Thinking back, I understand that the only way my parents could wrangle five kids on “special” holidays was to create practices on how those days would be honored. While faint bits may have come from generational customs, I suspect that most of the rituals I knew as a child started organically. They were joyful moments that morphed over time with a growing family and changing lives, and by the time I was five – we had solidified our Phelps traditions.
So, just as we had to sit waiting in line on the staircase on Christmas mornings before claiming our stockings hanging along the banister below, Easter demanded similar protocol. Whereas Christmas held a calm promise of surprises, Easter Morning Sundays possessed the same energy that precedes a hotly contested race. When Dad would finally give us the ‘go ahead,’ we’d be down the stairs – abuzz with the unique and not-so-Christian electricity of sibling competition.
I can only speak (and remember) for myself about these occasions. As the youngest, I came to expect certain undeniable and predictable stages of Easter mornings.
Stage One: We each had our own special basket that would be waiting on the dining room table. We knew it was “ours” because it was the same one we’d had the year before (and the year before that and the year before that…). It would include a small gift, along with enough jellybeans and chocolates to make my eyes widen.
Stage Two: In the haste of grabbing one’s basket in order to hunt and gather eggs, there was always a frantic pause around wanting to enjoy the basket – but aching to get to the hunt. That fractional moment of delay always cost me. The thrall of the shiny candies and wee trinket buried in plastic grass was too tempting for me. The basket had my heart.
Stage Three: The hunt. My brother would always win the egg hunt. Every year. He was fast. He was loud in his “I found another one!” He knew all the hiding places (and had likely snuck downstairs an advance reconnaissance mission). Oh, and he was ten years older than me. At six and ten, my next-in-line sister and I were no match for his speed, wit and mildly ruthless triumph. There would ALWAYS be cries of “unfair!” along with pleas to my parents to intervene. My middle sister sometimes gave him a bit of a run, but ultimately – his basket would be piled high in colorful hardboiled egg glory. Every single year.
Stage Four: Breakfast: Eggs, Swedish pancakes — a deliciously huge crepe-like thing filled with sour cream, fresh fruit and brown sugar), strawberries, juice…. Followed by the directive to get dressed for church. This part is fuzzy for me. I remember the dresses (itchy) and the shoes (stiff) and the special hair (ringlets created by having my hair rolled up with cotton rags the night before). I just can’t recall the actual costuming. It had to have been crazy and pressured. Five kids, two adults, one bathroom…tights getting pulled up, buttons up the back, buckles, ties being knotted, hair being brushed. I do recall my father running out of patience. (If you knew him, you know that this is significant.) Easter morning always included Dad sternly reprimanding whomever was dawdling. The dawdler was usually doing so deliberately. (I could name names.) I also remember my mother, in the midst of the chaos, calmly leaning into the mirror to carefully apply her lipstick from one of those little tiny lipstick samplers from the Avon lady.
Stage Five: We’d pile into the station wagon and the tension between Dad and someone who I won’t name would be palpable. Mom would be tight (but a lovely shade of red) lipped, and off we’d go to church. Somehow during the15 minutes it took us to drive into town, park, unload and file into a pew – we would transform into something rather Rockwellian. Dad wearing a tie that one of my sisters made on a homemade loom, Mom wearing a red dress and hat, and the lot of us in our hand-me-downed and freshly pressed finery.
I remember leaning into my father when the sermon went long. The lingering scent of pipe tobacco in his dress coat was delicious and the solid square of his shoulder was warm. I was allowed to doze, but only for a moment until Mom would hand me a pencil and the service bulletin and whisper “draw me a picture.” I would doodle up and down the margins until a “thanks be to God” or “Let us pray” clued me to stand or kneel. I remember the way my mother’s hands looked holding a hymnal so that my sister and I could share it with her. Ever teaching, she’d point to the words with her index finger so we could follow along. I can still hear her singing and see her chin tilted up. She never held back when it came to a glorious Easter Sunday hymn!
The rest of the day, for me, is a beautiful blurry memory mess. It was full of people I loved, it may have rained – or not, there were fresh flowers inside and out, there was always an enormous dinner shared with another family of equal proportion to ours. The supper table (generally two tables placed lengthwise) was artfully set. There was no “children’s” end or separation. Everyone sat together, said a prayer of thanksgiving together and the conversations were flowing and funny and hopeful and connected. The food was epic. As a child I had absolutely no idea what a behemoth undertaking these holiday celebrations were to the adults around me, especially my mother – the queen of fine detail.
From where I sit today, I am awed and profoundly grateful. Yes, for the sweets and gifts and ribbons, as well as the food on the table, and without a doubt the comfort and privilege of my safe childhood are immeasurable. The memories of it all, as well as the Easter celebrations that continued like spring perennials with my own children, are sometimes what feed my faith. There doesn’t need to be stuff. There doesn’t need to be an event. We don’t even need to show up at church. But we do need each other, and in some fashion – whether a higher power calls to you or not – we are being invited to somehow find hope in the miracle of our tiny, inconsequential human-ness. When all of tangibles are pared away, there is a container of love.
May all be well, and may you find yourself in your container of love today.