The end of a relatively brutal week finds me smiling. A million times a million people have life worse than I do, I reminded myself, publicly, in the little window that allows us to tell our "friends" on Facebook how we fare. Just for the sake of accuracy, responded my math teacher brother Frank, you do know that a million times a million is 1,000,000,000,000, don't you? That's a trillion people we're talking about right there. Hence, the smile. Leave it to family to help me keep everything in perfect perspective.
I close my eyes. A faint smell of chocolate wafts from the coveted Christopher Elbow box in which nine little pillows of wonder nestled, presented to me -- with flowers and a dinner at our special restaurant -- by my husband on our second anniversary. I've eaten three in as many days, shared one, and five remain. I like to make the good things last.
The candy's fragrance inspires a swirl of memory of Easters gone by. The baskets full of jelly beans; those tasteless coconut eggs we called "blah" eggs, with their thin shell of hard sugar; the marshmallow shapes, some covered with chocolate and some not; one Russell Stover bonbon; and a rabbit -- in good years, solid chocolate, in lean years, the hollow kind. My Easter basket, with its name tag on which "Mary Corinne" is written in my mother's hand, rests on a high shelf in my breakfast nook, now empty except for pleasant memories and a few random shreds of plastic grass.
The thought of Easter always brings to mind the sight of my mother, standing in our breakfast room door, a terrified look on her face. Six or seven laughing Corleys surround the table, recording a mob scene in the tape recorder we got at the S & H green stamps redemption center. Give us Barabus! Crucify him! We want Barabus! Long will I remember my mother charging into the house from work, waiving a bundle of pussy willow branches that a workmate had given her, shouting, What's going on here! What are you kids doing! I could hear you halfway to Clayton! Only the family "Jesus jokes" made her laugh harder than she did that day, when she realized that her children were not butchering each other but re-enacting the sentencing of Christ by Pontious Pilate.
Holidays in a big family engender special memories that others might find just a little creepy.
But an Easter from my son's childhood stands squarely in my mind as the one from which I take the most spiritual meaning.
The several families who commonly gathered at my home stood on my porch, preparing for the boys to take up their Wal-Mart baskets and scout my front yard for plastic eggs filled with candy and pennies. In their matching white shirts, rumpled and a little too big, three of the four friends eagerly waited for the last one to exit the house so the hunt could begin. When he came through the front door with a deep scowl on his dark, nine-year-old face, his mother rushed towards him. What's wrong, what's wrong, she cried, holding him close.
He had been talking to his distant father on the phone in my living room. His father, whom I had met only once and who rarely visited, sent prec ious little money for his son's care, and who had moved to Colorado to let his own parents support him while he pursued an advanced degree. The boy would not reply, but sobbed against his mother's bosom. His friends, including my own son, stood in an awkward circle around the pair, no doubt torn between the urge to charge into the yard looking for loot, and their sympathy for a child whom they had known for most of their lives. I sank into a rocking chair, easing the pressure on the wretched, bone-on-bone knee that had not yet been replaced. My husband and a couple of other parents set their coffee cups down on random tables and moved forward, eager to help, unsure of what they could do.
Finally, the boy broke from his mother. My baba says I can't hunt Easter eggs because I'm Muslim, he wailed. The wind caught his words and merged them with the shudders and sighs of the earth. The porch fell silent. The child's outraged mother, herself born and raised in Beirut and the reason for her now-ex-husband's conversion from Christianity, pulled her strong, beautiful frame tall and let out a stream of Arabic that I think meant something like, "That bastard, I'll break his face if I ever see him again for scolding my son!" I don't speak Arabic, but I well understand the fury in the shrill tones of a tired, frustrated former spouse. I'm sure that's close to what she said.
I stepped forward then, putting my hands on the shoulder of the grieving boy. I leaned towards him, towards this boy who called me Auntie Corinne and often spent weekends in my home, nights when he read far into the night while my son and the other two slept in oblivious sprawls on bunk beds and piles of sleeping bags. It's okay, I told him. What if the other kids eggs for you? What if you and I sit on the steps and say, "Hot! Hot! Hot!" when they are close to an egg, and "YOU"RE TOTALLY COLD!" when they move away? What if they hunt, and you and I are the referees? Would that be okay, do you think?"
His mother moved away, and sank onto a chair, her gorgeous, furious Arabic eyes flashing. The boy sniffled a little, and said, What about what my Baba said? I drew him towards the doorway of the porch, and beckoned a little to the other boys. Your Baba said you couldn't hunt eggs, I told him. You aren't going to hunt eggs. You're going to eat the candy! And the other boys will hunt the eggs. I looked at the other adults, whose tense faces reflected their understanding of the boy's pain. Eating candy isn't a religious thing, I assured him. Even Muslims eat candy, don't they? He nodded. I felt his shoulders relax under my hands.
My son and his friends whooped and hollered as they ran down the concrete steps into the sweet-smelling yard, with its newly grown grass, its hyacinth, and the budding Japanese maple. The fourth boy and I sat on those steps, he with his basket between his feet, and we coaxed the hunters towards the hidden bounty. I made a rule: for every egg you kept, you brought one to the waiting basket of their benched friend. He made quite a haul. When the hunt had ended, they gathered on the floor of the living room, cracked open each plastic egg, and spilled the fragrant mix of jelly beans, chocolate eggs and coins onto the carpet while the adults fixed lunch, and the sun rose high in the April sky.
This afternoon, I will take a beautiful silk blouse to my mother-in-law so that she may wear it when we come to get her for Easter Brunch tomorrow. She has progressed from hospital to skilled rehab, but her husband of fifty-eight years faces the decision of where she should go next, and the best neurologist in town has said that bringing her home seems imprudent. The fabric of the blouse came from one of the exotic places to which they traveled together. Each time she wears this garment, I compliment its beauty, and the color that it brings to her delicate skin. She smiles, and tells me that Jay had the blouse made for her, and I nod. I don't tell her that I know, that I remember from when she has previously told me. In some situations, words are necessary, and other times, words wound like the relentless pierce of a spear in tender flesh.
We have a table for eight reserved at a restaurant that my father-in-law thinks his wife favors. When I told her where we were going, one day this week while I sat beside her in the little sun room of the rehab center, she smiled. That's nice, she said. It might not have been my first choice, but Jay likes it, so it's good we're going to go there. I returned her smile, and touched her hand. I am still smiling, days later, as I think about the two of them, each straining to please the other. Surely that's what life is all about, I tell myself. Not giving up chocolate for Lent, or staying behind while your friends hunt for Easter eggs. But going somewhere that might not be your first choice, just because you think it's the first choice of someone you cherish.
I've mentioned this before now, I'm sure, but let me tell you one more time. One year, my mother sent out Easter cards with a picture of my two little brothers carving the previous year's Jack-O-Lantern. Inside were words written in my thirteen-year-old penmanship, words with which I leave you today: Happy Easter, Happy Spring, Happy Happy Everything.
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