by KATHI WHRITENOUR
Easter at our house was more than egg hunting and going to church. It was a renewal of traditions we pass down from generation to generation. When so much in our culture pulls us apart and fragments the family, traditions have a way of bringing the family together.
Weeks before Easter Sunday, my mother, six sisters and I would begin the yearly ritual of making matching Easter outfits for all our children. One year we all knitted matching ponchos for all the girls to wear. This was a huge task, as between us seven daughters (no sons) we have a grand total of 20 children, 11 boys and nine girls.
We would all go to the local fabric store and pick out the material to make the dresses or shirts needed. Each family would get the same material. We would take our sewing machines and meet at my parent’s house, several times a week to work on the outfits, taking turns bringing the lunch. We would spend hours sewing, laughing and reminiscing about past Easters. The days in between sewing, we would shop together for the candy treats and small toys for their Easter baskets along with the traditional Easter hats, shoes, socks and spring jackets. We only got new clothes at the beginning of the school year, Christmas and Easter, so we were excited about shopping for a new Easter outfit for ourselves also.
The night before Easter, we all met at my parent’s house to color and decorate the eggs. We boiled 17 dozen that would be hidden in the yard early the next morning by my father. We made enough so each child had 10 eggs to find. My father never tired of hiding the eggs; he got pure enjoyment at watching his grandchildren hunt for them, bringing to mind his own childhood. When I think of my childhood, I remember he hid candy eggs for us, but when I watch his old films, I remember why he changed to hard boiled eggs: ants!
On Easter Sunday, the entire family of 32 people would meet in the parking lot at our Catholic church for an early mass. One of us would go in and save enough seats together for us all, and then we would walk in together: 12 adults in new spring clothes and 20 children all in matching outfits. I know others enjoyed seeing our entire family and it always put a big smile on our priest’s face.
As I watch them carry out the family traditions, I reflect on how our traditions kept our family bonds strong.
After church, the drive back to my parent’s house was hectic. The children were exploding with excitement, and they could not wait to begin their Easter egg hunt. As adults, we joined in their excitement because we remembered having the same Easter egg hunts when we were young. When we arrived at the house, the children strained to see the eggs they would go for first as we went into the house. We each brought our parents multicolored daffodils, crocus and hyacinth as gifts for Easter, representing new life and hope. My father had filled the living room picture window with large white Easter Lilies and deep purple and maroon gloxinias grown in his greenhouse. Beside the flowers were 20 Easter baskets, wrapped in brightly colored cellophane with bows on top and each child’s name on the ribbon. The children were allowed to look at their baskets, but not open them, which built up their excitement even more.
We gathered around the window to take pictures, one family at a time while trying to restrain other children from trying to peek out the windows to spy the eggs they would head for first. It was hard to keep them still and away from the windows. After the pictures were done, we snacked on cinnamon rolls and orange juice to hold everyone off until breakfast. My mother would give each child a brightly colored Easter basket to hunt with and then line them up by the back door, oldest to youngest, while the adults positioned themselves outdoors with their cameras.
When the door was open, the children burst out; the older ones had to run to the top of the yard to start hunting, to give the little ones a chance to get eggs nearer the door. The scene was always the same, children running to and fro, shouting, “I found one!” with some fighting over the same egg. The laughing, happy children had baskets filled to overflowing, while the crying ones held only one or two and my mother filmed the whole thing on her Super 8 movie camera. My mother would not only film the hunt, but she would zero in on each of us and make us wave and show off our new Easter outfits. When the initial frenzy was over, the men would walk around with salt shakers in their pockets, helping the crying ones find the overlooked eggs, peeling and eating them as they went. The women would go into the house and start breakfast.
Easter breakfast was always the same, heaping mounds of fried ham, platters of fried eggs, mounds of buttered toast, glasses of fresh orange juice and coffee. My sisters and I each took a different part of the preparation. One frying the ham on an electric griddle, one frying the eggs on the stove, one making the toast, one squeezing the orange juice, one making coffee and another setting the tables and one setting up chairs.
Breakfast was not served until the last egg was thought to be found, even though many of the adults and the little children gave up earlier. Finally when my parents came in, it was time to eat. We would gather around the tables and hold hands and say a prayer of thanks to God. After breakfast the children finally got to open their baskets.
My parents are gone now and my children are the adults with children. Perhaps some readers cannot imagine this size of family or making all those outfits! The younger generation has made some changes, like using plastic eggs with candy or toys inside instead of the hard-boiled ones, because the missed eggs rotted and were horrid when hit by the lawn mower. Only the littlest children will wear our homemade dresses and shirts now and we eat breakfast in shifts because our family has grown to over 75. As I watch them carry out the family traditions, I reflect on how our traditions kept our family bonds strong.
KATHI WHRITENOUR is a freelance writer from Maryland.