Too many years after I’ve supposedly grown up, I still crave a loaded Easter basket as Lent draws closer to the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Maybe I never did grow up. Or maybe I’ve just had memorable, if not schizophrenic Easters as a kid.
In Catholic school, Easter, and particularly Lent, were solemn occasions marked by ritual, soul-cleansing, and sacrifice. But at home with my Italian-American family, Lent was a time of reflection, not self-recrimination, culminating in a boisterous, joyous celebration on Easter Sunday.
Every Ash Wednesday, I marched into church under the nuns’ watchful eyes. Single file and quiet as, well, church-mice, my classmates and I anxiously awaited our turn with a humorless priest. The air was musky with incense and the church dark but for the banks of glowing red candles bracketing the altar and the light filtering in through the tall, colorful stained glass windows. One by one, the priest marked our foreheads with the ceremonial ashes, muttering, “Thou are dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” The thought of turning to dust frightened me, but the fright didn’t last long. Sprung from school, my friends and I encountered the kids from the public school down the block. They’d point at us and laugh, asking if we knew we had dirt on our faces. We’d respond by asking if they wanted to eat dirt. Repeated every Ash Wednesday, this Mexican stand off became our own ritual.
When I arrived home after ashes, it was with a small cardboard box, courtesy of the nuns. I had to assemble the box, and when I did, a black and white photo of starving children gazed out at me woefully. Since my sister brought home the very same box, my mother grieved — and not for the starving children. We were compelled to fill the boxes with a coin a day throughout the Lenten season and hand the boxes back to the nuns, fully loaded, just before the Easter break. My friends’ parents gave them a nickel a day, or sometimes a dime, with which to feed the starving children. My sister and I got a penny a day from my parents, who didn’t have much money and who never got over the harsh reality of growing up during the Great Depression.
One year, I’d hung a gift, a small holy water font adorned with an angel, above my coin box. After depositing my daily penny, I’d make the Sign of the Cross with my little holy-watered fingers. I’d pray to that little angel that the nuns never open the boxes and see that I couldn’t give silver coins like the rest of the kids did. The angels took mercy upon me, but the daily pennies were not the only source of angst during Lent.
Every kid also had to give up something they dearly loved for Lent – and every kid had to report what they’d given up in front of their entire class and the scowling nuns. I’d cogitate giving up my best friend Billy for a whole forty days, but that was too cruel a sacrifice. Billy was the only friend whose irreverence for the nuns rivaled my own. So I tried getting way with giving up chocolate, but that didn’t work. Thanks to raging allergies I’d suffered as a child, the entire school knew that if a piece of chocolate passed my lips, my arms would break out in a horrid rash.
Thus cornered, I swore to lay off non-chocolate candy, like strawberry twists and Chuckles™. Asking a kid to give up candy for that long is like asking an alcoholic to lay off the booze. I’d be saintly for a week, maybe two, and then cave and confess my sin in a darkened confessional every Saturday afternoon. Behind the screen, my favorite disembodied priest, Father Frank, never chastised me. I think he would have whispered, “It’s okay, kid; in the grand scheme of things, snitching a little candy is not a sin.” But he had to bow to the rules, so I got off with a couple of Hail Marys and an Our Father hastily said at the altar.
Good Friday was a dreaded event, for my mother unerringly dragged me off to church to pray the Stations of the Cross. The east and west walls of our beautiful church featured nearly large as life dark wooden bas-reliefs of Jesus at every Station of the Cross. The carvings depicted a sorrowful Christ scourged by the Roman guards, crowned with thorns, stumbling beneath the weight of the cross, and more, things that make today’s horror movies seem like cartoons. The images were disturbing, particularly for a kid. But the worst was my mother’s very audible sobbing and praying at every Station. I always scouted around for that proverbial hole going down to China, but the marble floors of the church were unrelenting.
Simultaneous to these religious rituals, happier things were going at home. My parents were squirreling away the jelly beans, straw “grass,” and stuffed chicks and bunnies that would populate my Easter basket (my sister’s included the foiled chocolate eggs verboten for me). And, there were my blessed Easter outfits.
To save money, every winter coat that my mother bought was always, and I do not exaggerate, three sizes too big for teeny little me so that I could grow into it (which I never did). But Easter was a different story. Perhaps in light of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, my mother sprang for a new spring coat every Easter. Ah, spring coats, genteel things of the past! I distinctly remember a soft pink coat, a sunny yellow one, and a rather stylish black and white window box plaid, all of which I was allowed to choose. These were accessorized with white or black patent leather shoes (depending upon the color of the coat), a dainty pair of gloves, and a hat of my choosing, often with a little net pulled down over my eyes for drama.
My only task, other than to fill the coin box with pennies and break my fast with alarming regularity, was to color the eggs. I loved doing this, but because of my mother’s job and need to keep house, I was left to my own devices. Unsupervised, I boiled eggs on the stove and then colored them with dull tablets that bloomed into miraculously bright clouds when dropped into vinegar and water. One year, my mother insisted that my friends and I watch “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” To mitigate this Executive Order (who among us really wanted to see Jesus crucified?), I proudly passed out the colored Easter eggs to my pals. My friend Anita was so upset by Jesus’ on-screen suffering that she gripped her egg a little too anxiously. It exploded all over her, the couch, me, and the wall. I’d goofed with that egg, you see, by forgetting to hard boil it! Talk about having egg on your face!
One flight below us, my grandparents broke their own eggs, stirred pots, and did other things in their pre-Easter pas de deux. Their labor of love was to prepare, cook, and/or bake the antipasti, lasagna, meatballs, sausage, and grain pies from scratch for their four children, their children’s spouses, their twelve grandchildren, and the various and sundry relatives that showed up unannounced for Easter dinner and dessert.
One year, we counted forty people, the majority of whom simply crashed the party. But who could blame them? My grandparents’ food was that delicious and the celebration that much fun! My uncles’ jokes and raucous laughter volleyed across the table, the red wine was poured liberally, and we kids scurried around, rolling eggs, showing off our outfits, and singing and dancing to Motown hits.
The piece d’ resistance of those Easter feasts was the grain pies, plural. Grain pies appeared on the table after the meal, and grain pies went home with each happy family. For the uninitiated, picture an American cheesecake, but just barely. Grain pies were half the height and half as heavy as their American cousins, moistened with pearls of tapioca-like grain soaked in milk overnight and folded into a ricotta, sugar, egg, and citron mixture. Strips of pinked dough crisscrossed the tops of the pies, out of respect for The Cross and He who had died upon it. Even now, at Easter, in every Italian bakery in New York, you will find grain pies. I have tasted many of them. And none of them has ever come close to the melting moistness of my grandparents’ … maybe because they were made with genuine love – as were these, my Easter memories.