Mother May Flower

May 4, 2010

So here I am winding down Route 100 wondering what I’ll write today when the huge rear end of an eighteen wheeled moving van looms directly in front of and above me. All I can see is the great rectangle of its back, a field of yellow with wide forest green stripes above and below and a wide red stripe just above the lower green. Centered perfectly in the yellow is an image of an old sailing ship. Five broadly curved shapes of the same forest green, the hull and four iconic sails, and three small triangular flags. The prow of the ship is facing right or west given that the truck and I are traveling south. There are no words printed, nothing to read save the license plate. If the icon could speak it would say: “old sailing ship” or “original old sailing ship from the age of discovery.” The ship of Columbus and Cabot, Cortez and Raleigh, of explorers and adventurers, colonizers and conquerors. The ship of risk, of courage and hope, of plunder, rape, and disease. The ship of the traveller that plies the boundless horizon, going somewhere, beginning again, and bringing itself, in all of its glory and all of its shame. And to those of us who know, those descended from old New Englanders, and those who can get a glimpse of the huge red lettering on the side of this moving moving van the ship is, of course, the Mayflower. I can’t get a glimpse. I’m too close to the back, I’m trying to pass but Route 100 is too narrow and curvy. From time to time I see enough of the side to see the size of the lettering and that it extends along the entire length of the container. All capitals, broad, tall, not at all flower- or may-like.

MAYFLOWER

I’m one of the very many people (millions it turns out) who can truthfully say that he or she has an ancestor who travelled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. But that is not my first or most important association with the ship. Before the Pilgrims, before Bradford and Standish, before the first deadly winter and the first thanksgiving (whatever it was really like) came the packers, three, four or five, I’m not sure now, middle-aged women with fast hands and melodic Southern Black speech and perhaps one young man, the son, I think, of one of the women, moving from room to room, wrapping our possessions in clean newspaper-like paper, placing them in large brown cardboard boxes, brand new and made for this purpose, balling up paper for padding and taping and double-taping each box as it was filled. And then the movers, who arrived on moving day, to carry everything out of the house, down the sidewalk and up the ramp into the giant moving van with the ship and the big letters. (Looking back on it now I see that the movers were also packers, but of a higher order for they were packing the truck which was itself a kind of large box. Containers within a larger container, made all the more interesting since so many of our possessions, the things inside the boxes, were themselves containers: clothing that contains our bodies, dressers that contain the clothing, shelves that hold our books, and books that hold words, words that contain ideas, and then shoes, and cups, and saucers). No pilgrims, just boxes of stuff and stuffing, and a driver in the cab. We, pilgrims after a fashion, hatless, hot and unenthusiastic, piled into the green and white Chevrolet station wagon, my father at the wheel driving behind or within sight of the van most of the way, the shape of that ship and those huge letters being imprinted into my young mind. Charleston, South Carolina to Portsmouth, Virginia, not a long trip but one from which we would not return. Years later we would do it again, from Portsmouth to New York City, and again it was packers and movers and Mayflower and the stylized ship. And by that time, despite the fact that I had grown up in the South, in a state that called itself the Father of Presidents, in a house which was situated less than twenty miles from Jamestown, “the first permanent English settlement in the New World,” I had learned of that other settlement, the one in Massachusetts, of the Pilgrims, those Johnny-come-latelys, and their Mayflower. My Mayflower, however, was a moving van and, I suspect, will always be, and every moving van is a Mayflower or a Mayflower wannabe. It is the arche-moving-van of my original mind.
But what of ‘Mayflower’? not the ship, nor the van, nor the random thoughts that course through my peregrine mind, but the word itself, the name, what is packed in that? Flower is from a root that also yielded bloom, blossom, a root meaning to swell, swollen, for the enlarging, expanding buds of spring; and May is from the month of Maia, the Roman goddess of growth, of fertility, of mothering, whose root in fact means grow, more, greatness, increase. Maia, the great goddess, the goddess of greatness, of the earth great with child, swollen, springing into life around us, blooming, bursting, more and more, as we, (some of us) strangers in a beautiful land, perpetual pilgrims, pursue our stormy, shadowed, memory laden, heaven absorbed, God the Father absorbed, paths.

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