This past Sunday was Palm Sunday. While out walking I passed a group of six or seven year olds having a sword fight with the fronds they had received at church that morning. I smiled as I watched the musketeers battle, but later, when ruminating on my day the incident actually made me laugh because I started thinking how my grandmother would have reacted to the duel.
I had a very Irish grandmother. Maude, like many widows her age, was devout and had strict standards of propriety. She believed in the letter of civil and canon law and damnation was always on her mind. Maude was aghast when Santa Claus became the symbol of Christmas and had she lived to see a rabbit symbolize Easter she would have become apoplectic. Easter was HER holyday and she took the preparation for it very seriously.
Now I was raised on the south side of Chicago in a neighborhood that was predominantly Catholic. It was not uncommon for men in the area to give up drinking for the six weeks prior to Easter. Not surprisingly, Maude approved of Lenten sacrifice and penance, but come noon on Holy Saturday her approval turned to scorn. The men in the neighborhood began to queue outside Alexander’s Liquor Store waiting for noon and the official end of Lent. “Whetting one’s whistle” was never high on her list and she viewed the line as “disgusting” and a show of weakness.
She missed some of other things that were going on. Boys can be competitive. No surprise there, but you’d be surprised to learn the neighborhood competition extended to the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The darkest smear became a neighborhood status symbol and that, of course, led to cheating. The Moriarty’s rarely cleaned their fireplace, so there was a rich deposit of ash on its hearth. Teddy Moriarty filled a cigar box with ashes on Shrove Tuesday and stowed them in his locker at school. At recess on Ash Wednesday he took the box to the playground and his gang enhanced any weak crosses the priests had given them in order to best their rivals who lived on Michigan Avenue. All went well until the year of the big snow. Teddy, whose forehead always bore the most distinctive cross, wiped his face with his wet sleeve and went back into school looking like a cat burglar. Sister Annunciata, a very large woman, put the fear of the Lord into him and his cohorts. There were no more “cross” contests.
Back in the day, we dressed for Easter. That meant straw bonnets, new Mary Jane’s, white gloves and dress coats. The new finery was worn even when there was snow on the ground. My sister and I also wore carnation corsages while my mother, who loved them, wore gardenias. Chicago didn’t have an Easter Parade but there were areas of the city when informal promenades and displays of Easter finery occurred and my father, who knew exactly where they were, drove us to see them.
My clearest and most special memory of Easter evolved over time. At this point in my life I call it my Easter miracle, but it began at Christmas time when I was three years old. Our closest neighbors were a young couple, both of whom taught mathematics at the University of Chicago. He was drafted in 1943 and the last thing they did together was to put up and decorate their Christmas tree. Anita swore she would not take the tree down until he returned. That tree stood until it was bare of all but the ornaments they had hung together. I was probably five years old before I questioned the presence of that needless tree that stood in her living room and I was six when Anita and Kurt took their tree down. He returned in 1946 on Easter Sunday and that was the first thing they did. The older I get the more miraculous that tree becomes.