The childhood scents of Easter were always milk chocolate, of course, and baked ham, and the overwhelming scent of my favorite purple hyacinths--for I adored anything purple and anything from my father, and this flower was his special gift to me every year, its little pot wrapped in pink foil and tied with a wide yellow ribbon.
And then there were the sights of Easter Mass: the church crowded with grownups and children alike, kneeling stiffly in their best dresses and suits, and every female wearing a new--or newly decorated--straw hat. My own was white straw decorated with fabric daisies and bearing a white elasticized cord that hooked under my chin to keep the hat firmly on my head. The straw made my scalp itch, and throughout the homily I tugged at the cord, certain that it was going to choke me to death before we ever got to communion. Even so, I loved Easter and what it represented. It seemed to me a day of mysteries and questions at the end of a long month of mysteries and questions--and, of course, sacrifice. The big question among all my Catholic friends every year was always, "What are you going to give up?" My answer was always candy. The obvious choice, but also, looking back, the wise one, because it made that hollow chocolate bunny taste all the sweeter come Easter Sunday, but also because giving up some small thing that we truly desire is a good practice in life, as in Lent. Even as a very little girl I knew it was a meager gesture in the face of the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice, and yet all the children I knew made it quite solemnly, a credit to the people who raised us to see ourselves as one small part of something much greater than ourselves.
I still remember asking my Catechism teacher repeatedly why Good Friday was called "good." I was eight years old, and I kept saying to the poor woman, "but it can't be good, if Christ died. That's not good." She sighed and said, "Yes, Gigi, but he rose again. That's why Good Friday is 'good.' He died so that he could rise again." I sat in the large, dimly lit church every morning during Holy Week, peering up at the stations of the cross, wondering why Christ had to die and rise again. Why, I wondered, couldn't he just have kept on living, making loaves and fishes and doing other wondrous deeds. Sister Edwina had led my class all around the church the previous week, showing us the stations and teaching us about Christ's Passion. Now I sat beside my family in our pew and realized that my question about Good Friday was only the the first in a long line of hard questions that I would be asking for the rest of my life.
Today, as my husband and I colored Easter eggs and he made the traditional potato, kielbasa, and horseradish borscht from his mother's recipe, we talked about the Easters of our childhoods, each of us living in small New England towns, he an altar boy in a Polish Catholic church and me the granddaughter of French Catholics. Our upbringings were shaped by traditions and foods and words and gestures imbued with a history that we couldn't have imagined as we hunted for eggs and chocolates in the wet morning grass, our baskets hooked in our elbows, feet racing to discover the next secret hiding place. Little did we know that life would always be full of mysteries, and that decades later we would still be searching.
I looked up this afternoon from dipping a perfect white egg into a bowl of blue dye. "Why," I asked my husband, "do we still make all the traditional dishes, and why do I remember exactly how your dziadzi liked his borscht--with lots of horseradish stained pink by beet juice?"
"Because," he replied, "so many of the people we love have died. We make these dishes to remember them. We remember them to feel connected. They helped to make us who we are."
In the face of mysteries and questions, these gestures--these flavors and smells and snapshot memories--help us remember where we came from, help us shape who we wish to become, and to make each day, in the most profound sense, truly good.