The Nuts & Bolts of Easter
A blur of azalea bushes in full bloom on either side of a wrought iron gate which led off our back porch to our side yard. Bees buzzing about as I ran as fast as I could between the blooms in an attempt to avoid being stung. Decorating eggs on Saturday night before Easter. Waking up to a new stuffed animal and more chocolate candy than I normally saw all year and jellybeans (meh). The excitement of bubble gum eggs and the disappointment of mistaking a malted milk ball egg for one of the gumballs. Lunch, promptly at noon, with Mama's lemon meringue pie. Maybe an egg hunt, with my sister hiding eggs for me or if it was a lucky year, a trip down the road to Mrs. Carmel's house to hunt eggs with her children and visiting cousins. Those are actual little vignettes of my childhood Easters that I tend to share. Those are the ones people expect from me. Those are the ones I share with my children, but their dominance in my memory is not representative of the amount of real time they occupied in my life.
You see, Thanksgiving: big dinner, football, sometimes my grandparents visited. Then, Christmas: decorations, music, presents, big dinner. On those two holidays, our family could get by with looking like everyone else. In the overwhelmingly Protestant area of Louisiana where I grew up, there were no "required" church services to attend on those days, although there might be a Christmas Eve service and special music programs during December, so our car sitting in the drive-way didn't seem so odd.
Easter, though, was another matter entirely. At no time during the calendar year did I feel like more of a foreigner than I did at that springtime moment. Other girls in my classes were talking about their new dresses for Easter. We may have been coloring pictures of bunnies and making construction paper baskets, but the talk on the side in my Louisiana public school classroom was all about Jesus. I got the idea he was pretty central to Easter. I had no idea of the Holy Trinity. I had heard talk of "gettin' the Holy Ghost," from Pentecostal classmates, but I had no idea what that meant. It was all confusing--part of some secret language--and I secretly wondered/worried if talking about Jesus must take attention away from God. From a few storybooks and schoolteachers, I knew God had created me and the world. I felt a longing for him that was evident in my diary from my elementary years when my entries became letters to Him. So, there was a true longing in my heart, along with a desire to fit in with the culture around me. It wasn't the same feeling I felt when I wanted the same brand of clothing or shoes as my classmates. I wanted to attend Church and be a Christian because it seemed to be right and part of being a good person, a part of living a good life. And I felt that not attending church was part of something that was wrong with our family.
Springtime was also revival time, with revivals of both the indoor and tent variety being held at various churches. Some of my classmates attended multiple revivals. This resulted in one of the occurrences which I most dreaded. Classmates would approach everyone on the playground, getting almost nose-to-nose in order to ask, "Have you been saved?!" In third grade, lots of my friends were being "saved" and baptized, with much congratulations from teachers and students as they shared the news the following morning.
Sometimes, the question was posed as, "Are you Baptist (Methodist, Pentecostal, fill-in-the-blank with a Protestant denomination)?" I remember going home and telling Mama that I had been asked that question. "You just tell them you're a Christian," she told me. But I knew regardless of my Christian ancestry, which included my grandfather's status as Church of Christ elder, that I was not a Christian. There had to be more to it. My grandparents had more than a statement of membership. My classmates had at the center of their social and cultural structure something with much more meaning. I only attended services on the Sundays when my grandparents visited from Oklahoma. They only did that for a few years and each visit usually included two or three Sundays. My mother, sister and I would accompany Grandma and Grandad to the Jackson Church of Christ, where I would try to follow the a capella songs in the hymnal. I would watch with curiosity as a plate with what looked like a large saltine cracker and a tray holding lots of tiny glasses of grape juice were passed over or around me. I was warmly welcomed and my hand was pumped many times in friendly greeting, but I was not truly a part of it. I was an outsider.
The way I often remember individual Easters--much like the years in general-- is by the work we did. The most vivid memory of Easter for me was the year we built a new working chute in our barnyard. I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that my father seemed especially disgruntled on that Easter Day. Easter always got under his skin and I could sense that from an early age. I would learn --and consider--many years later some of the things which probably contributed to that. That Easter, I barely had time with my basket discovery before I had to change into work clothes. We were attaching a long chute to the side of our barn. The support posts were huge wooden railroad beams, or ties, and 2x4 boards made up the sides of the chute. At its head, we installed a metal squeeze gate that would squeeze around the cow's neck when the lever was pulled down, so she could be still for worming, tagging, or other tasks. It was my job to stand and grease the super-long huge bolts that attached the boards to the railroad ties. Then, I used a crescent wrench to tighten bolts around the ends of the screws. There were a lot of nuts and bolts in that chute. It still stands strong today, I will admit.
At some point, Mama was able to go into the house and get dinner ready. When the rest of us finally went in to eat, I disappeared into my room. I tried to slip into my seat as quietly as possible, but my father still noticed it. The dress. I had changed into my best dress, smoothed my hair, and put on my dress shoes. It may sound silly to a reader, but it was a huge act of rebellion and I was a little surprised that I had been so brave. Visibly angry, my dad smirked. "Look at her, in her Easter dress." And I caught Mama's sad eyes and at that moment, I just wanted...normal. A bigger mystery to my child mind than the Holy Trinity was why such effort was being made to make this day a work day, like any other day. And how the sweet daughter of a kind church elder had gotten here. As an adult, I would better understand how people got there and marvel at an example of choosing peace and joy instead of bitterness. I got through the meal, and more smirks, more agitation, without letting the tears in my eyes fall. To this day, I have no taste for ham. I'm a southern woman; I'm supposed to make a mean ham and salivate at the sight of it, but it still holds a bitterness like that of the herbs of the Passover. After dinner, I had to change back into work clothes and the rest of the afternoon was spent working on the chute. Our spring break was always the week after Easter Sunday, so I usually didn't have to share details of our Easter with friends as I would have if we returned to school the next day.
Fast forward to Easter Vigil Mass, March 29, 1997. The gasp of the Cajun crowd who had never seen an adult baptized before. The tears streaming down the face of my best friend, Regina, as she witnessed the day for which she had prayed. Kneeling down in a kiddie pool, in my darkest work clothes, as I had been directed by my RCIA director, as Father--FATHER--poured water over my head three times. Running over to the rectory and changing into a new white dress, my wet hair smoothed back by a white hairband. It was just the beginning of my ever-constant conversion. I was welcomed.
Now comes the belonging. Now comes trying to figure it all out for myself and my family. Easter is hard for me to do as a mother. I don't know what it's supposed to look like. Before children, I could participate "fully" in the days of Holy Week; it felt right. It was a time of such spiritual fruits for me. Now, it's managing which of us will attend Holy Thursday and hoping the kids make it through Stations and Good Friday service. It's feeling guilty that my children are asleep on the pew beside me at the Easter Vigil as I joyfully watch my new brothers and sisters join the Church, while friends are up bright and early Easter morning as part of what looks to be the proper exercise of Easter. We barely manage to get some of the eggs dyed Saturday morning and I still have trouble mustering enthusiasm for Easter dinner, even the pies.
Eggs or no eggs, new dress or old dress, it's still Holy Week and it's still Easter. Every year, when I need it again, it's still a time for feeling--to my core-- the sacrifice of Christ, the limitless love of our Father. The washing of feet, done at home or as part of the liturgy is a reminder of the example of Christ and our calling to serve others in humility. It's the reality of our sins and God's love which is bigger than them on Good Friday as we silently leave the sanctuary. It's the remembrance of our sins being forgiven and the not-so-easy call to forgive others who may have hurt us in the past. The realization that everyone carries scars and we are all in need of forgiveness. And now for me, Easter is a day set apart, especially after the days of Lent. It may not be jam-packed with perfection, but it's not a day of work, not a day like any other. The Church still proclaims Jesus risen. The stone is still rolled away and He is not there. His resurrected body is still my Hope. A father, in collar and liturgical garb (only the best for Jesus) is still there at the altar, participating as the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Body and Blood which are not passed above or around me, but which are offered to me at every mass.
I can appreciate posts about family traditions and lists of ways to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, but I think it's okay that I don't have it all figured out. It's not about the specifics of the observation. After twenty-three years without Easter, I just LOVE having Easter to celebrate. It's about Life--eternally, with the Father-- the life of Jesus as a model for our daily living, and our lives, lived out day to day. For me, it cannot be about a structure we leave behind, but it must be our lives --beyond physical evidence--and judged by the effects of that life on ourselves and all whom we encounter. I'm right in the thick of it in this life, working through what it means to be a follower of Christ: the real nuts and bolts of this Catholic life. I'm working it out with God, with my husband, and with my children. Together, we're on the journey for which my little girl heart so longed. Ham or no ham.