at the same place again. Then shook it off as if misspelling a word on a grocery list that no one else would ever see.

"It doesn't matter right now," she said, "Right now I'm just trying to explain why today is May Day. Let's just stick to months. There are twelve months in a year—like inches on this ruler. See? Twelve months and twelve inches.  May is just one of the inches—except it doesn't measure anything...well, time I guess. It measures time. So... there are thirty days in each month—except, like I said, for the ones with more or less."

The little boy looked more lost than ever.

"Oh, never mind," she sighed. 

Weary from one minute of teaching, his mother retired the ruler to the drawer and retied her apron strings. “There's a poem about it," she sighed. "It’ll all make sense to you someday. Just trust me for now. It’s May. Today's May first, and that's why I said, I said, 'Happy May Day, My Dear.'"

“Happy May Day,” her son said blankly.

Ready to change the subject, she squinted toward the picture on the calendar. "Isn’t that a pretty cottage? Look at those flowers. I think those are tulips by the path to the porch. So pretty...."

“It’s a very small house," the little boy said, "Too small for a family.”

“Maybe a grandma and grandpa live there.”

“Maybe somebody like Ol’ Pete,” the boy smiled.

“That’s Mister Pete to you, young man, and his house is even smaller than this one.” Then she added without thinking, “...and compared to this cottage, Mister Pete’s place looks more like a shack.”

She turned to look through the far window of the room at a small shape in the distance. It was Mister Pete's little house. So small it was that the garage on the newly-built house beside it was bigger. She shook her head and smiled down at her boy. Taking the damp dishrag from the sink, she pressed down a cowlick in his hair and combed it into place as best she could with her fingers

“There. That looks better. Now let me fix that twist in your strap,” she said, undoing the wire clip he’d worked so hard to fasten.

“Do you want breakfast or lunch?” she asked, and her son looked blankly back at her. “You slept in. The kids have been gone to school for hours. It’s past eleven o’clock— kind of late for breakfast.”

The boy was only slightly more familiar with clocks than calendars, but still he wondered where time went when he slept. He liked to wake up with his family for breakfast, but sometimes his dreams took him so far away that they were all gone by the time he came back to his bed. The same thing happened when he took naps in the afternoon. Sometimes he was not tired at all and just stared up at the ceiling until he heard the school bus stop at the end of their driveway, but other times he drifted off so deep in sleep that his big sister had to wake him just in time for supper. Sometimes on the ride home from his grandparents' house, he fell asleep in the car but woke up in his bed. He often spoke of flying in his dreams but did not know such soaring through the night came only when his father carried him to bed.

It is a strange feeling to wake up and wonder where you are or what time it is, and he had that feeling when his mother said, “…kind of late for breakfast.”

With a puzzled shake of his head he said, “I’ll have a peanut butter and jelly sammich.”

“A sammich?” she mimicked with a smile, grabbing the jars from the cupboard.

The little boy nodded, not knowing he’d left out the “w” in the word. His mother made the sandwich and cut it from corner to corner because she had learned that biting into triangle-shaped halves helped keep the jelly off her children’s cheeks. She took the knife, pressed off a corner of the oozing bread, and popped it in her mouth. This was her trademark on sandwiches, her meager reward for being “chief cook and bottle washer” for a brood of four children born roughly one year apart.

“There’s your sammich,” she said, pouring him a half glass of milk. “Your father called and said he’d be home by noon to work in the garage. Why don’t you play outside until he gets here. I have something you can do for me when you go out."

She ripped open a bag of sugar and poured some in cup. "Take this cup of sugar over to Mrs. Palmer for me. I borrowed it last week. Don’t bring back the cup because that is hers, too. Okay? Can you do that for me?”

"Okay," said the little boy. He drank the milk, and when his mother turned toward the sink, he wiped the white mustache on the inside of his T-shirt. Picking up the second half of sandwich in his right hand, he took the cup of sugar in his left and stepped out the back door.

His mother watched him from the kitchen window as he stopped at the tire swing in the tall oak tree. He pressed the last bit of sandwich in his mouth, pushed the swing with all his might and quickly stepped out of its way on the backswing.

Through the screen, his mother said, "Don't let that tire hit you. It'll spill the sugar."
"Okaaaay," he sang.
"And when you give Mrs. Palmer the cup, be sure to say ‘Happy May Day.’ She’ll like that."

"Okay," he echoed. Putting the cup in his right hand, and carefully plodded along.

It may have been a cup of sugar in quantity, but what carried it was actually a plastic thermal mug, the inside of which had been pink before it turned a shade of brown from years of holding coffee 'til it cooled. The outside of the mug was clear plastic over burlap. The boy had seen the set of mugs at the Palmer's house when the grown-ups sat around the table talking. He could almost smell the coffee in the air as he stared at the sugar in the cup.

As he approached the ditch of the road between their house and the Palmer place, he held the cup in both hands, knowing how tricky ditches can be. It had been a dry, warm spring, and the ditches had no water he could see, but he had learned not to trust the ditch whose soggy bottom sometimes wet his shoes, and with a small leap, he was half-way up the other side. Not a grain of sugar lost. He smiled and glanced both ways at the paved road, crossed, and repeated the careful leap at the ditch on the other side.
Standing there, he remembered one more thing he had to pass...

Ol’ Pete’s little shack-of-a-house that sat on a sliver of land along the ditch on the other side. As he walked across the narrow un-mowed yard, the little boy stood to look at the house as if for the first time.

Part II
Only once had the little boy seen Mister Pete up close. Several months before, in the flannel days of fall, he stood beside his father while the two men talked in the very spot where he now stood. It was then he studied the man’s face and knew why the grown-ups called him Ol’ Pete. Most of his hair was gone, and what had not turned loose turned gray before its time. Even grayer were his whiskers. He didn’t have a beard as such but never shaved without a reason. Sparse gray stubble circled his mouth and filled his hollow cheeks. He did not look as old as the little boy's great grandfather, but standing there beside the boy’s father, Ol’ Pete looked old enough for his name. His voice sounded old, too, as if he needed to clear his throat but never bothered to do it.

Actually, Pete was not as old as he looked, but he was a little man whose trousers seemed cinched a notch too tight and whose frame barely filled his worn shirts. His was a hard and lonely life, first in the Navy during the war and now as a deckhand in the Merchant Marines on one of the hundreds of freighters that coursed from port to port across the Great Lakes and along the Saint Lawrence Seaway. All of this the father was learning while the little boy, oblivious to most of the conversation studied only details of their faces.

The little boy gently tugged at his father’s hand to remind him he was there, but the men continued to speak of places that had "port" in their name—not like Port Huron but Port of Duluth, Port of Milwaukee, Port of Thunder Bay...names like that. His father told Pete that he had also been in the Navy, but only the Reserves, and soon the conversation lost steam until it sputtered into talk about weather and how it was staying light longer each evening. Eventually, the two men sighed in awkward unison, said 'good night,' and parted ways. The boy's father slung him onto his back and carried his tired son home. 

The boy recalled that conversation as he stood staring at the door of Mister Pete's little house.

There were many things, however, that the boy, his father, and most others did not know about Mister Pete: To begin with, no one seemed to know his whole name. Pete was all the name they needed for a man so seldom seen. He spent about ten months a year on the Great Lakes in cycles of four-months-on-three weeks-off. The weeks off were spent alone there in that little house—no wife, no dog, no friends or guests that anyone had ever seen.

The house was a small one-room structure with a low-peaked roof. In the middle of the front wall was a door with a sash window at each side. To the boy, the drawn curtains of the windows were like sleeping eyes. Such a little place could only be home to a man accustomed to the tight quarters of ships who slept for months on a canvas bunk attached to a steel wall. Such a man has little need for extra space—what is space, after all, but emptiness? The smallness of the house helped hide the fact that it had so little to hold.

When Pete bought the place, ten years before, Atkins Road was just a gravel lane that ran along the southern ridge of the Black River, and the road now called Charmwood was a two-track path that disappeared into a horse pasture. Pete had chosen to live his on-land days in this rural part of Port Huron not for its solitude—though that suited him—but for the fact that he had grown up a few miles from the little house Those woods, and pastures, and the long rolling hill to the river felt as much like home to him as any place on earth.

Atkins Road was paved and wider now. Soon after, the pasture was parceled into lots, the two-track got a name, and one by one new homes changed all the scenery so much that Ol' Pete hardly recognized the surrounds each time he came home. But the two biggest changes came when houses sprang up on both sides of his little lot. Mr. Palmer and the boy’s father each purchased an acre of land on which to built their homes with every thought of being neighbors for life. Pete's house was so near the new Palmer place that, had it been made of matching brick, it may have looked like a guest house along side their driveway. But the little house did not match anything. It was out of place and in the way at the same time. So much so that the neighbors often treated the empty house as if  it weren't there. Not so for the little boy. He stared at the empty house whenever he walked past, much as one watches a sleeping dog when walking past the circle path that’s drawn by the compass of his chain.

The little boy resumed his walk with cup in hand and knocked on the side screen door of the Palmer house.

“Well, looky who’s here,” said Mrs. Palmer, followed by a gravelly laugh. “What have you got there?” she added.

“Your cup of sugar,” the boy said shyly, “Mom sent me.”

“She didn’t have to do that,” again came the gravel laugh. She opened and closed the door just long enough to grab the cup.

“Oh, and Happy May Day! That’s today. It’s not April anymore.”

“You are right. I’d let you in but the parakeet is out of the cage and I don't dare open the door. You run along and tell your mother ‘thanks.’”

And with that, Mrs. Palmer turned and bounded up the three steps to her kitchen. From an open screen window she said, “Oh, and Happy May Day to you, too. Say, why don’t you pick your mom some flowers and put ‘em in a May basket.”

The sun on the screen made it impossible to see her face, but the boy waved anyway, then turned and stepped from the driveway to Pete’s narrow yard. It was then the boy saw them for the first time. 

The reason he had not seen them moments before was because the idea of picking flowers had not yet been planted in his head. But there they were. Just like in the picture above the word MAY on the wall. Tulips his mother called them. Right there in front of him in a row. He bent down, carefully picked a handful, and continued across Mister Pete’s narrow yard.

It was true the tulips were in a row, but what the little boy chose not to see was that the row was in front of the little house on both sides of the door below the sleeping eyes of the windows.

He continued walking, down and up the ditch, across the road, down and up the other ditch, then walking faster as he neared the back door, crossed through the laundry room and up the steps to the kitchen.

“Happy May Day,” the little boy said, holding the bobbling bouquet toward his mother's face.

“Oh, my! Those are beautiful. That was nice of Mrs. Palmer. Did you give her the sugar?”

“Yes but she couldn’t let me in ‘cuz the bird would get out.”

“Let me put these in a vase. Your father’s home—upstairs changing into his work clothes. Why don’t you go surprise him. He asked where you were when he came in.”

The boy sneaked up the stairs but his father was already walking toward him as he reached the top. He scooped his youngest son up in his arms.

“Happy May Day!” said the little boy.

“Happy May Day to you, too, kiddo. How’s yer ol’ straw hat?”

“I haven’t got a straw hat,” the little boy laughed.

It was an exchange the boy and father shared whenever his dad came home with nothing much on his mind. They stepped into the kitchen, just in time to see the flowers being placed on the center of the table.
“Where’dja get the tulips?” the father asked.

“Mrs. Palmer sent them,” she said.

“No she didn’t,” the little boy said, “I picked ‘em for you by myself. Happy May Day.”

“Picked them where?” his mother asked.

“I don’t know. Just picked ‘em.”

The father sat the boy on the edge of the table, still holding him in his outstretched arms and looking in his eyes. “Picked them where, young man?”

Strange how the entire mood of the room, the house and world could be changed so quickly by such a simple question. The boy of four could feel his heart beating behind the bib of his corduroy overalls.

“Picked them where?” his father asked again, standing him on the floor.

“Over by Mister Pete’s house.”

The father walked across the kitchen and dining room to the far window to look at the house, but he could not see the flowers.

“Where by Mister Pete’s house?”

“I don’t know. By the door I think.”

“Did you ask Mister Pete if you could pick ‘em?”

The mother began, “He’s never there….”

“Well, he’s there right now,” said the father. “I just saw him step out and look over here. He’s probably wondering who stole his flowers.”

“He didn’t steal them,” whispered the mother in his ear.

“Well, what else do you call taking something from under a man’s nose without asking?”

“Young man, I want you to take these flowers right back to Mister Pete…”

“Honey, don’t,” the wife interrupted, “He’s only four. He didn’t…”

“He’s old enough to know he can’t just take things from someone else’s house.”

“He didn’t take them from a house. They were outside..."

"Outside...inside... It's still the man's house..."

"He didn't know…”

“Well, now he does,” said the father pulling the flowers from the vase and putting them in his son’s hand. The boy began to cry, but his father was unmoved. “Now take these flowers over there to Mister Pete, knock on the door, tell him what you did, and tell him you're sorry.”

“He’s four. I’ll do it,” insisted the mother who was now almost in tears herself.

“No. He picked ‘em, and he can return ‘em. Now go on, young man, I’ll be watching from the window.”

A mere sixty seconds had passed since the little boy said, “Happy May Day," and now there was not a happy eye in the house.

Here we must pause in this scene from more than half a century ago. There are, no doubt, as many different ways to handle moments like these as there are different parents in the world. A thoughtful response is more prudent than a visceral reaction, and many a father wishes he could apply the wisdom of age 60 to his actions at age 30. Readers from one point in history would be wise not to judge too harshly parents of a different time. In mid-century America, the father was considered the head of the home. It was a an era when the gap between right and wrong was never filled with fluff. Self esteem was not bestowed by sparing kids from guilt but by helping them not be guilty.  It was a time when the choice between right and wrong was sometimes as clear as knowing which was the harder thing to do. By that virtue alone right choices were often identified... and all that remained was the doing.

The little boy walked slowly past the oak that held the silent swing like a gallows. Each breath he took between sobs sputtered and halted in his heaving chest, but his feet kept moving forward to the road. Down and up the ditch; a glance both ways through teary eyes before crossing; then down and up the ditch on the other side; a few slow steps and there the boy stood at Ol’ Pete’s door. With a half-dozen tulips in his right hand, the left hand reached up and knocked. The soft young knuckles barely made a sound. He changed the flowers to his left hand and knocked again, and this time the sound of his skin against the wood was heard inside the house.

Part III
The knocking at the door sounded first like a mouse in the warrens of the wall, and Pete made a mental note to put fresh cheese on the traps he had emptied the night before. Oddly, he didn't mind that mice continued to find new ways into his snug fortress. He considered it an ongoing game whenever he was there to play. But the second knocking sound, he could tell, was coming from the door, a fact that puzzled him much more than the thought of a mouse.

Opening the door, he saw the crying boy with tulips in his hand.

“Where did you come from?” Pete asked, as he tucked in his undershirt.

“From over there,” the little boy said, pointing with the tulips to his house across the road.

“I thought I’d seen you before. Did you bring me some flowers?”

“No. I didn't bring 'em—I took ‘em. See?” He pointed at the ground.

Pete stepped out his door for a better look at a flower bed he had not tended in years.

He had planted the tulip bulbs beneath both windows the first year he moved into the house, but since that time,  they typically bloomed and withered on the stem while he was out to sea. Seeing them now in the little boy’s hand was the first time he had paid attention to the tulips in years. Even so, his first thoughts about the boy pulling them from place were anything but kind.
.
“Can we fix ‘em?” the little boy sniffled.

“Well, lemme see,” said Pete, taking one of the flowers from the little boy's hand. He bent down and tried to stand it up in the soil then caught it when it fell. “That's not gunna work.  I guess there’s no way to unpick a flower is there?”

“I’m sorry, Mister Pete,” the boy cried. “I picked ‘em for my mom, but then my dad got mad, and told me they were yours…”

“Ya say you picked ‘em for your mother?”

“Yes, for May Day. Mrs. Palmer told me to…”

“Mrs. Palmer told you to pick my tulips?” he said scratching his bald head.

“No. Not your tulips. Just flowers. I didn’t know these were…”

“So today’s May Day, eh?” Pete interrupted. “I forgot they even called it that.”

“Me, too,” the little boy agreed. "I didn't even know May was an inch until today, but Mom says this is the first day of it."

"May Day..." Mister Pete said softly. Then repeated it clearly, "May Day."

Mister Pete looked across the road at the boy's house, took a deep breath and said, “Your old man was right, you know?”

“What old man?” he asked.

“Did I say that? I meant… Your father was right. You really can’t go around taking people’s flowers without asking. Daisies in the ditch are one thing, but flowers by a house were likely put there by the folks inside.”

“Did you put these here?” the little boy asked.

“Not those flowers exactly, but years ago I planted the bulbs that sprout the tulips there. I don’t know what I was thinking. I'm never here to see ‘em, but they keep coming back each year with or without me.”

“I didn't mean to steal 'em,” the boy sniffled.

Mister Pete winced at the word steal then scratched the top of his head. "You were just confused with it being May Day and all…. Boy, do you know what 'may -day' means on a ship? It's actually French—looks like 'M'aider' with an 'r" at the end. The 'r' is silent. It's pronounced just like May Day.  Know what it means in French?"

The boy shook his head "no."

“It means 'Help me!' We get the word maid from it. Know what a maid is?"

The boy shook his head "no" again.

“Do you go to school?”

The boy shook his head "no" for the third time.

"Well, never mind then. I’ll teach you: If we hear 'may-day' over and over on the ship radio, we know somebody's in trouble--big trouble and needs help. It's just like S-O-S. Did you know that?"

"No," said the boy, "but I am in trouble...big trouble." He wiped his nose on the inside of his shirt.
.
“Tell you what, boy. Hold these flowers.” Mister Pete dropped to his hands and knees and picked the remaining tulips from under the other window. “Now, step in here for a minute, and we’ll find somethin' to put 'em in.”

Pete looked toward the boy’s house and gave a thumbs up to a vacant window.

The little boy stood with his back against the door jamb and looked around the curious room. To his left was a hat rack draped in shirts and sweaters and a housecoat but no hat. To the right was an old iron bed neatly made. At the foot of the bed was a flat-top trunk that served as a coffee table for a small couch covered in a blanket. In the far corner was an open closet beside a door that blocked the only space not open to the room. The boy assumed that was the bathroom.
In front of the closet was a chair beside a small table, a stove, and an old-timey sink in a white metal cabinet. Above the sink were two cupboards—not cupboards in the modern sense but in the literal sense: they were boards with cups and bowls and plates stacked in plain sight.
.
On the top shelf, were empty jelly jars that had been collected one-by-one to serve as drinking glasses. From the far end of the shelf, Mister Pete grabbed an empty coffee can for the tulips, added some water at the sink, and brought them to the boy.

“Now let me put the ones you have with these, and then you can take them all to your mother.”

“I can’t,” said the little boy, “My dad told me to bring these back to you.”

“Tell your dad he was right, boy. These flowers weren’t yours to take... but they are mine to give. I'm giving 'em to you. That's different. I want you to have 'em. Tell him that. Can you see where you're goin'?” he asked, letting the boy out the door.
“I think so,” he said from behind the blooms.“But what if my dad says no?”

“You just tell him ‘Ol’ Pete said..." his voice cracked, "Tell him I said I wish I had a mother to give ‘em to." His voice cracked again. "Tell him that, and he’ll know I mean it. I mean for you to keep 'em.”

The old man gently turned the little boy toward home, and started him on his way. The boy went down and up the ditch, glanced both ways, then crossed to go down and up on the other side. Then he turned back to see Mister Pete still standing by his door.

"Thank you," The boy said, not knowing which grown-up would win.

Mister Pete just waived him on, then nodded again toward the window of the boy's  house, somehow certain this whole scene had been watched from afar.

A few minutes later, a vase of opening tulips graced the kitchen table. The boy's father listened to his son, swallowed hard, and tousled the boy's hair with approval. He glanced at his wife but was at a loss for words. "I'll be in the garage," he said knowing he needed time to think. Things were quiet in the house.

Alone with his mother, the little boy said, "Mom, did you know May Day means you're in trouble? Mister Pete told me that"

"I guess I've heard that in the movies, but I don't think the May 1st May Day means that."

"I do," said the little boy. "Mr. Pete told me..." he mumbled, staring at the flowers in the vase. 


The boy didn't know it at the time, in fact, he did not know it until he was grown, but that day his father slipped out from the garage to return the empty coffee can to his neighbor, who of course, did not expect it back. It was an excuse, really, to go and thank a man he barely knew for adding thoughtfulness to a situation he had handled without a second thought. After all, he reminded Pete, "Doing the wrong thing for the right reason is still wrong."

"True...” the old sailor agreed, “but sometimes it's nice to find a right way to fix a wrong. You did what a Dad's gotta do, and I did what I had to do once I heard your boy say 'May Day.'  Kind of funny ain't it?"

"What the May Day thing?" the father asked.

"No," laughed Pete, "Two Navy guys talking 'bout tulips."

Some time later, a yellow school bus stopped in front of the little boy's house; the double door split open, and his two brothers and sister came running up the gravel driveway. They stopped to talk to their father in the garage, then passed through the kitchen to go upstairs. When they came down in their play clothes, their mother was starting supper on the stove, and their little brother was sitting at the table.

"Can we go outside to play?" asked his brother.

"For an hour or so," the mother replied.

The little boy did not join them. He had not taken his afternoon nap, and his drowsy eyes seemed fixed on the tulips in front of him. He was actually staring past the flowers  to the calendar on the wall. It was not the notion of time he pondered, not the numbers of days in a row, not the letters spelling M-A-Y, and not even the tulips standing tall along the path. What caught his eye was at the end of the path beyond the stone steps. It seemed to him that the cottage door was not closed tight, as if to say "come in," and he wondered again who lived inside.

To a boy of four in corduroy,
it is the rhythms of life that measure time:
the rhythm of lying down and waking up,
of tables being set and cleared,
of Saturday baths and Sunday shirts,
and all the down-and-ups of ditches in between.
To a child it is the rhythm
of long-remembered days,
dropping one-by-one
like petals from a vase,
that mark the passing of time,
and this had been one such day.
                                                           

© Copyright 2010, Tom Kapanka

Note: The details and dialogue of "May Day, My Dear" are based on a very true story. It was an hour of my life that I would never forget with a character (Mister Pete) whose kindness turned a childhood blunder into a blessing. He replied to my “May Day” alert, and vividly illustrated the interdependence of justice and mercy. I have no doubt that the next May, Mr. Pete and I would have picked Mom another bouquet (had he been home), but four months after the events of this story, my family moved from our new-built house on Atkins Road in Port Huron to a little house in the suburbs of Detroit. 
Several years ago, I took my daughters down Atkins Road to show them the first "dream house" my Dad built. I also wanted to show them Ol' Pete's place (and see if it was as I remembered when I wrote of it). Dad’s tri-level was there, but Pete’s little house was gone. Mrs. Palmer still lived next door, after fifty years. She and I visited a while, and then I asked her about Mister Pete. She told me he lived there alone and was just as enigmatic as ever all his life. He had passed away a few years before, but the house had just been torn down about a year before we stopped by to see it. I told her this story. She did not remember this May Day but assured me that the little house between our homes was as small as I remembered it. (The phrase "four in corduroy" was a descriptive term my mother sometimes used of me when she spoke of the year-and-a-half we lived on Atkins Road. I had turned five by the time we moved—just weeks before I began kindergarten at Huron Park Grammar School in Roseville, Michigan.)