Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter Discomfort

Circa 1978. Cute, but not so sweet.

Easter is the definitive Christian holiday; the belief in the resurrection of Jesus is what makes a Christian a Christian, after all. I came from a family that started out as what I'd call "Mildly Catholic," and when my sisters and I were young, we never — and I do mean never — went to church, unless our maternal grandfather took us. As we got older, the "Mildly Catholic" atmosphere transformed into a "Feel Good Catholic" environment, which meant that we joined some of the fun groups, and sang in the choir, and participated in different activities that involved a lot of running around, socializing, and food. My mother became friendly with the clergy, and they often showed up at our home. As time wore on, though, the moment there were personality differences, or other discord, we bailed. If it didn't feel good any longer, we didn't do it.

Sure, this is all wrong, from a spiritual point of view, and in a really basic sense. The "if it doesn't feel good, don't do it" philosophy doesn't instill proper values in children, but my sisters and I were, like most other people, living in some serious dysfunction, and it's the way it was. It wasn't the religious stuff, though, that caused me to dislike Easter. I mean, when there's a Mildly and/or Feel Good Catholic at the helm of the ship, you can hardly expect the focus to be very holy during this time of the year. It was the secular stuff that caused the bile to bubble, and the disquiet to prevail. I mention all of this because I do not mean to offend the devout, and particularly my sister, Jenny, who hosted a fairly calm, lovely Easter dinner yesterday, filled with good food and conversation. It was my first official Easter dinner in at least a decade, and I wouldn't mind — depending on the circumstances — an invitation next year.

People with a long shared history tend to reminisce about the old days, and this was the case for my sisters and me yesterday: we talked about Easter in our childhood home, and even after Glen and I headed back here to Trenton, I kept thinking about it, and my overall sourness for the holiday. Blogging can be therapy, and therefore, I write.

Reasons why Easter was so distressing to me:

1) The Food
This particular area of the holiday just went so very wrong, especially from my point of view. I grew into a reasonably adventurous eater, but I didn't begin that way, and oddly, a lot of the stuff that were holiday staples in my childhood home are the very things I avoid as an adult.
a) I'm the oldest child in my family, and can remember back when proper meals were served for Easter in my childhood home, and it was almost always some large, bloody hunk of meat. Ham and lamb were my least favorite meats to eat, and these prevailed, even though we didn't sacrifice much during lent, usually, we didn't eat meat on Fridays during that time. You have to be a pretty dedicated carnivore to eat ham and lamb, and I suspect that my folks were just hungry for some serious blood by the time Easter rolled around, and would not be satisfied with a fairly typical roast beef. My mother smoked heavily while we were growing up, and I was a bit sensitive to the smell of the cooking flesh combined with her Merit Ultra Lights: the result of that malodorous mess, to me, was worse than the sum of its parts. And, I didn't have the life experience or vocabulary at that tender age to articulate my emotions, but I had a pet dog, Socks, and out of respect for him, I didn't want to eat other animals. The fact my mother casually smoked cigarettes while cooking Socks' brethren — a very somber task — seemed particularly disrespectful, to boot.

b) As my sisters and I got older, and the three of us somehow managed to wrestle control of most of the authority in the house (it took very little effort, looking back), holiday meals were seen as quaint, old-fashioned activities for dumb people. We each received — after a scavenger hunt, but more on that later — an Easter basket, full of hard boiled eggs, Cadbury Creme Eggs, candy coated chocolate eggs, Zitners Butter Krak (my favorite), Peeps, jelly beans, and more. The contents of the basket represented all of our three meals for the day, and it was up to us to budget and trade accordingly. Bad idea, for instance, to eat everything before 10 a.m., because THAT WAS IT, for the day. Worse idea, to trade Karen all my hard boiled eggs for her Butter Krak, because as we learned, the protein and other nutrients in the real eggs staved off the jitters, night sweats, and impending sugar coma.

c) It is unimaginable, but believe me, the food situation got worse as the years wore on. Sometimes, we'd take a post-Easter vacation to my father's cabin near Lake Placid, NY, and while we should have been enjoying the quiet and solitude, we always spent at least one day grocery store-hopping throughout Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, with a periodic venture into Plattsburgh, where my mother bought up all of the clearance Easter candy. As far as I know, this sort of shopping spree did not happen back in NJ, but only while we were on vacation in New York State. I'm sure I sound like a spoiled brat, but my sisters and I generally tired of these shopping marathons, and opted to sit in the family station wagon instead, where we often whiled away the hours beating the shit out of one another. I was no angel, but as the oldest, I usually opted to stay out of the beatings, and watched with a confusing, but delightful, combination of horror and glee as my sisters pulled each others' hair out of each others' heads. How my parents were not arrested for neglect is somewhat amazing, but times were different then, even if most children did not brutalize each other in those days. I think my sisters and I became unhinged so quickly during these shopping sprees, is because we knew — but would not speak it aloud — that this candy would be saved for our baskets next year: we were getting hopped up and year-old treats every Easter. I know it sounds terrible, but old candy isn't that much worse than fresh candy anyway.

d) Somewhat related to the food: my father got a video camera at some point in the late 1980s, but we never understood why he'd want to document any activities of his severely screwed up family, as it could never be shown to anyone outside the family. But he always turned the camera on during meal time during the holidays to "capture the moment." The "moment" usually involved a visual of three surly teenager/young adult girls wearing too much make-up, too much hairspray, skirts too short, and with an amazing ability to swear; the "moment" also included a martyr-mother who always expected a Norman Rockwell-esque holiday meal, despite all of her own un-Norman Rockwell-like actions leading up to the moment. One of the last family Easters I recall involved each of us receiving Victoria Secret pyjamas in our basket (mixed messages from our mom, to be sure, though they weren't pervy jammies, but rather cute jammies, but STILL), and a proper, if not particularly festive meal, of all things. A meal of Sloppy Joe burgers, caught on my father's videotape, but a meal at the dinner table, nonetheless. With it came the requisite inappropriately short skirts, too much eyeliner and hairspray, and loads of attitude. The family dog, Tramp, sat unaware of the seething rage, ever-so-hopeful, in between me and Jenny. Karen was having dinner with a friend's family, my father was behind the camera, my mother, even with just two horrible daughters at the table, looked worried and fatigued. Jenny and I decided to play "How Many Bites?" with Tramp and our Sloppy Joes, with bonus points awarded if he caught the burger in his mouth, instead of picking it up off the floor. My mother left the table in disgust, and Tramp was able to eat — to our delight, if not our surprise — two Sloppy Joes in one bite each, and on the first catch. I found that video some years later, after sweet Tramp had died, wanting to just spent a bit more time with him, and never noticed until the viewing of the tape that my father chuckled through the whole event.

Tramp, 1980-1989, painted (in oil) by my mother.

2) The Egg Hunt
There's not much to say here except that I was never very good at the Egg Hunt. I liked hard boiled eggs well enough, maybe even more than the average kid. But really, they didn't motivate me to look for them, especially since my father hid them in some pretty convoluted places (it was my father's responsibility to hide the eggs). I recall eggs hiding in the toilet tank, the pool filter, on top of the fridge, in the locked family safe, and I just didn't like eggs enough to think that hard, or upon discovering them in their screwed-up hiding places, exert too much effort to get them into my basket. This transitioned into a hunt for the Easter baskets in later years, the baskets which contained all of our food for the day, and my parents, perhaps disappointed in my lackluster efforts to find my basket, teased me for being slower than my younger sisters in hunting for my basket. I didn't like their mockery, but was a pretty stoic kid; what I completely resented was that the egg and/or basket hunt went on every Easter, well into our 20s. And I continued to suck at the hunt, and I make no apologies for it.

3) Discomfort
My sisters and I weren't particularly fearful kids, since we were often left unsupervised for long stretches, which encouraged, among other things, what some people might call bravery, and a very high threshold for physical discomfort (which included, but was not limited to bleeding; broken, bruised, and/or sprained bones and joints; and sometimes light and/or oxygen deprivation. We were, despite being absolute monsters, very honest, literal kids, especially when we were very young. We were incredibly curious about the world and were very physical, and so a lot of the fables, tall tales, and white lies that get told in our culture, and sometimes, in our family, totally escaped us, and when forced upon us, made us uncomfortable. It seemed that a lot of non-logical stuff occurred around Easter, as both the Easter Bunny and Jesus's resurrection relied on blind faith, and while the Easter Bunny got more attention in our home, all of it was confusing and uncomfortable, for a couple of reasons.

a) Part of our unique brand of Catholicism is due to the fact my father was really a non-practicing person who had a generic Christian upbringing; my mother came from a long line of very strict Irish Catholics, and perhaps when she started her own life with a generic Christianish fellow, she decided to leave the piety behind. However, my grandfather, my mother's father, lived in nearby Point Pleasant Beach, and every few holidays — usually on Easter — would make an appearance at our home. Unbeknownst to PopPop, his daughter and son-in-law were not only housing three young terrorists ("raising" isn't the right word), but rather, they were housing three GODLESS terrorists. PopPop was intelligent and passionate, and upright and proper. He loved little children; I remember his affection as a small kid, and remember watching him dote on my sisters and younger cousins, as I got older. He lived until he was 78, and I was not quite 20, and while I loved PopPop, what I remember most about him was his seriousness; he was good-natured and inquisitive, but not particularly good-humored. And he was about as pious as they come. Usually, we'd find out about a week or two prior to Easter that PopPop was coming by that day, and when that was the case, my mother would take us into the living room for an earnest discussion, and some artful mothering: "If you love me, you will not tell PopPop that we didn't go to church, okay?" and "Please don't bring it up, okay? Don't outright lie and say you went to church, but just say 'yes' if he asks about it." We'd suggest that maybe we should just go to church, thus avoiding the whole uncomfortable situation, but apparently, "Easter mass is too damn long" so that was just not an option. We loved our mommy, so we never let on we stayed home and fished eggs out of the toilet tank on Easter Sunday. And we loved PopPop, too, so we put on our pretty Easter dresses and hats and — channelling Little House on the Prairie — had a lot of fun pretending to be what we thought were normal children for a few hours.

b) I couldn't have been more than 6 or so, and the night before Easter, my parents went out to dinner, and left us with a babysitter. We got up in the morning and were told to dress for the egg hunt and report to the front stoop, which never happened before, or again: we were definitely a backyard family. When we all got outside, we kids were dismayed to see our storm door was bent and broken, apparently kicked in. We didn't live in "that sort of neighborhood" so we were confused and upset, and wondered how on earth we could have slept through that ruckus. My father told us that the Easter Bunny did it. He was angry that we didn't leave him carrots, and he was a pretty explosive character, anyway. My father continued that the Easter Bunny was untrustworthy and kind of crazy, and for whatever reason, The Bunny got mad, and demolished our door. My father told a lot of ridiculous stories, like about the little invisible, running man who was the one responsible for all of the farting in the house; and the howling Woofer Monster who lived under the Garden State Parkway bridge in Irvington; and his childhood minister who had given my father a medal and dispensation for going to church so much, that he never had to go again. We weren't stupid kids, just very young, and unaware of just how "creative" my father's storytelling ability was, and so, for at least a short period, we believed his tales about the little farting man, and the Woofer Monster, and his childhood minister, as well as the ill-tempered Easter Bunny. We were clever kids, and over time, we caught on, and knew the Woofer Monster was fake, but he was part of the story of our childhood, and we loved when my father howled, so we urged him on. It also didn't take long to figure out there was no little man. "Oh Daddy!" we laughed, "that smelly fart came from YOUR butt!!"

The real story about the kicked-in door: the details are fuzzy, but the babysitter had a very bad boyfriend, who showed up at our house after my sisters and I went to bed, but before my parents got home. Apparently the babysitter asked him to leave, and he was mad, and kicked the door. Sure, the stories both my parents told about church didn't help anything. But it was perhaps this event with the kicked-in door and the tall tale told about it — my earliest memory of Easter — that set the tone for all of the Easters to follow: surreal, and never to be taken seriously.

1 comment:

Bill Hawley said...

Cadbury Creme Eggs: big thumbs-up
Ham: big thumbs-down

Another Easter candy favorite were Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs.

I've learned to stomach ham in my adulthood, but as kids, my sister and I hated it. And that's often what my Mom and Dad would want to have on Easter. Sometimes we'd be able to convince them to have something else. If we couldn't, I'd eat a ton of mashed potatoes and as few bites of ham as they'd let me get away with.