Reflections after Easter

            The customs of Easter in the small Mennonite town in which I grew up were simple. By the standards of Eastern Christian communities or even by the secular measure of an affluent society, they were much too simple.  No beautiful baskets of elaborately decorated eggs and lovingly braided Easter bread to be blessed by the priest on Easter Sunday; no Easter egg hunt or abundant chocolate eggs and chocolate rabbits, either.

 Instead, the official highlight of the day was a more celebratory church service than usual, with choir and congregation making the square wooden building resound with favourite hymns, sung in four-part harmony. I always loved “Up From the Grave He Arose.” The lilt of rising chords in the chorus seemed as lovely as a meadowlark’s song.

On the women’s side of the church, there was also unspoken, half-guilty pride in some new dresses or hats, all suitably conservative in style and color.  My mother always sewed my new “goin’-to-meeting” dress for Easter Sunday (if I had grown enough to need one).

For me, Easter still looks and feels like the morning sun in spring, its rays slanting through the back door of our farmhouse to gather itself in glory on the landing of the stairs to the second floor bedrooms. To skip down into that sunshine, wearing my new dress, was as close as I could get to rapture.  

In the days before Easter, my mother often helped me dye eggs. This was nothing like the elaborate art of Ukrainian Easter eggs. We just immersed boiled eggs in water with vinegar and food coloring. That was it. Then the bold red, green, blue, and yellow results were put away in the cold room, to be brought out for the traditionally light Sunday evening supper. I can still feel the edge of the cracked shell against my thumb as I carefully uncovered the lightly tinted egg, perfect for slicing and putting on homemade rye bread with butter, or eating alongside  Easter bread (paska), spread with icing and sprinkled with orange rind.

 This Easter we once again hosted one of our sons and his wife and three children. A mixed culture family, they had already established a tradition of an Easter egg hunt, initially to spy the hidden small foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, but now, since the children were old enough to follow written clues, to track down the final prize of one large chocolate egg.

Two years ago, in a nostalgic mood, I suggested that we dye our own Easter eggs – real cooked eggs. But I wanted to use fruit juices and infusions made from onion peels, beet peels, and various flowers. The children (then aged 5 and 3) had to be convinced, first of all, that we were not going to draw on the eggs with markers (is that the primary designing tool in kindergarten and pre-school these days?).

Bowl of colored eggs
Our first batch of colored eggs in 2017

Each egg was lowered into its color bath and then rotated slowly, with a teaspoon, to make sure the color “took” evenly. There was astonishment that grape juice really does make eggs deep purple, almost instantly. That was the favourite choice. Raspberry juice produced a delightful wine-red, although it took longer. The onion peel infusion was so slow that I impatiently added turmeric powder, which produced a deep yellow with odd streaks. The black pansy infusion seemed to make no difference at all, not until the almost white egg began to dry. Then, to the children’s amazement, it was a pale aquamarine. I was not surprised. Having often made flower jellies, I knew that the first color to emerge from black pansy petals was a dark turquoise, even though the completed jelly was always purple.

Tumblers of dye infusions with eggs just immersed.

That first effort at natural egg-dying is now a tradition. Months ahead of the actual departure date for this year’s Easter celebration, the children were talking eagerly about coloring eggs. They remembered how surprisingly varied the results had been; the colors had marbled and streaked in inexplicable patterns. Who knew that would happen? None had turned out exactly as I had expected. Yet the finished products were beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful.   

Last week, once again, the newspaper was spread on the kitchen island, and the glass tumblers of various solutions were set out, to the accompaniment of anticipatory giggles. This time I prepared some of the infusions in front of their amazed eyes: as the boiling water hit the frozen black pansy petals, they gasped at the aquamarine blue which eventually turned to deep purple. We didn’t bother straining out the petals, and hence at least two eggs emerged later with the imprint of an actual petal or two. After the first set of eggs was dyed, we mixed solutions at random, producing an utterly unexpected green egg out of an ugly slurry of yellowish brown. Who knew?

Bowl of dyed eggs next to a wooden Celtic cross
Our 2019 batch of colored eggs

On Easter Sunday, the eggs were served at lunch. “I want this purple one,” one granddaughter declared while her twin sister reached for a pink egg. “Look, it’s colored inside!” Shards of colored shells accumulated beside each plate.

Easter is indeed a time of mystery and simple joys—the sacred face of spring.  All things resurrect in spring, when dry grasses and barren trees (lovely in their austerity if we choose to see them as they are) breathe out a wispy green, and color-starved people wander the open prairie looking for the first crocuses. None of those first colors are dramatic; they’re gentle, as if only patience can overcome the resistance of frost. As if color has been brushed on with a divine, pussy-willow touch in the midst of winter detritus.

As if failed expectations and shameful mistakes and loves gone cold need to be recognized as doorways into grace, before our hard, protective shells can be cracked open. Sometimes, indeed, the wisdom of winter is that surrendering to whatever processes are underway and abandoning our compulsive desires to achieve proud perfection is the first step to regeneration. 

(Originally published in Prairie Messenger May 3, 2017)

Graveyard Reconciliation

My paternal grandmother would have understood the plight of Syrian refugees. Born in 1870, in what is now Ukraine and then was Russia, she survived the upheaval and banditry of the Russian Revolution; her husband had died earlier, in a typhus epidemic. In 1929, she said farewell to her middle son (my father), then only 18 years old, who fled alone to Canada, seeking a life with more hope than was possible in Russia. She lived through forced collectivization, lost a daughter and son-in-law to starvation, and in WW2, welcomed German invaders because they spoke her language and brought some order amidst the chaos. Whether she was one of many Mennonites, including my father’s oldest surviving sister, who followed the German army back to Germany only to be repatriated to Russia, I do not know.

My grandmother entered my life when I was a little girl, too young to understand the stories told among the grown-ups—but only in the daytime, lest recurring nightmares banish sleep. She had been brought to Canada as a refugee by my father after WWII had ended and before the Cold War made emigration impossible. A quiet woman, grateful for every kindness, she was granted a few years of comfortable living before she died. The primary thing I remember of her is her burial in a country cemetery, in a light rain, to the sound of my father’s sobs – a sound I’d never heard before.

My family eventually moved to Saskatoon, and I left behind the small Mennonite community of my childhood. Anxious to become part of my new city life, I refused to look back. I did not return to that country graveyard until our children were teenagers.

Country cemetery

By that time, my only sister and I had grown apart, thanks to different life choices and experiences. To her credit, she never gave up on me and remained in regular contact, despite my judgmentalism and unwillingness to explore either patterns of human behavior, which she, an educator and psychologist, had made her life’s study; or our religious heritage, which she had examined more honestly than I had yet dared to do.  

But there comes a time in our lives, according to James Hollis, writer and Jungian analyst, when we cease striving and begin evaluating what it has all been for—that is, if we can permit memories to resurface and begin to question the assumptions on which we have carved out our careers and built our families. The first half of life requires the creation of our identities; the second half is for finding meaning. This shift is not determined by a calendar.

For people like my paternal grandmother, the struggle to survive forestalls any such reflections. Beliefs remain unexamined because they’re too badly needed for survival; education remains a distant dream. Or life may have been easy enough and kind enough that it’s possible to refuse the calling to become more than earners of wages and spenders of the spoils. For others, the second half of life begins early, as it often has for mythic leaders and religious thinkers. Childhood trauma can also lead to urgent re-examination of identity, of selfhood, long before the chronological middle of life.   

 The second half of my life just happened to coincide with the beginning of my career, following years given to raising our children, when religious certainties were dissolving like so much mist in the sun. Frankly, it felt more like breaking apart into small pieces as if I were an already cracked rock being pummeled by a random sledge hammer. Who knows how the cracks first appeared. As in the forest giant boulders are wedged apart at last by sun and wind and granules of sand and infinitesimal roots of plants, so the mind and heart are infiltrated by small questions, incongruent happenings, stubborn inner cues that won’t go away, and loving actions of others (sometimes strangers, sometimes enemies). Whatever the mysterious process is, it leads us where we need to go.

Where I needed to go, with my sister, was to the country graveyard where my paternal grandmother lay, half a world away from her home. My sister had come for a summer visit and wanted to return to places that we both knew. I provided a vehicle and my company—and a picnic lunch that we ate in that treeless prairie graveyard, in the shade of a small tool shed. The stone on Grandmother’s grave was almost unreadable, but we did find it, and stood in silence and tears. We wept, I think, for her many losses and suffering, and for our father, now also dead, who should have had more time with his long-widowed mother.

Old gravestone with name barely visible.

We wept also for each other, each of us carrying our own traces of family trauma; for we were beginning to understand how the pain of one generation suffuses more than just that one generation. And we were now learning to listen to each other again, not in order to peddle our own grand solutions, religious or psychological, but in order to hear, to bear witness.

Grandmother, gentle quiet soul that she was, had lived through so much, without a voice, with little choice but to endure. I like to think that she would have smiled to see that her grave had become a safe place near which her granddaughters could give each other hugs, and share a sandwich.

photo of country cemetery

Originally published in Prairie Messenger on July 13, 2016