Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chicago Childhood Easters

March 26 was Easter Sunday in 1978. I was nine years old. I have had many memorable Easter celebrations—among them, one in Ireland and one in Greece, both when I was an adult—and I'll certainly write about them in coming weeks, but the general spirit of a childhood Easter season will always belong to 1970s Chicago. Between the ages of five and ten, those years in which holidays are perhaps most magical, we lived in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. It was here that I still believed in the Easter Bunny (a tradition that seems odd to my French in-laws, since for them it's the "bells of Rome" that fly overhead dropping eggs down to expectant children; really, I guess that's no stranger than the idea of a rabbit "laying" eggs—we also go round about whether the Easter Bunny is the reason why "Americans don't eat rabbit," which of course we do but not as much as in France and, it's true, often not in childhood). And it was in Chicago, too, that I cottoned on to the fact that the benevolent holiday characters of childhood were fabrications: I surprised my parents one Holy Saturday as they were kneeling on the floor assembling a coveted red scooter in the living room, my spring-weather Easter gift that year. Of course it took me no time at all to make the devastating leap from "no Easter Bunny" to "no Santa Claus," but my parents handled it well. The holidays continued to keep their magic, for all the reasons that make holidays truly special: family celebrations, awe at the life cycle of birth and rebirth, and at religious stories of love and sacrifice. OK, yes, and the synthetic-grass-lined baskets, the stockings stuffed with treats—those continued, too, even if I'd figured out who was behind them. Easter in Chicago meant a few things: First, the morning discovery of said basket, a wicker one that usually contained a fluffy toy rabbit or plush yellow chick or duck, jelly beans, and a large chocolate rabbit (I was sorely disappointed the year the rabbit was white chocolate; at the time I only wanted solid milk chocolate, though now I much prefer the deepest extra-dark chocolate I can find, especially with spices in it). Also, it meant PAAS-colored hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator. We'd have a bite of breakfast (maybe one of the dyed eggs), and then get dressed and go to church, which for us meant Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue (I wrote about it, and Chicago Sundays in general, in this post). A word about getting dressed: Chicago Easters in the 1970s also meant another tradition, the fancy Easter frock. I think this tradition started after we moved to Chicago, and I'm not sure whether it continued once we left the Windy City for Los Angeles. I may have outgrown it by then. But in Chicago every spring, about a week before Easter, a package would arrive from Florida, where my paternal grandparents lived. In the box, I could be sure, was a new dress—the girliest, twirliest, pale pinkest, ruffle-and-laciest dress you'd care to imagine. The dresses had layers, were light and floaty, generally fell to the knee, and sometimes came with white anklet socks trimmed with a ribbon rose, a bow, or lace cuffs. My grandmother—perhaps due to a Southern belle, antebellum-Georgia family pedigree?—excelled in picking out the most perfect Easter dresses. As long as I still longed for sweet and pretty, for dresses that looked like spun sugar confections, she was my go-to relative. My one requirement was that if I spun in circles, the dress would have to flare out around me in a wide circle. It was the first thing I did once the dress was on: spin. The dresses always behaved exactly the way I wanted them to, and they always fit perfectly to my recollection. So, outfitted in a new Easter dress, groomed from my long brushed-out hair to the tips of my patent-leather Mary Janes, we'd go to church to celebrate. The services were always jubilant, the pews packed, everyone singing louder than usual, the standard Presbyterian Easter hymn, "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today . . . Alleluia!" After church, we'd have a special Easter lunch, generally at the Drake Hotel (I think that was a repeated occurrence, not just one year), and sometimes we'd go with friends. Once we went with an Australian family—the father was a diplomat of some sort; the daughter was my age and a good friend. My parents could certainly tell you the mortifying details of the scene caused at the hotel buffet that year (apparently, my friend threw quite a temper tantrum over some treat or other); I don't remember anything about the specifics and have only a vague recollection of any bad behavior, which I'm hoping does not mean that I contributed and am in denial. I am hoping that I was, despite my young age, able to keep some perspective and simply stay absorbed in the joy of the day, in the pleasure of a new dress and a lovely lunch. Regardless of my attitudes then, I know how much I appreciate it all now: the efforts of parents and grandparents to create a special day, to build anticipation and help me feel that the holiday was one worth celebrating (and, yes, for the instruction in why we celebrate Easter, for they were careful to help me see that it wasn't just about jelly beans or marshmallow Peeps or anything store-bought; the religion never got lost in the commercialism). And just in case my memory ever begins to fail me when it comes to childhood Easters, I do have a wonderful photograph my mother took: I am maybe six or seven, and we are in Lincoln Park on Easter Sunday, with a carpet of new green grass all around; I am wearing one of the fancy pink dresses, and I am twirling, hair flying out like the hem of the dress, which forms a perfect circle around me. It's a picture of springtime life and joy, a shot of pure childhood happiness, and an icon of life unburdened by grown-up concerns. To my family for creating these Easters, and to my mom for documenting them, I owe a debt of gratitude.

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