"Are any of your trees flowering yet?" my mother asked one day. She held up her wrist to show what looked to me like a friendship bracelet, woven from red and white threads. "I'm ready to get rid of this darned bracelet."
She'd been wearing the bracelet since Palm Sunday weekend, in observance of an old Bulgarian custom. It looked a bit ragged, since she'd had to leave it on during showers, while washing dishes, and pretty much all the time.
Of course, my mother isn't Bulgarian, and I'm not even sure she knows anyone who is. But Urban Sophisticate Sister, who lives in Big City Like No Other, has a friend who grew up in Bulgaria and is therefore quite knowledgeable about Bulgarian Springtime Rituals.
According to my sister's friend, Bulgarian Woman Whose Name is Not Spelled With an X, it's an old custom to tie bracelets made of red and white threads on your friends' wrists on March 1. Then, when you see the first sign of spring — a flowering tree — you take the bracelet off and tie it to the tree. In some places in Bulgaria, the first sign of spring is the appearance of a stork: you wait until you see the first stork, and then tie the bracelet onto the nearest fruit tree. Since Big City Like No Other has a real shortage of storks, I can understand why Pregnant Bulgarian Woman With Cool Customs went with the flowering tree symbol instead.
When I asked my sister about the custom, she was a bit vague about the details. "Oh, there's some kind of legend that goes with the bracelets. I think the red stands for drops of blood, and the white — well, doves or something."
She'd worn a bracelet, or martenitsas, the year before, from March 1 until the first time she saw a flowering tree. "It was kind of a pain," she said. "I mean, I had to leave it on even in the shower. And then the first tree I saw was on 89th Street. None of the branches were low enough. Trees aren't that accessible in the city. So I went home and tied it onto the red maple behind my building. It's still there."
Her friend, Bulgarian Woman Who Just Turned Thirty, said that in Bulgarian parks, you can see trees just filled with red and white threads. And people often wear more than one bracelet; some have their whole arms covered.
So anyhow, Urban Sophisticate, who says she joined the ranks of the Bulgarian Emeriti when she wore the bracelet last year, was wearing the red and white threads when she came home for Palm Sunday weekend. But it slipped off her wrist during the night, and when my mother went to make up her bed, after she'd gone home, she found the bracelet in the sheets. A great respecter of tradition, my mother immediately put the bracelet on and sent my sister an email. According to my sister, the gist of the email was, "Well, now I'm wearing the damned bracelet. Want me to mail it to you?"
My sister convinced my mother that she should leave the bracelet on and participate in the ritual, since we live in an area with many flowering trees. And so my mother waited patiently through snow showers and cloudy days for the first sign of spring.
When I returned last weekend from the monastery, I noticed that trees on my street had begun to flower. I called my mother, "Have you tied the bracelet on a tree yet?"
My mother sighed. "No, it's still on my wrist. We passed lots of trees in flower on our ride yesterday, but what am I supposed to do? Just go into someone's yard and tie a bracelet on their tree?'
Well, if it were me, or Red-haired Sister, that's exactly what we would have done. But my mother has this irrational fear that people will arrest her for trespassing, or perhaps run her off their land with a shotgun. I think the fear comes from her childhood stay at her Aunt Outspoken's farm. They'd heard that someone had been breaking into barns and vandalizing farms, so one evening when a car drove by with its lights off, Aunt Outspoken grabbed her shotgun and she, my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt all piled into the car with Aunt Outspoken at the wheel. My mother, just a child in the backseat, recalls Aunt Outspoken yelling, "Down in the back, kids. There might be shooting!"
So my mother waited until Tuesday, when one of the trees in her own backyard was just about to flower, before she finally removed the bracelet. "I think you're supposed to say a prayer when you do it," she told me.
It's possible that my Irish Catholic mother was thinking of the spring ritual of her childhood, the May crowning ceremony that involved every schoolchild bringing in bouquets of flowers from their garden, girls in white dresses singing hymns, and prayers said in front of the statue of Mary. I don't know really, if the Bulgarian tradition of the martenitsas is supposed to include a prayer.
But my mother took the bracelet off, tied it to the tree, and said a prayer that Urban Sophisticate's Pregnant Bulgarian Friend would have a healthy baby. And since spring rituals in any culture usually involve blessings of health and fertility, it seems like her Irish Catholic prayer was probably a good fit. When my sister told the story to Bulgarian Friend Who Does Not Spell Her Name With an X, her friend emailed back, "That is so sweet and lovely, and on Earth Day too! Send your Mom a hug and tell her she has officially joined the ranks of the Bulgarian Emeriti. As you know, that is a great honor bestowed on not just anyone."
My mother tying the bracelet onto a flowering tree. I think she must have been eager to get the bracelet off her wrist because that tree is BARELY flowering. Photo taken by my father.