Sunday, April 12, 2009

Crosses and Lilies


It's Easter—at least in the non-Orthodox world—and, setting aside the commercial lure of bunnies and bonnets, creme eggs and Peeps, I consider it a day for two visual symbols: it's a day for crosses and lilies. I saw both in church this morning. A processional cross and candle announced the beginning of the service; potted white Easter lilies stood front and center, amid an explosion of springtime color in bloom (an embarrassment of floral riches at the foot of the pulpit). I have to say, I don't pay much attention to lilies at any other time. There is something about the most popular varieties of the flower that I find a bit showy, though the beauty is undeniable. In terms of lilies, I prefer to think of lilies of the valley. And I think of them because they were named once, long ago, by my mother as a favorite flower. I was older than five, younger than ten. We were living in Chicago, bordering Lincoln Park. Daily at this time, my mom and I would walk along North Lakeview Avenue. I remember the Elks Veterans Memorial at the north end, at the corner of Lakeview and Diversey, and it was not far from there, heading south, that we'd pass a building with a black, wrought iron fence that curved out at the sidewalk. Behind the fence in the springtime, there were patches of lilies of the valley. I loved that the delicate white flowers clung to thin stems but sprung from a bed of hearty dark leaves. I loved their scent, and always tried to find it in hand soaps or perfumes. For a time, I remember giving my mom packets of lily of the valley bath salts. They weren't Caswell-Massey, not Crabtree & Evelyn, either I don't think. The packets were white and had thin, ornate, black script letters, plus an illustration of a flower spring on the front of the packet. The "salts" were powdery and formed clumps. They were an inexpensive child's gift found at a local pharmacy, I think, but I remember thinking they were perfect for my mom. Later, when I spent a spring in Paris, come May first, I learned about the tradition of giving this flower (called "muguet" in French) on May Day. But if I love the flower now, it's only because I associate them with my mother. They are a perfect, humble but beautiful flower for springtime, for a fresh start, new life, fitting for Easter every bit as much as the large, show-stopping lilies at the altar. As for the crosses, well, of course they are everywhere today. The processional cross at our church is new, shiny and lovely on its tall staff. There was also a cross fashioned from white carnations hanging from the balcony rail where the organ played. The most personal crosses for me, though, are the following: First, the one I keep in my wallet at all times. It's old and, somewhere under centuries of grit, I believe it is copper. You wouldn't know unless you studied the places where it's been rubbed over the years; it looks more like iron. It's hand carved, somewhat crudely. Its outlines are intricate, but the figure of Christ upon this cross is almost primitive. My mother gave it to me, and there are stories connected with it that I won't relate here, though perhaps I'll post more information in a comment when I have more time. Another cross I have is a small, yellow gold one on a chain. It is very straight-edged, without adornment of any kind, no body hung upon it. It used to belong to my maternal grandmother, and she brought it with her when she visited my mother once, saying that she wanted me to have it. She was already anticipating the moment when she would no longer have need for worldly things. I keep it someplace safe, and mostly do not wear it out of fear of losing it (though I do sometimes put it on). Finally, there is the collection of Ethiopian crosses I own, most of them purchased in an antiques market in London (the name of which I cannot place; I am pretty sure it was not Grays, which is well-known, but for the life of me I can't say what or where this market was . . . the place reminded me of a train station). We were repeat visitors—I'm pretty sure that both my parents went there, sometimes alone and sometimes with me; my father made contributions to this collection along the years. I remember the first time I was there, though, with my mom. (This may have been after we nearly got ourselves escorted out of Harrod's for causing a clumsy and disorderly scene and laughing in some out-of-control way about it.) The Ethiopian crosses deserve some kind of writing dedicated exclusively to them. At the moment, however, I will just say that I love their lacy shapes, their intricate hash marks. I wish I could decode their patterns. I also remember the dealer who sold them. She was a strange woman. Abrupt in manner, short, and there was something odd about her eyes. She had what I remember as a cloudy eye. If her vision was impaired at all, I nonetheless had the impression that this woman saw more than the average person, more than you wanted her to see. I imagine her as the type of person who would only sell a cross to someone worthy of it, and I don't necessarily mean a confirmed Christian. I remember thinking she should be a fortune teller, a reader of destinies. Would she have imagined me as I am now? If my superstitious ideas about her had any grain of merit, might I take comfort in the fact that she deemed me a proper owner of these crosses? I have quite a few, and these I do wear fairly often. For years, I looked on them as art objects only. As jewelry more than any significant spiritual statement. I don't like to wear spirituality on my sleeve or elsewhere, and I resist thinking of myself as "religious," even on this holiest of Christian days—even as I sit in church and sing traditional Presbyterian hymns of resurrection. And yet, they are more than handcrafted ornaments of beauty. There is a story behind them, perhaps the most passionate, wildly imaginative story ever told. These days, I say, we could all use stories like this. Stories that get at hope and life, stories that look at death and destruction and laugh. Today, I am glad for lilies and crosses, for the memories they bring as well as the renewal they suggest are possible.

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